Why Obama Is Still Smiling

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 03/23/2009

Obama with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. (via CBS News)

How can President Obama be so darn relaxed? It apparently has something to do with taking the longer view.

Obama is confronting a massive economic crisis, an outbreak of populist rage, and an inside-the-Beltway revolt against his budget plan. As far as the Washington media is concerned, he's very much on the ropes. But he was so calm -- even jolly -- in his "60 Minutes" interview broadcast last night that anchor Steve Kroft asked him about it straight out: "You're sitting here. And you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people gonna look at this and say, 'I mean, he's sitting there just making jokes about money.' How do you deal with, I mean, explain the...mood and your laughter?...Are you punch drunk?"

Obama replied with another laugh: "No, no. There's gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day. You know, sometimes my team -- talks about the fact that if -- if you had said to us a year ago that -- the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem -- I don't think anybody would have believed it. But -- but we've got a lot on our plate. And -- a lot of difficult decisions that we're going to have to make."

But the real explanation, I think, came in one of the first exchanges of the interview. (Here's the full text, and the video, parts one and two.) I suspect it's also a good preview of tomorrow's prime-time press conference.

"The one thing that -- I've tried to emphasize, though, throughout this week, and will continue to try to emphasize during the course of the next several months as we dig ourselves out of this -- the economic hole that we're in -- is we can't govern out of anger. We've got to try to make good decisions based on the facts, in order to put people back to work, to get credit flowing again.

"And I'm not going to be distracted by -- what's happening day to day. I've gotta stay focused on making sure that -- we're getting this economy moving again."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Kroft, who spent 90 minutes with Obama, says the president was 'very, very relaxed...He did not seem at all concerned about what the press has been playing up as his worst week...My own personal feeling is they sense they're having trouble getting their message out in Washington and wanted a discussion at a more leisurely pace that went beyond a sound bite....The challenge was to try to break through and get him to talk about things he hadn't been talking about.'"

New York Daily News TV critic David Hinckley writes that, by asking Obama if he was punch drunk, Kroft indicated that he "seemed to feel Obama's toe might be slipping over the line.

"But Obama isn't a rookie, and although he hasn't gotten everything right so far, all this laughter seems clearly to be calculated rather than accidental.

"His critical calculation, for TV purposes, is that his important audience isn't Steve Kroft, but tens of millions of people on the other side of the TV screen....

"His laughs last night were designed as laughs of reassurance. They were designed to tell the TV audience he understands the severity of the situation, that it is what it is, and you know what, he's going to take this pair of deuces and turn it into a winner."

The notion that the media's attention span is impoverishing the national discourse is one Obama has raised before. And there's no question that last week's nearly constant media focus on the payment of bonuses to executives at the bailed-out AIG insurance company was not what the White House wanted.

Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Senior White House aides concede that the AIG scandal made it difficult for them to communicate their message last week. They said the media failed to take note of the 30 percent increase in home refinancing and paid relatively little attention to the president's small-business proposal, his diplomatic opening with Iran and his legislative agenda.

"Instead, they said with more than a hint of frustration, the cable news programs and major newspapers returned day after day to the bonus story. 'It got in the way for Wall Street,' [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel said in an interview yesterday. 'It got in the way for Washington. It got in the way for the media. It got in the way for everybody.'

"In his weekly radio and Internet address...Obama made no mention of the AIG bonus scandal, choosing instead to use the forum to urge lawmakers to pass his budget. He plans to do the same at his second prime-time news conference Tuesday night."

In the Saturday address, Obama spoke about the people he spoke to at town hall meetings in California last week: "At the end of the day, these men and women weren't as concerned with the news of the day in Washington as they were about the very real and very serious challenges their families face every day: whether they'll have a job and a paycheck to count on; whether they'll be able to pay their medical bills or afford college tuition; whether they'll be able to leave their children a world that's safer and more prosperous than the one we have now."

He called his budget plan "an economic blueprint for our future – a vision of America where growth is not based on real estate bubbles or overleveraged banks, but on a firm foundation of investments in energy, education, and health care that will lead to a real and lasting prosperity."

And, he said: "The American people sent us here to get things done, and at this moment of great challenge, they are watching and waiting for us to lead."

But Shear and Kane write: "His call on Congress to take up 'the important work of debating this budget' is unlikely to do much to shift the political conversation away from where it has been for seven days."

One reason for that: "The AIG controversy has prompted Republicans to more directly attack Obama than at any time since he took office. At a Thursday session with reporters, Senate GOP leaders personally mocked him as a dilettante president, busy making lighthearted appearances on television, even talking about college basketball on ABC's 'Good Morning America.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that what stories like AIG share "is a simple and clear narrative that captures the public imagination by tapping into some larger fear or existing perception — 'a proxy for a bigger concern,' in the words of Ed Gillespie, former counselor to Mr. Bush. If that concern runs deep enough, the side issue becomes the main issue."

But White House aides are less charitable: "'This is the kind of issue Washington chases like catnip,' David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's senior adviser, lamented in an interview. 'What would be a mistake would be to get so distracted by the catnip-chasers that we lose our own path. We are not going to do that.'...

"Mr. Axelrod insisted that the furor would die down — Americans, he said, had bigger things to worry about, like jobs and health care — yet conceded that Mr. Obama, who expects to ask Congress for yet more money to stabilize the nation's shaky bank system, will now have a much tougher time doing so.

