Analysis: Does Obama's visibility mean greater transparency?
It seems that every time you turn on the television, Barack Obama is smiling back at you. From news show appearances to live press conferences to late-night comedy stints, the president has rocked the airwaves since Inauguration Day.
But do all of the TV appearances add up to more transparency on important issues like health care or just more opportunities to hear the same rehearsed message over and over again?
Since the drive for health care reform legislation has ratcheted up, Americans have heard from Obama on the issue on a nearly constant basis. Just in the span of four days last week, he did interviews on health care with Katie Couric of CBS, Jim Lehrer of PBS, Meredith Vieira of NBC and Terry Moran of ABC, and addressed the nation in a prime-time press conference. CBS' Mark Knoller reported via Twitter last week that Obama's interview count was up to 88, more than any other president in the first six months.
Plus, the White House is using a host of new media tools -- a blog, live streaming videos, Twitter account and YouTube channel -- to communicate unlike any other administration.
Still, even with all that face time the American people have been getting with the president, and even though this administration has been more transparent than the previous one, the increase in TV time has not been a "transformative" change, according to John Wonderlich, policy director for watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation.
"I don't think appearing before the press necessarily means more transparency," said Wonderlich, who wants to see more of "the meat of the discussions" on health care.
Obama's track record for holding press conferences in his first few months of office is similar to that of other presidents -- through June of the first year in office, Obama had 17 press conferences, George W. Bush had 11, Bill Clinton had 18 and George H.W. Bush had 16, according to records kept by the American Presidency Project. But Obama has put a much greater emphasis on holding his press conferences in prime time. Last week's presser was his fourth in prime time, compared to the four prime-time press conferences held during George W. Bush's entire presidency, and that shift may be including more Americans in the discussion.
"By having [press conferences] in prime time, I think it does sort of open the doors a little bit," said Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at the liberal organization Media Matters for America. "It's not just a White House, Beltway event. It makes it a national event -- or at least an attempt at one."
Wonderlich said it's the White House's new media efforts, not the TV appearances, that strike a more transparent tone. When people catch up with the president on Twitter or in a live streaming discussion, they "feel connected to the presidency in a way they wouldn't feel if it was just on TV or the radio," he said.
The White House has made some inroads, boasting 800,000 followers on Twitter, for example. And Obama's weekly address averaged 45,000 views this month on YouTube and WhiteHouse.gov, though that is down from about 200,000 views during his first month in office.
Despite efforts to move from the tube to the Web, Obama was questioned at last week's press conference about not televising health care reform negotiations on C-SPAN, something he promised on the campaign trail. Obama told a crowd at a town hall in Virginia last August: "We'll have the [health care] negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies."
In response to the question last week, Obama said he would still be open to putting all health care-related meetings on C-SPAN.
"You will recall in this very room that our kickoff event was here on C-SPAN and, at a certain point, you know, you start getting into all kinds of different meetings," Obama said. "I don't think there are a lot of secrets going on in there."
Continuing its use of the Web as a tool for transparency, the White House streamed about nine meetings of health care stakeholders and White House officials live on its Web site, and four of those meetings have included the opportunity for viewers to type in their questions and comments to be read aloud in the meeting, according to White House Director of Online Programs Jesse Lee.
"It's made both sides [of the discussion] more meaningful," Lee said. "Other people are paying attention and being a part of the conversation."
The discussion videos are not archived on the White House Web site, but Lee said his office plans to make those available soon.
Additionally, administration officials including White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have hosted live streaming discussions to answer questions submitted through Facebook or the White House Live section of the Web site. Those discussions have averaged 3,000 to 5,000 participants.
Lee acknowledged that most people "don't necessarily know to come to WhiteHouse.gov to have a chat regularly with White House officials." But, he predicts, "that will be something that people will get used to and come for more regularly."