NEW YORK -- The Obama campaign reversed course Wednesday morning by allowing an interview between the president and The Des Moines Register to be put on the record, a move that follows pressure from the Iowa paper's top editors and criticism from Republicans and members of the media.
It's customary for presidential candidates to meet with editorial boards of newspapers in states where the race is close and the endorsement may carry some weight. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney recently took questions from the Register for 45 minutes, even though the paper's left-leaning editorial board hasn't endorsed a Republican since 1972. But when Obama spoke for 30 minutes by phone Tuesday with Register publisher Laura Hollingsworth and editor Rick Green, the White House insisted the conversation be kept off the record.
"This was a call that was meant to be a personal check-in with a publisher and an editor, one of whom he hadn't spoken with in four years, one of whom he'd never spoken with before," Obama traveling press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday on a flight to Iowa. "They expressed a desire to put this on the record, make it public. We’ve said that’s fine and they’re going to be posting it this morning."
But on Tuesday night the White House appeared less willing to put the interview on the record. In a blog post, Green told readers that they spoke with Obama, "but we can’t tell you what he said."
"Just two weeks before Election Day, the discussion, I believe, would have been valuable to all voters, but especially those in Iowa and around the country who have yet to decide between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent," Green wrote. "Unfortunately, what we discussed was off the record. It was a condition, we were told, set by the White House."
The editor's post got significant attention on Twitter, was blasted out by the Republican National Committee and was discussed on both MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and Fox News' "Fox & Friends." The decision to not take substantive questions on the record from the Register was especially noteworthy given that Obama is speaking Wednesday with MTV and will appear on "The Tonight Show."
Randy Evans, editorial page editor of the Register, told The Huffington Post Wednesday that "it's a little hard to rationalize he's concerned about misspeaking or not being able to speak his mind freely to The Des Moines Register, but he's able to speak his mind freely to Jay Leno or 'The View' or Jon Stewart or David Letterman."
Evans said the blog post appeared "to be an embarrassment for the president of the United States [in] being concerned he'd misspeak two weeks before the election."
The Obama campaign's media strategy has focused more on the president doing local TV interviews in swing states, sports chat shows and entertainment programs. He's done one editorial board interview, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which endorsed him last week.
Obama has done a few national interviews, including "60 Minutes" and a sit-down with NBC's Brian Williams that airs Thursday, but has generally avoided some of the nation's top newspapers and networks. He hasn't done substantive interviews with The New York Times since 2010 or The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal since 2009 -- also the year he last appeared on any of the Sunday morning public affairs shows. Obama's done one CNN interview in 2012, but hasn't stopped by the other major cable networks.
In addition, Obama has not appeared before the White House press corps since Aug. 20, a few weeks before a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi which continues to raise questions for his administration.
Evans said there are times the Register board will meet with candidates or interest groups off the record, but the board always prefers such meetings to be on the record, thus allowing paper the ability to publish the interview for Iowa readers. However, Evans said he was not aware of the paper's full editorial board ever agreeing to meet off the record with a candidate seeking the paper's endorsement.
As for the Register being able to to publicly air its grievance, Evans said his understanding was that the event itself -- speaking to Obama by phone -- was not off the record even if the substance of the conversation originally was off the record.
"I think there was a very legitimate issue of the leader of the free world not being willing to talk on the record in a session like this," Evans said.
The Register's endorsement will appear at 8 p.m. EST Saturday online and in the paper's Sunday edition.
This post has been updated to reflect fuller comment from Obama traveling press secretary Jen Psaki Wednesday.