"'He has a difficult job,' Mr. Axelrod said, 'because he has to explain to the American people, who are furious, why we need to maintain a strong functioning system of credit so that people can get loans, and businesses can get loans. At the same time, he has to explain to Wall Street why people are legitimately outraged by what they have done. Both are made more difficult by these kinds of stories.'"

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek on Emanuel's reaction to another unwanted bit of news: A new Congressional Budget Office estimate with grim predictions about federal deficits. "Emanuel, I am told by a source in the leadership, had a characteristically scatological response, involving an anatomically impossible sex act. Rahm denied the remark, but not the sentiment. 'Now is not the time to pull back,' he said to me. 'Those long-term predictions are meaningless—and usually wrong.'"

Fineman writes: "While the Beltway is getting its populist freak on over AIG, a bigger, more fateful drama is underway....It's about nothing less than whether the Obama administration can reverse a generation's worth of skepticism about the role of government in our lives. The federal budget is the Rosetta stone of American public philosophy, and Obama and Emanuel want to re-chisel it in expensive new ways: quality health care for all; better, more innovative public education; a rewritten IRS code that taxes the wealthy more heavily to channel benefits to lower-income Americans; and a new global effort to slow climate change.....

"'We believe in the affirmative role of government,' Emanuel says. 'Not "active" for its own sake, but affirmative in the sense of being a force for good in everyday lives—education, health, a lessening of economic and social schisms in society.'"

Can Obama break through the chatter to make this point directly to the people?

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Obama's biggest task at his news conference tomorrow will not be to defend Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or to push aside the administration's bungling of the AIG bonus imbroglio. It will be to challenge Washington's habit of evading substantive issues by transforming them into procedural questions.

"A deep narrative is taking root in the political class, and it goes something like this: Obama is biting off way more than he can chew, 'overloading' the system and dealing with all sorts of 'side issues,' when he should be focusing solely on the broken economy. He is said to be asking Congress to do too much.

"Note that anyone who makes an argument of this sort is freed from responsibility to mention any of the specific problems Obama is proposing to take on. Insisting the economy trumps everything means you don't have to say a thing about health-care reform, energy, education and taxes.....

"The AIG flap and Friday's dismal report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting the deficit will surpass $1.8 trillion this year will only strengthen the forces of evasion....

"Already, his lieutenants are signaling how he will cast the choice: between 'taking on the country's long-term challenges' or just 'lowering our sights and muddling through,' as one senior aide put it."

But in Newsweek, Eleanor Clift explains why it won't be so easy for the press to let go: "Obama hates what he calls 'process stories,' but they are a staple of Washington reporting, and the backstory of this first major Obama blunder has consequences. First, it undermines the president's credibility with his own party on Capitol Hill. Democrats voted almost unanimously for the stimulus package and now Republicans have a weapon to use against them with this Treasury-inspired provision that benefits AIG. Second, the controversy undermines the trust that the American people have in government at a time when it is spending billions upon billions. Obama promises transparency, but the layers of bureaucratic double-talk look like business as usual."

(What should reporters ask Obama about tomorrow night? I'd like to know what you think -- so post your proposed questions over at my White House Watchers discussion group.)

Another big problem for Obama in the message wars is that some of the most effective of his likely supporters are currently in the throes of tremendous disillusionment about his bank-rescue plan -- the latest details of which were unveiled today.

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "It's as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone."

Krugman calls the plan "just an indirect, disguised way to subsidize purchases of bad assets."

Nevertheless, he writes: "All is not lost: the public wants Mr. Obama to succeed, which means that he can still rescue his bank rescue plan. But time is running out."

And Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans' anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed."

He agrees with a letter writer who proclaims that Obama's "Katrina moment" has arrived.

Rich writes that when it comes to the inequities fueling the rage against AIG, "No one is more commanding...than our president. In his town-hall meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday, he described the A.I.G. bonuses as merely a symptom of 'a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk.' But rhetoric won't tamp down the anger out there, and neither will calculated displays of presidential 'outrage.' We must have governance to match the message.

"To get ahead of the anger, Obama must do what he has repeatedly promised but not always done: make everything about his economic policies transparent and hold every player accountable. His administration must start actually answering the questions that officials like Geithner and [White House economic adviser Larry] Summers routinely duck."

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that Obama doesn't just have the bully pulpit going for him -- he also has 13 million e-mail addresses.

Peter Slevin and Michael Laris write in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration and the Democratic National Committee opened a new chapter Saturday in their ambitious project to convert the energy from last year's campaign into a force for legislative reform on health care, climate change, education and taxes.

"More than 1,200 groups from Maine to Hawaii spent the day gathering signatures in support of Obama's economic plan, the first step in building what the White House hopes will be a standing political army ready to do battle.

"Seeking to create a grass-roots force on a scale never seen before, Obama called the volunteers into action in a video message reminiscent of the 2008 contest. In defense of his budget, under attack from many quarters, he asked his supporters to go 'block by block and door by door.'"

Historian Joyce Appleby writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "In similar circumstances, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt recognized the limited horizon he had, and he shared the same sense of urgency about moving the country in a new direction....

"An astute politician, FDR saw the days ahead bringing schisms among his supporters, comebacks from the opposing party and public disenchantment with the government's effectiveness. It was then that he looked beyond the politics of Congress and the Supreme Court to the fourth, informal branch of American government: the public. He would defy the odds of losing in the 1934 off-year election by carefully cultivating the ordinary men and women who had voted for him."

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