What We Learned from Obama's First Big Presser

The 44th president has concluded his first prime-time presser and I found myself marveling over two refreshing aspects of the affair. The first was that we were actually able to watch it. During the last few years of George W. Bush’s tenure, it seemed as if he could dress up in a chicken suit and set himself afire and you couldn’t get the press corps to show up and cover it. If we were lucky, it might show up on CSPAN 3 and the highlights would be clipped for the next day’s Morning Joe or Fox and Friends.


The second impression I was left with is far easier to summarize; the man certainly loves to hear himself talk.

Previous residents of the Oval Office have been accused of dodging the issues, batting away uncomfortable subjects, and cutting off the flow of discourse. This presser was a rare example of dashing overboard in the opposite direction. Each question was met not with a short, defensive answer, but with a full-blown stump speech. Even Helen Thomas, a perpetual thorn in the side of every president since John Adams, was given an answer that eventually sent her back to her walker before she could force a follow-up. By my count, at least two of the president’s answers ran longer than his prepared comments at the beginning of the event.

The meat we sought from this particular bone, however, was in short supply. The president was fresh from a town hall meeting in Indiana where he sought to buttress the defenses of the current economic stimulus plan. While the questions actually relating to the pending bill were few and far between, the answers were even less satisfying. I somehow managed to avoid throwing a shot glass through my television screen when the president delivered the following sage words:

Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who’ve suggested that FDR was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal.


This would have been a far more interesting response had it not been an abject straw man. I’m not sure if President Obama has been watching too much MSNBC or not, but I don’t recall a single Republican in Congress saying that we should do nothing. The complaints, by virtually unanimous consent, have been that we’re doing too much of the wrong things. Chip Reid managed to sneak in a question about the complete collapse of bipartisan cooperation on the stimulus, eliciting this response:

But understand the bottom line that I’ve got right now, which is what’s happening to the people of Elkhart and what’s happening across the country. I can’t afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people.

This was the consistent theme delivered from the presidential bully pulpit. President Obama insists that the Republicans were asked for their input. That may be true, but said input also seems to have been left out with the recycling, except on the issue of targeted tax cuts, which both sides brought to the table initially.

The rest of the presser seemed to pass in a blur. Parents and sports fans across the nation may have been thrilled to hear the president’s take on A-Rod and his chemically enhanced sports triumphs, but the subject was grossly out of place given the current Beltway gridlock. A question on Iran resulted in a rambling series of sound bites which could have come straight out of debate prep school.


The Huffington Post used its moment in the sun to inquire as to what was holding up the process of shipping George W. Bush and his cronies off to a cell in the Hague. The president responded with his best impression of Jill Clayburgh from I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can. No person is above the law, but we’re going to focus on looking forward, not to the past.

For the second time in a week I was left with a single, overwhelming sense. Deep down in his mind, Barack Obama is still on the campaign trail. His answers to specific questions are little more than slightly attenuated campaign pitches. He faces an early, but not unanticipated, pivotal moment in his presidency and a golden opportunity to lead is within his reach. Will he make the leap and grasp it, or spend the next four years playing defense for his media image and running for reelection?


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