Meet the Press
The first presidential press conference happened by accident. One hundred years later, they are still awkward, impersonal, and no fun for the president.
This view is at odds with the modern conception of the action-hero president whose rhetoric—amplified through the media—can overcome the obstacles flung in his way. President Obama's fans wish he could give a speech like the ones he gave during the campaign so that he could enact a true liberal agenda. Republicans, like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, argue that the president should "lead" by speaking to the country about the dire state of the country's finances so that the people will fall in line behind cutting the entitlement programs they love so much.
Wilson wasn’t the only president who thought public opinion could at best be molded but never controlled. Abraham Lincoln took walks that he called “public opinion baths,” to learn the public mood so that he could shape it into policy. He was relentlessly ridiculed for his ponderousness and reluctance to act, which was the result of his belief that the public could not be forced in a radical new direction. FDR agreed. He famously said, “I cannot go any faster than the people will let me.” Political scientists largely agree, too. "Presidential power is not the power to persuade," writes professor George Edwards. "Presidents cannot reshape the contours of the political landscape to pave the way for change by establishing an agenda and persuading the public, Congress, and others to support their policies. Instead, successful presidents facilitate change by recognizing opportunities in their environments and fashioning strategies and tactics to exploit them.” If this is a basic truth about the presidency, it's a hard one to put into practice. President Obama came into his second term saying he was "mindful" of previous presidents who had overreached after winning a second term, but then he overreached in the fight over sequestration. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were great communicators but left office complaining that they wished they had been able to find the right message to move the public faster.
The problem all presidents learn is that it's hard to know what public opinion is. The public doesn't really know what it believes much of the time. Or, the public is misinformed. For an academic like Wilson though, more data was better than less, which is why he was so anxious to enlist reporters as fact-finders, not as his personal megaphone.
In setting up the White House press conferences, Wilson was asking for a trade. He would let reporters in, giving them access and standing, if they would play the role he wanted. The press didn't oblige, but Wilson still tried to carry out the experiment. As W. Dale Nelson reports in his book on the history of the White House press secretary, Wilson relied on his private secretary Tumulty to report on the public mood. "I'm happy to have [Tumulty] a good deal away—to pick up opinion—which he does wonderfully well. Washington is no place to learn what the country is thinking about."
The next few years would be bumpy for the official presidential press conference. In July 1913, Wilson threatened to stop them when the New York Sun published comments on Mexico that were supposed to be off the record. Afterward, all comments were considered off the record unless the White House said otherwise, which essentially recreated the arrangement that had existed before the first formal press conference. As war loomed in 1915, Wilson halted the press conferences for a year and his view of the press grew colder. At one point, in arguing for legal limits on press coverage, he said, "I do not think that the newspapers of the country have the right to embarrass their own country in the settlement of matters which have to be handled with delicacy and candor."
Future presidents would continue the battle, but Wilson had ceded the enemy a crucial beachhead. "Every president after that felt compelled to hold press conferences," says Senate historian Donald Ritchie who wrote a great history of the Washington press corps. "He treated them as professionals and gave them legitimacy." Working reporters hadn't even had their own room at the White House until Teddy Roosevelt. Now they had a right to ask the president questions as a part of the regular functioning of the office.
This access would ultimately doom Wilson's view of reporters. If a reporter could ask questions on a regular basis, they could set the agenda and fit Wilson's views into whatever they decided was important. Those decisions were informed by the very cynical and commercial interests Wilson had loathed. Wilson hated this idea and very soon invented a crucial new presidential tool: the public stonewall. Ryfe, the presidential historian, studied 630 of Wilson's press conference answers and found that 67 percent of them were unresponsive, uninformative, or cursory. A reporter at the time said the object of Wilson’s press conferences was “to make responses which seemed to answer the questions, but which imparted little or nothing in the way of information.” Almost 20 years to the day after Wilson’s first press conference, FDR would give his first fireside chat, an attempt to regain the agenda by speaking directly to the American people without the press filter.
President Obama has tried all of the same tricks, from a Google Hangout to a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” to regular appearances on ESPN and late night talk shows. The only thing he hasn’t tried is inviting us all into his office for a chat. That’s probably wise. We’d probably break something, either news or an heirloom.