President George W. Bush started the trend and President Barack Obama has pushed it to is inevitable conclusion: The end of the regular, open-ended, free-wheeling White House press conference that goes back to the days when reporters, sometimes several times a week, gathered around FDR's desk.
Wednesday's press conference, with a limited number of questions assigned to preselected reporters, was his first since March, an almost unprecedented parsimony in presidential access. His target audience was not the reporters, or even the country, but the congressional Republicans with whom he must reach some kind of accord on taxes and do it soon.
As Obama saw it there were two options: Do nothing and see taxes go up on the 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses that make less than $250,000 a year.
The other option, the one he campaigned on and the one the Republicans oppose, is to let the Bush tax cuts expire for all but the wealthiest Americans. In a pointed reminder of the election, he noted that more people supported that course than voted for him.
Laying down an optimistic timetable, he said Congress could pass that tax law this week or next, "And I'll bring everyone in to sign it right away so we can give the folks some certainty before the holiday season." Sounding like the soul of reasonableness, he said, "As I've said before, I'm open to compromise and I'm open to new ideas." Maybe down the road Obama is, but not to avert the impending fiscal crisis. Before and during the conference, he shot down such Republicans proposals as a cap on deductions, closing unspecified loopholes, and "dynamic scoring," a bookkeeping device that assumes, most often mistakenly, that tax cuts more than make up for revenue losses.
Republicans, being no strangers to this kind of fiscal brinksmanship, could see that they are being set up to take the fall if there is no tax and spending deal before mid-January.
Perhaps because he's secure in reelection, Obama showed unaccustomed fire in blasting GOP Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham for their verbal assault on U.N. ambassador Susan Rice for a series of briefings she gave -- based, Obama noted, on the intelligence she was given -- on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. He said the attempt "to besmirch her reputation is outrageous." The two senators have vowed to block her from ever being secretary of State. Obama shot back that if he thought Rice would be the best person to serve in that capacity "then I will nominate her." Perhaps satisfied that he had picked enough fights for one day, Obama ended the press conference, but with one glaring omission: He gave only a single passing mention to Afghanistan, America's longest war, and that only in the context of Petraeus' service.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.