By Dan Froomkin
2:39 PM ET, 06/23/2009
President Obama, making his most extensive and personal remarks yet condemning the crushing of dissent by the Iranian regime, also stressed today that it's not his job to satisfy the 24-hour news cycle, with its rapacious appetite for conflict and ultimatums, but rather to advance the interests of the country on his own clock.
Responding to insistent questioning at today's press conference from NBC News's Chuck Todd about why he wouldn't "spell out the consequences" for the Iranian government, Obama shot back: "We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out.
"I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?"
And when CBS News's Chip Reid recounted criticism from Republicans including former presidential candidate John McCain that Obama had thus far been timid and weak in his comments about Iran, Obama fired back: "You know, I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues. And, you know, I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail.
"But only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries."
He added: "I think that in the hothouse of Washington, there may be all kinds of stuff going back and forth in terms of Republican critics versus the administration. That's not what is relevant to the Iranian people.... They're trying to figure out how can they make sure justice is served in Iran."
There were in fact quite a few moments of excitement at today's press conference, something we've rarely seen at these occasions in the past. From reporters, there was a crack likening Obama to Mr. Spock, the over-logical Vulcan from Star Trek, a prying question about his smoking habits -- and a lot of follow-up questions.
For his part, Obama mixed good humor with some sharp retorts.
The most contentious exchange was with Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers. Obama yesterday signed legislation aimed at reducing the number of young people who start smoking -- reigniting the fascination among the White House press corps over whether Obama has well and truly quit his habit.
"How many cigarettes a day do you now smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people? And do you believe the new law should help you to quit? If so, why?" Talev asked.
"Well, the -- first of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me. It's about the next generation of kids coming up. So I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law.
"But that's fine. I understand. It's an interesting human -- it's an interesting human interest story.
"Look, I've said before that as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. The -- am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. And, you know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured. But there are times where -- (LAUGHTER). There are times where I mess up. And I mean, I've said this before. I get this question about once every month or so. And, you know, I don't know what to tell you, other than the fact that, you know, like folks who go to A.A., you know, once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place.
Obama signaled his defiance of the traditional Washington media early on -- by going off the grid to call on Nico Pitney, a Huffington Post editor, for his second question Pitney has has been liveblogging the Iranian uprising as it plays out on the Internet.
"I know that you and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran," Obama said. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?" Pitney did.
In response to a question from CNN's Suzanne Malveaus about the "shocking video" of an Iranian woman shot in the chest and bleeding to death in the street (embedded below), Obama said he had seen it, and found it "heartbreaking. It's -- it's heartbreaking. And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."
Obama also spoke at length about health care, making his most spirited defense yet of his proposal to offer the public the option of buying insurance from a government-run plan.
"Now, the public plan, I think, is an important tool to discipline insurance companies," he explained.
And he mocked the argument that a government plan would drive private insurance out of business: "Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If -- if private -- if private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care; if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical."
Obama acknowledged "a legitimate concern, if the public plan was simply eating off the taxpayer trough, that it would be hard for private insurers to compete." But he said it shouldn't be set up that way.