For a reporter, there are few higher honors than being called upon by the president to ask a question at a nationally televised press conference. During President Obama's rare press conference on Friday, only eight reporters had that chance. We decided to rate how they did.
The ground rules: We only considered the original questions, not their follow-ups, or their jokes. The rating is completely subjective and yet, oddly, completely correct. It's worth remembering the context: This was the first scheduled press conference since late April, one predicated largely on the president's announcement of reforms to a recently revealations about the nation's surveillance system.
1. Carol Lee, Wall Street Journal
I wanted to ask you about your evolution on the surveillance issues. I mean, part of what you're talking about today is restoring the public trust. And the public has seen you evolve from when you were in the U.S. Senate to now.
And even as recently as June, you said that these — the process was such that people should be comfortable with it. And now you're saying — you're making these reforms and people should be comfortable with those. So why should the public trust you on this issue and why did you change your position multiple times?
Lee wins this one fairly easily. Position counts. That she was the fourth reporter to ask a question but still hit on an important issue — how the president has apparently shifted his position and the political repercussions of doing so — is significant.
And it elicited an interesting answer, both in terms of Obama's defense of his record and in terms of the most-quoted snippet, in which Obama discussed doing the dishes. (What a weird answer that was.)
2. Jonathan Karl, ABC News
You have said that core al-Qaida has been decimated, that its leaders are on the run. Now that we've seen this terror threat that has resulted in embassies closed throughout the Arab world, much of Africa, do you still believe that al-Qaida has been decimated? And if I can ask, in the interest of transparency, can you tell us about these drone strikes that we've seen over the last couple of weeks in Yemen?
Karl followed Lee, and asked a similarly pertinent question, about the recent terror alerts. He didn't get as interesting an answer — with the exception of "we are not going to completely eliminate terrorism" — but it was a solid and appropriate question to ask.
3. Scott Horsley, NPR
Part of the political logic behind immigration reform was the strong showing by Latino voters last November, you know. That doesn't seem to resonate with a lot of House Republicans, who represent overwhelmingly white districts. What other political leverage can you bring to bear to help move a bill in the house?
If you have the last question, as Horsley did, it's likely that you're stuck with one of the worst questions. But Horlsey (thanks in part to some bad questions preceding him) asked the first question on an immediate policy concern, immigration reform. Obama's response was a tacit admission that he had no more leverage to use, which is neither surprising nor insignificant. And it got a good line from the president: "I don't know a law that solves a problem a hundred percent."
4. Julie Pace, Associated Press
I wanted to ask about some of the foreign policy fallout from the disclosure of the NSA programs that you discussed. Your spokesman said yesterday that there's no question that the U.S. relationship with Russia has gotten worse since Vladimir Putin took office. How much of that decline do you attribute directly to Mr. Putin, given that you seem to have had a good working relationship with his predecessor?
Also, will there be any additional punitive measures taken against Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, or is canceling the September summit really all you can do given the host of issues the U.S. needs Russian cooperation for?
Pace was mostly relegated to fourth place because she had the lead-off question and used it to focus on Russia. Good question — if you're asking question number three. But for the lead-off, something closer to the topic at-hand might be expected.
Obama's announcement today prompts scads of questions. What will the Patriot Act reforms look like? There's a good question, Pace! Try that! How will FISA Court changes work? How can you instantiate surveillance reforms that aren't overturned by future presidents! This is just off the top of our heads, but they are better questions than Pace's.
5. Jessica Yellin, CNN
Republicans in the House might give you that choice soon to either allow the government to shut down, or see "Obamacare" defunded. Would you choose to let the government shut down to ensure that "Obamacare" remains funded?
Yellin asked a question on an important issue — but it was clear that Henry, who went before her, stepped on what she'd planned to ask. That left her a little flat.
But just because she asked about an important issue doesn't mean she asked a good question. Of course the president isn't going to say he'd let the government be shut down to protect Obamacare. For one thing, he realizes it's an empty threat and, for another, a key part of negotiation is not to say you will capitulate to stupid demands.
