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A Missed Opportunity

By Dan Froomkin
10:26 AM ET, 02/10/2009


Obama's news conference last night. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

The media coverage of Barack Obama's first presidential news conference last night has been generally positive, concluding that he was commanding and resolute as he pressed his argument for an economic stimulus package, dramatically defining the stakes, marginalizing his critics and explaining how only government can come to the nation's rescue.

All that may be true, but I still think it was a missed opportunity for Obama. Rather than engage in a spirited dialogue with members of the press corps, Obama filibustered. After an eight-minute opening statement, he got through only 13 questions in an hour -- and allowed no follow-up questions. His answers were an oddly unexciting combination of familiar talking points and wonky dissertations. It wasn't particularly good TV, and it wasn't necessarily what Obama needed, either.

To "close the sale" -- as many pundits defined Obama's mission last night -- the president might well have been better off letting reporters probe beneath the placid surface of his regular pitch, especially if the result was a clearer view into his thought processes. Polls show that Americans support Obama the man in much greater margins than they support his plan. Giving the public a more visceral sense of why he believes in the stimulus package couldn't have hurt.

Worst of all, Obama engaged in one of the most frustrating rhetorical techniques: The straw-man argument. It wasn't fair for Obama to repeatedly suggest that the core opposition to his stimulus plan comes from people "who just believe that we should do nothing." The basic Republican position is considerably more nuanced than that, favoring tax cuts and opposing big-government spending. Obama was on much more defensible territory mocking the GOP for posing as the party of fiscal responsibility after doubling the deficit, and pointing out that calling his proposal "a spending bill, not a stimulus bill" is nonsense, since "part of any stimulus package would include spending -- that's the point."

In some ways, the biggest excitement last night came when Obama called on a blogger: Sam Stein of Huffingtonpost.com. But when Stein asked whether Obama agreed with Senator Patrick Leahy's call yesterday for a "truth and reconciliation committee" to investigate Bush administration misdeeds, Obama ducked the question, saying "my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."

Two of the better questions elicited the only really new things Obama said.

CBS's Chip Reid asked Obama if he was revisiting his devotion to bipartisanship after getting so little backing from Republicans on the stimulus package. The president said he's still taking the long view on bipartisanship, even while doing what he has to in order to meet the immediate need.

"You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans -- going over to meet with both Republican caucuses; you know, putting three Republicans in my Cabinet, something that is unprecedented; making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan -- all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time hopefully that will be reciprocated.

"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."

ABC'S Jake Tapper asked Obama: "[O]nce all the legs of your stool are in place, how can the American people gauge whether or not your programs are working? Can they -- should they be looking at the metric of the stock market, home foreclosures, unemployment? What metric should they use? When? And how will they know if it's working, or whether or not we need to go to a plan B?"

Obama supplied some benchmarks: "[M]y initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs," he said. And although that measure may be hard to quantify -- when is a job "saved"? -- the others were more concrete. "Step number two: Are we seeing the credit markets operate effectively?" And: "Step number three is going to be housing: Have we stabilized the housing market?" Obama even volunteered a timeframe: "[I]f we get things right, then starting next year we can start seeing some significant improvement," he said.

Generally speaking, the press corps didn't acquit itself well, either. Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press chose to interpret one of Obama's comments earlier in the day as a prediction of permanent recession. Obama told a town hall audience in Elkhart, Ind., that without a stimulus bill, "our nation will sink into a crisis that at some point we may be unable to reverse."

Loven asked: "Can you talk about what you know or what you're hearing that would lead you to say that our recession might be permanent, when others in our history have not? And do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?"

As a result, the record will show that the first response to the first question at the Obama's first news conference as president began: "No, no, no, no." Obama explained that what he and many economists have said is that "if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of."

Caren Bohan of Reuters, who got the second question, asked about Iran -- not even the most pressing foreign policy matter facing this country, except possibly in certain neocon circles.

NBC's Chuck Todd questioned why the stimulus plan encourages increased consumer spending. "[I]sn't consumer spending or overspending how we got into this mess?" Todd asked. Obama countered that spending was actually not what got us into this mess, and that economists aren't the least bit worried about overspending right now.

