Obama Brings It Down a Notch

By Dan Froomkin
12:21 PM ET, 03/25/2009

Obama at last night's press conference. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

President Obama seized an hour of prime time last night to move beyond the overheated chatter of the past week and return the public's attention to the long-term economic problems that can't be solved overnight.

Polls continue to show that the American people are considerably more patient with and appreciative of Obama than the daily drumbeat of media coverage might have you believe. And so it was to the public -- right over the heads of the assembled press corps -- that Obama was sending the message that things are moving in the right direction, but that it could take a while.

Obama likened being president to piloting an ocean liner, rather than driving a speedboat -- even as his immediate audience continued to judge him as if he was driving a speedboat.

"We haven't immediately eliminated the influence of lobbyists in Washington. We have not immediately eliminated wasteful pork projects. And we're not immediately going to get Middle East peace. We've been in office now a little over 60 days. What I am confident about is that we're moving in the right direction," he said.

He repeatedly hammered home his central argument that serious investments in health care, energy and education are essential to the country's recovery, its long-term economic growth, and an eventual reduction of massive deficit spending.

"The best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led to a narrow prosperity and massive debt," he said. "It's with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest."

Obama last night exhibited a lot of the qualities that the public seems to like: patience, confidence, and persistence. Especially persistence. "That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I'm going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I'm in this office," he said. "I'm a big believer in persistence."

He also demonstrated once again how he's operating on a different clock than many of the people in Washington's political and media elite. (See, for instance, my previous posts, Obama to Washington: Chill Out, Why Obama Is Still Smiling, and Inside the Beltway, the Honeymoon is History.)

My favorite moment came when Obama took on one of the more bizarre tenets of the Washington punditocracy: The belief that the willingness to call for public sacrifice in moments of crisis is in itself a key moral litmus test for a president.

On The Washington Post op-ed pages alone, David S. Broder has called former president George W. Bush's refusal to do so after 9/11 his "greatest moral failing," and, more recently, Ruth Marcus and Jackson Diehl scolded Obama for not asking for shared sacrifice to address the economic crisis.

Last night, NBC's Chuck Todd posed the question: "Why, given this new era of responsible that you're asking for, why haven't you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?"

Obama's reply simply reeked of common sense. "I think folks are sacrificing left and right," he said. "They -- you’ve got a lot of parents who are cutting back on everything to make sure that their kids can still go to college. You’ve got workers who are deciding to cut an entire day and entire day’s worth of pay so that their fellow co-workers aren’t laid off. I think that across the board people are making adjustments, large and small, to accommodate the fact that we’re in very difficult times right now."

And he didn't even mention the vast loss of wealth suffered by people who had much of their savings invested in their homes or in stocks.

Then Obama called on his fellow citizens to do something after all: Participate in the political processs. "What I'm looking from the American people to do is that they are going to be doing what they've always done, which is working hard, looking after their families, making sure that, despite the economic hard times, that they're still contributing to their community, that they're still participating in volunteer activities" -- and, he said, "that they are paying attention to the debates that are going on in Washington."

All in all, I found this press conference much more lively than his last one, which felt much more like a lecture than a dialogue. Although Obama still only called on only 13 reporters in 57 minutes, he accepted follow-up question. That led reporters to request -- and Obama to provide -- sharper responses than he had the first time around. I think that was actually good for both sides.

Obama took the unusual step of calling on non-traditional news organizations, which added some welcome breadth to the night.

But he didn't avoid the news outlet with clear animosity towards him. Fox News's Major Garrett, for instance, asked Obama to respond to concerns about his economic plans expressed by "the Chinese government, run by communists," and "European governments,...some of them socialist," Garrett was pretty clearly saying: "Even the Commies and pinkos think you're spending too much!"

Obama responded dryly by, among other things, noting that America's reputation is not in danger. "I think it's fair to say that the response that people have had to our administration and the steps that we've taken are ones that are restoring a sense of confidence and the ability of the United States to assert global leadership," he said.

Obama's one bit of overt snippiness came when CNN's Ed Henry asked him (twice) why he waited two days after finding out about bonuses to AIG executives before expressing his outrage. "It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," Obama said, leading to a collective intake of breath in the East Room.

Obama's reaction may have been the result of frustration with the subject, or with the accusatory tone -- but I'd like to think it was also a riposte to the growing "Twitter culture" of the Washington press, where instant reaction to everything has been raised to a moral imperative.

Reporters who covered the press conference took a variety of approaches in their stories.

Christi Parsons and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "With the major elements of his economic recovery plan now laid out, President Obama warned Tuesday that the climb out of recession will not happen overnight, and he called on Americans to show patience and faith that things will get better....

"Obama seemed to use the forum, so familiar as a tool of outreach to mainstream Americans, to present himself as a steady hand at the helm -- a leader who had a bad situation under control and was not making new demands on the public."

Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post: "President Obama sought to reassure Americans last night that his administration has made progress in reviving the economy and said his $3.6 trillion budget is 'inseparable from this recovery.'...

"Asked about congressional efforts to chip away at his main facets of his agenda, Obama gave no indication that he would need to abandon core principles.

"'We never expected, when we printed out our budget, that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it. We assume that it has to go through the legislative process....I have confidence that we're going to be able to get a budget done that's reflective of what needs to happen in order to make sure that America grows.'"

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "With Congress pushing back against his proposals for energy, taxes and other matters, President Barack Obama is taking a bend-but-don't-break posture.

"He will compromise on certain details if he must, he signaled at his news conference Tuesday evening, but not on the heart of his key initiatives.

