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Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

White House press corps going through the motions

You know that old saying that there are no dumb questions? It's not true. I know. As a journalist, I've asked my share of stupid questions. Yet even in the context of my own shortcomings, I do not understand what the White House press corps is thinking during what passes for a news conference in the Obama White House.
Consider Monday's news conference. The last presser of President Barack Obama's first term spanned 53 minutes. Seven reporters asked questions -- after Obama called on them as if according to script. In his fashion, Obama answered a couple.
There's a law of verbal physics: The longer the question the less likely it is to be answered. Yet White House reporters rehearse these paragraph-length sentences, adding context the president doesn't need and clauses that bury the lead. Many such questions are so complex that the questioner cannot reasonably expect an answer.
Julie Pace of The Associated Press lobbed the first softball when she asked Obama about gun violence and whether the White House will push for an assault weapons ban. Mistake. For the past month, reporters have been asking the president about guns. He has a library of stock "gun violence" phrases -- "stakeholders," "common-sense steps," "focus on what makes sense." He can answer on autopilot.
Besides, no way was Obama going to answer that question before the vice president could roll out his plan in response to the Newtown, Conn., shootings, which is expected this week.
Major Garrett of CBS noted that as a senator, Obama had voted against raising the debt ceiling. Great point. I wish he had stopped there and asked why it was OK for Obama to oppose a debt hike then and why it is OK for him, when Republicans do the same thing now, to accuse them of kidnapping for ransom.
Instead, Garrett added that Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush agreed to deals that combined raising the debt ceiling and curbing the deficit. Could Obama's refusal to negotiate with Congress lead to default?
And the autopilot kicked in: He's happy to talk, but Republicans expect to win 100 percent.
Also in the "nice try" category, Jackie Calmes of The New York Times asked Obama about his four white, male Cabinet picks -- not very diverse -- and whether this White House has become too insular.
Obama answered that his first Cabinet was diverse; people should wait and see his next Cabinet. And: "We invite folks from Congress over here all the time. And when they choose to come, I enjoy their company." Really? The president said Washington's big problem is that no one will go to the White House, and there were no audible groans from the press gallery.
The pack is out of gas. When reporters ask follow-up questions, you can see they do not expect real answers.
They rarely ask short questions, which are harder to evade. They rarely ask unexpected questions, for which autopilot sound bites cannot hide a non-response. They don't talk out of turn.
It's: Ask a long-winded question. Get a long-winded non-answer.
Repeat.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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