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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Posted March 23, 2009 | 09:58 PM (EST)

Big Questions for President Obama's Big Press Conference


It is rough out there, but President Obama appears to take it in stride. He is juggling crises, promoting a huge new budget and, to his credit, regularly making his case to the people.

On Tuesday, Obama is holding the second prime time press conference of his first 100 days, keeping him on par with President Bush's early pace for press conferences. (Bush held pressers in February and March of 2001, though he did not tackle prime time, when far more people watch live, until May.) These events are a rare, valuable opportunity for the public to hear the President questioned directly. The press, for its part, is given the responsibility to set the agenda for important policy questions and the public interest priorities that the President should address. In that spirit, here are just a few questions for the big event:

1. Will The Washington Post ask about sports again?
Really. The Post used its question at Obama's first presser to ask how he felt about Alex Rodriguez' steroid use. "The Washington Post asked the only question that did not involve domestic or foreign policy," recounted one website devoted to steroids, "and was widely criticized as being inappropriate given the importance of other issues discussed during the prime-time presidential press conference."

2. Will NBC's Chuck Todd ask a question submitted by a regular citizen?
He has been collecting questions, asking his own readers and offering to read top questions from our new project, Ask The President. On Monday, Todd told Rachel Maddow about his interest in citizen questions -- will he actually use one?

3. Will President Obama call on more New Media?
President Obama made some waves at his first press conference by calling on The Huffington Post. Will Obama now move beyond brand name, well-funded new media and empower a less famous outlet for citizen journalism? While it did not get much play, Obama's team deserves credit for credentialing some less famous blog sites to attend the first press conference, such as AMERICAblog. But bloggers should be seen and heard.

4. Will reporters quote citizens -- or their questions -- to channel public concerns on the economy?
The backlash to AIG bonuses swiftly drew its own media backlash. Columnists urged the public to "stay calm" and Newsweek even rushed out an issue promising a "thinking man's guide" to the "perils" of public anger. "Populist rage... can be cathartic," explains a company press release, yet it "can also lead to bad decisions." If the public's feelings on the economy are important, it would be useful to hear some of them accurately presented to the President. Our citizen portal, for example, already drew over 35,000 votes in its first five days, and includes many Americans writing in their own voice about their concerns on the economy, health care, and how the nation should conquer this crisis.

5. Will any reporters go beyond the (hugely important) economic issues to ask about the recently released memos claiming the President has the power to suspend the Bill of Rights?
Obama rightly released a series of disturbing claims to presidential power by the Bush administration, but the public discussion has not advanced much since then. What, if anything, is his administration doing to achieve accountability for these undemocratic memos that operated as secret law in the U.S. for roughly seven years?

If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments. Some White House correspondents might even be watching.

--
Update: In the Washington Post, Jose Antonio Vargas discusses our effort to open up the presidential press conferences in a new piece assessing WhiteHouse.Gov:


Anxious to have some of kind of bottom-up, grassroots participation come out of the White House, Ari Melber, a writer for The Nation, has spearheaded "Ask the President," an online-based effort that allows users to post questions and vote for their favorite questions they would like to be able to ask Obama. Voting on the posted questions will stop a few hours before the president's scheduled news conference tonight, and credentialed journalists are free borrow the most-voted questions from the site.

Vargas also discusses three big metrics for judging the White House website -- I think these also make good goals for government and the press in general:

* Transparency. Save for genuinely sensitive information and activities -- say, nuclear weapons design -- is WhiteHouse.gov serving as an X-ray of the inner workings of the White House?

* Accessibility. Is the site, for all age groups, functionally and visually easy to navigate?

* Engagement. Is WhiteHouse.gov offering a two-way street? In other words, is the site talking at us, or with us? There's a key difference

Finally, here is Chuck Todd's conversation with Rachel Maddow about taking questions from citizens for President Obama:


From The Nation.