"His strategic retreats are a nod to political reality. He is angling to avoid confrontations he probably can't win, but to sacrifice no more than is absolutely necessary."

Susan Page writes for USA Today that Obama "was walking a careful line.

"He is on the cusp, he hopes, of unlocking the credit crisis and saving the village while simultaneously trying to persuade a populist throng carrying pitchforks not to light any matches that might burn it down.

"So he expressed solidarity with those who are outraged that AIG executives were awarded $165 million in bonuses at a time the company was being propped up by billions in federal rescue funds, but he also urged Americans to keep their focus on the big picture."

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "The president needs the nation to be on an even keel, because addressing the economic collapse is going to take time. The nation must get through the stress test of cleaning up the current economic mess with enough emotional energy left to embrace his argument for an ambitious budget. To help everyone calm down, Obama argued that slow and steady progress was being made."

Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales writes: "Most of the facets of President Obama's personality that have made him intensely popular were on display last night during his second prime-time news conference, and so he emerged from it still every inch 'President Wonderful,' as it were, untouched and intact."

But Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney, writing on the front page of the New York Times, evidently found Obama insufficiently animated. It was a return of "Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign," they write. "Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, 'as I said before' — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell."

Baker and Nagourney conclude that Obama was "more enervating than energizing" and note: "Throughout his time in public life, Mr. Obama has confronted questions about whether he was too detached, too analytical, too intellectual."

In the New York Daily News, Kenneth R. Bazinet and David Saltonstall go even further, writing that many viewers "probably wished 'American Idol' hadn't been bumped from the lineup to make room for the President.

"Having been chided for laughing off some serious questions on '60 Minutes' last weekend, Obama seemed intent on stifling virtually all emotion - and running out the clock with a flurry of wonkish explainers and recycled answers."

Several reports reflected the media's bizarre obsession with Obama's use of a teleprompter for his prepared remarks. Ron Fournier, for instance, wrote for the Associated Press: "What kind of politician brings a teleprompter to a news conference? A careful one."

A focus on Obama's use of the device would be entirely appropriate if he had shown an inability to speak lucidly without one. But he hasn't. So it's just that much noise.

Steve Benen blogs for Washington Monthly on the press corps' repeated questions about deficit spending, "suggesting that the White House press corps has more or less internalized Republican talking points (again)....Note to the White House press corps: under these circumstances, deficits aren't our most pressing problem. This preoccupation with the issue isn't helping anyone."

Jonathan Capehart, blogging for The Washington Post, writes that he wanted Obama do a better job of explaining the economic mess. The president, for instance, talked about the need to "improve liquidity in the financial markets: and "stabilize the economy and get it moving again."

Capehart writes: "What exactly does that mean? And why does it involve playing ball with the very financial institutions that have brought the United States and the rest of the world to the precipice of economic ruin? A laser pointer, some charts and graphs and 30 minutes would have gone a long way to making sense of the extraordinary actions the Obama administration has taken since January and will have to take in the months and years ahead."

I wrote yesterday about questions I was hoping Obama would answer -- but he wasn't asked any of them, which I think left a lot of important ground uncovered. Similarly, much was made on cable TV last night of the fact that Obama wasn't asked even one question about our two ongoing wars.

Also missing: Any genuine introspection. The question that came closest to eliciting any came from ABC's Ann Compton. She asked "whether, in any of the policy debates that you've had within the White House, the issue of race has come up or whether it has in the way you feel you've been perceived by other leaders or by the American people?"

But Obama's reply was entirely on message. "[O]bviously, at the inauguration, I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country," he said, "but that lasted about a day.

"And -- and, you know, right now, the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged. And that is: Are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to re-open, keep America safe? And that's what I've been spending my time thinking about."

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was most taken by Obama's choice not to call "on any reporters from the nation's top newspapers."

Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara has some of the most incisive commentary of the day. She writes: "Let the pundits wail and gnash their teeth about federally funded fat cat bonuses. Let the columnists dissect the stimulus package, explaining, with scholarly harrumphs, why it is or isn't the return of the New Deal, why the new administration is hewing dangerously left, perilously right or just altogether lost. President Barack Obama is not a product of media opinion or analysis; he's a child of television...

"In the last two weeks alone, he surprised the traditional Washington press corps by passing on its annual Gridiron Club dinner only to make unprecedented appearances on ESPN, where he picked his NCAA bracket favorites, and 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,' where he committed his biggest presidential gaffe to date before returning to '60 Minutes' for a tough-questions interview with Steve Kroft. Tuesday night, he held his second prime-time news conference in the last 65 days...

"Not everyone approves of all this exposure, of course. Many critics, professional and not, see Obama's high visibility as a sign of narcissism or ineptitude. They complain that the man needs to stop campaigning and start being president. But this is, apparently, exactly how Obama defines being president.

"Unlike the previous administration, and perhaps because of it, he seems to consider it part of his job to maintain the conversation he began with the American people at the 2004 Democratic National Convention."

McNamara writes that Obama -- who telegraphs "a resolutely optimistic and wonky hepcat charm" -- is "an American leader in the era of reality television. He came of age in front of cameras and digital screens, and he understands not just their power, but their nature. Americans these days want to make up their own minds, whether it's about the next American Idol or what the president's responsibility is toward those outrageous bonuses. Obama understands the definition of reality 'as seen on TV,' where the most important thing is your brand. The Obama brand is about calm amid chaos, strength through humility, and transparency through television."

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