6. Major Garrett, CBS News
I'd like to ask you about this debate that's playing itself out in editorial pages and the blogosphere, even in the Senate Democratic caucus, about the choice you eventually will make of the next Federal Reserve chairman.
There is a perception among Democrats that Larry Summers has the inside track, and perhaps, you've made some assurances to him about that. Janet Yellen is the vice-chair of the Federal Reserve; there are many women in the Senate who are Democrats who believe that breaking the glass ceiling, that would be historic and important. …
Are you annoyed by this sort of roiling debate? Do you find it in any way unseemly? And do you believe this will be one of the most important, if not the most important, economic decisions you will make in the remainder of your presidency?
No one cares about the Fed Chair. No one. (Ezra Klein doesn't count.) You get the third question and you use it to ask about the replacement for a guy who isn't leaving his position that no one cares about until January of next year?
What is the thought process here? One has to assume that perhaps Garrett thought he might not get a question? Or that he'd come later? Or maybe he had an agreement with Obama to throw him a softball — Obama relished getting this question — in order to break up what Obama thought would be a tougher event? Who knows.
Luckily for Garrett, there were much stupider questions to come.
7. Ed Henry, Fox News
want to ask you about two important dates that are coming up. October 1st, you're going to implement your signature health care law. You recently decided on your own to delay a key part of that. And I wonder, if you pick and choose what parts of the law to implement, couldn't your successor down the road pick and choose whether they'll implement your law and keep it in place?
And on September 11th we'll have the first anniversary of Benghazi. And you said on September 12th, make no mistake, we'll bring to justice to killers who attacked our people. Eleven months later, where are they, sir?
We get it, Fox. You are carrying the torch on Benghazi. Understood. But: "Eleven months later, where are they, sir?" That is — and this is said without exaggeration — a question as stupid as when that teenager asked Jay Carney about George Zimmerman.
In part because the administration filed an indictment this week! No, the guy hasn't been caught, but just a few days ago there was actual action on this! And then Henry got demolished by Obama's response: "I also said we'd get bin Laden, and we didn't get him in 11 months." Crushed.
The Obamacare question was better, if not great. Henry should have stuck with that.
8. Chuck Todd, NBC News
Given that you just announced a whole bunch of reforms based on essentially the leaks that Edward Snowden made on all of these surveillance programs, does that change — is your mindset changed about him? Is he now more a whistle-blower than he is a hacker, as you called him at one point, or somebody that shouldn't be filed charges? And should he be provided more protection? Is he a patriot? You just used those words. And then just to follow up on the personal — I want to follow up on a personal … can you get stuff done with Russia, big stuff done, without having a good personal relationship with Putin?
Chuck Todd, man.
Chuck Todd got the second question at this presser and used it to ask if Obama and Putin can still work together if they aren't friends. Todd realizes, we assume, that the president is a grown human being and the leader of a nation and therefore probably is somewhat adept at working with people and / or resolving differences. Hey, Obama, can you get "stuff" done with Putin even if you aren't BFFs? This was question number two.
But that was the good part of the question. Chuck Todd, a person paid to ask incisive questions, asked the trolliest question perhaps in the history of White House questions: Is Edward Snowden a patriot?
What the fuck do you think the president is going to say? Of course the president will not say he thinks Edward Snowden, resident of Russia, is a patriot. Which Todd of course knew, and of course knew would get lots of pick-up among the media. And sure enough, everyone tweeted Obama's response, and now Chuck Todd gets to go on NBC News and tell everyone that, no, Obama doesn't think Snowden is a patriot and was know this because he, Chuck Todd, thought to ask. Had Obama, perhaps suffering from some impairment, said Snowden was a patriot, Todd would have been on every nightly news cast from now until the Sochi Olympics. There should be a name for this kind of trolly, reporter-can't-lose question, and it should not be named after Chuck Todd, since he'd only enjoy it.
Last place, Chuck Todd. The end.