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A frustrated White House press corps bites the hand that feeds it

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday grudgingly faced his first full-blown East Room news conference at the White House in almost a year, and it was no love-fest.

A press corps that was accused early in his administration of treating him with kid gloves has grown increasingly critical of its limited access to him, and the result Thursday was an aggressive and skeptical line of inquiry.

Obama dislikes formal but unpredictable news conferences. He prefers shorter, more controlled interactions with handpicked journalists and leaks to elite news organizations, and his communications team uses new tools such as blogging and Twitter to bypass the media.

However, the public backlash to the BP oil spill and the federal government's inability to stop it after five weeks has put the hurt on Obama's public standing, and compelled him to present himself to the pack for 10 long questions.

The press wasn't initially aggressive about questioning the administration's response to the spill, but had turned hostile by the end of last week as evidence mounted that BP — unchallenged by the administration — was wildly underestimating the size of the spill.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brought Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who's coordinating the response, to take questions Monday. Three days later, it was Obama's turn.

From Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press: "What do you say about whether your personal involvement, your personal engagement has been as much as it should be either privately or publicly?"

From Jake Tapper of ABC News: "You say that everything that could be done is being done. But there are those in the region and those industry experts who say that's not true."

From McClatchy's Steven Thomma: "Did you really act from day one for a worst-case scenario?"

From Chuck Todd of NBC: "Can you respond to all the (Hurricane) Katrina comparisons that people are making about this with yourself?"

Other questions covered topics from the war in Afghanistan, to the resignation of the head of the Minerals Management Service, to immigration to what, precisely, the White House offered Rep. Joe Sestak to get him to stay out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary?

The president took his lumps, stood his ground, took responsibility and told Americans he's been fully engaged in the oil spill response from the start. He said those who say he wasn't don't know what they're talking about.

Obama was constantly on the defensive, however. It showed in his facial expressions, a hand held up to keep the jackals at bay and some retorts that reflected a sense of futility:

"Come on, Jackie, I don't know," Obama said to Jackie Calmes of The New York Times, who was trying to pin down whether MMS chief Elizabeth Birnbaum had earlier in the day resigned by choice or been fired.

To everyone: "I realize that this entire response effort will continue to be filtered through the typical prism of politics, but that's not what I care about right now."

Since last summer, Obama has answered questions from reporters on several occasions, but most consist of one or two questions at brief joint appearances with foreign leaders, or at events such as nuclear security summits or economic conferences of world leaders. A surprise appearance at the daily press briefing during last winter's Washington snowstorm turned into an impromptu news conference.

At his last prime time East Room news conference, back in July, Obama said that police in Cambridge, Mass., "acted stupidly" in arresting his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., after a confrontation that took place when Gates, who's African-American, was locked out of his own home.

Obama's comments only fueled the controversy. In the end, he had to arrange what got nicknamed the "beer summit" with Gates and police Sgt. James Crowley to ease tensions.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson State University professor who studies White House communications, said the press' mood in Thursday's news conference reflected the public's frustration over the oil spill.

"I see the press as a surrogate for the public, and I think there's a frustration that people feel over the whole situation because we're now more than a month into this, and what do we know and what can we do? People want resolution, and where has he been in all this? You've not had a sense."

Stephen Hess, an expert on presidents and the media with the center-left Brookings Institution, thinks Obama's perceived inaccessibility to his daily press corps amped up the aggression.

"These folks need to see the president, need to ask the president questions. When they're not, they're agitated, irritated, their bosses are, and this works its way through the food chain. There's no question about that."

Tony Fratto, a communications consultant who served as a deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, said mounting tensions between any president and the White House press corps are inevitable. Obama had farther to fall, he said, because of a perception that "this is a unique and special presidency" that initially made the press "more forgiving."

"Early on in the administration, you're still talking about the things you're going to do and you're going to accomplish," Fratto said. "It's hard to pick apart the optimistic assessment that you're going to solve a problem. Eighteen months into it, you've got to be solving problems, and when you occasionally fumble the ball or miss the mark or miss timing you're open to criticism about that."

Fratto, however, also described "grumbling" from White House reporters "about the way they feel they've been treated . . . some degree of frustration with their access, with not getting calls returned, not getting answers to their questions, sometimes you don't get any answer and sometimes you don't get a real answer" and leaks to select news outlets that frustrate others.

The White House declined to comment for this story.


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