Finally, Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post actually asked Obama for a reaction to baseball star Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids six years ago.

I'll add one more disappointment for the night: It's hard to see any reason for Obama not to immediately overturn the Bush administration's ban on media coverage of flag-draped coffins. As Lara Jakes writes for the Associated Press, even military families are against the ban. But in response to a question from CNN's Ed Henry, Obama hemmed and hawed and said a review is underway.

Here's a look at the coverage:

David Jackson and Richard Wolf write for USA Today: "President Obama took his case for more than $800 billion in economic stimulus directly to the American people Monday, accusing Republican opponents of playing politics with a plan that's 'exactly what this country needs.'

"Fresh from a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., where the jobless rate has soared above 15%, Obama used his first news conference as president to press Congress to pass his spending initiatives and tax cuts or risk a Depression-like catastrophe."

Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Obama declared last night in his first prime-time news conference that the task of saving and creating jobs is more important than cultivating the bipartisan cooperation he promised to bring to Washington, and he pressed his case for the massive economic stimulus plan working its way through Congress...

"Obama repeatedly stressed the need for swift and aggressive action on the economy, pitting his plan against those who he said would 'do nothing' to assist a desperate public....

"Obama's remarks on partisanship -- a gridlock he once vowed to break as part of his signature campaign promise -- were perhaps most striking. Conveying exasperation with Republicans to whom he had extended an olive branch since taking office, the president said he will continue his outreach in the hope of a compromise down the line. But he will not, he said, allow political differences to trump the needs of the public."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Authoritative and unsmiling, gloomy rather than inspirational, Mr. Obama cast the nation’s economy in dire light and offered a barbed point-by-point critique of the Republican argument that his plan would just create more government jobs and authorize a raft of new wasteful spending.

"'It’s a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they presided over a doubling of the national debt,' he said at the news conference. 'I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.'"

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama looked comfortable enough at his first White House news conference, but he sounded like a man fed up with one thing: Republicans lecturing him about his $820 billion economic stimulus plan."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Obama controlled the tone of the East Room proceedings, speaking with utmost seriousness, gesturing with his hands and displaying a command of the facts. His lengthy, multi-part answers -- allowing for just 13 questions -- went well beyond what the journalists asked and defended his record while taking not-so-veiled slaps at the Republicans as 'folks who presided over a doubling of national debt.'...

"Obama smiled only once, while sidestepping a question from Fox's Major Garrett about Vice President Biden's comment that he and Obama agreed they had a 30 percent chance of getting an unspecified policy wrong. The president pleaded a faulty memory of the exchange....

"Afterward, MSNBC's Chris Matthews praised Obama's 'amazing ability' to communicate, while Fox's Bill O'Reilly called him 'very eloquent' but 'dull.'"

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "It was a bookend moment.

"President Obama on Monday evening became the 10th American president to call on Helen Thomas at a White House news conference. And he was the first to call on Sam Stein, a reporter for The Huffington Post, whose Internet publication sprung to life during Mr. Obama’s candidacy." [Actually, it was founded in 2005.]

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama’s locutions are steady, fluent and often very long. On Monday night, even his fiercest warnings about the perilous state of the economy were bracketed by professorial disquisitions on everything from charter schools to electronic medical records."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Obama is not excessively didactic—though he did correct one reporter's characterization of the role of excessive consumer spending in the economic collapse. He's orderly. This is in great contrast to his predecessor, who sometimes spoke in small colloquial bursts. Those who found that to be George W. Bush's most irritating quality have probably already watched Obama again on TiVo for the delight of hearing a string of complete sentences. There may also be another group of people who tuned in or will see the sound bites from the press conference on Tuesday and will be reminded that they like Obama's moderate, careful tone and find that reason enough to give him more support for his big new program. But if Obama wanted to create urgency to get Congress to act or to spur people to call their representatives and demand action to avoid economic catastrophe, he didn't really do it."

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