02.09.09

Obama Owns the Room

The president may have struck out in the opening statement of his first major press conference, but then he turned into Babe Ruth.

Barack Obama’s first press conference, like his presidency itself, got off to a bad start. But by the time it concluded, it was clear that America has a real president again.

Obama had to accomplish several goals in his opening remarks. He had to explain the nature of the present economic emergency to the American public. And he had to dispel the impression that he is a weak, Carter-like figure who in the first few weeks of his term has been easily rolled both by Republican enemies and the old bulls of the Democratic Congress.

In his answers to questions, Obama improvised the Rooseveltian Fireside Chat that he should have given earlier in his prepared address.

At first he failed. His prepared remarks were terrible.

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He began with the biggest cliché of modern politics—he had met some real Americans, outside the Beltway, and learned from their wisdom. After recounting his photo-op visit to distressed Elkhart, Indiana, the new president then reeled off a list of goals for the stimulus package that sounded more like campaign rhetoric in a high-school gymnasium than a serious plan in the White House: four million jobs, college tax credits, wind turbines, and solar energy.

But the worst was yet to come. Speaking to a nation that longs for leadership, he boasted of bipartisanship, as though anyone cares about process in an emergency. The legislation, the president claimed, was supported by “both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO…both Democrats and Republicans…” To be sure, the president knew his audience of White House reporters, who share the Beltway subculture’s bizarre obsession with bipartisanship for its own sake. In fact, two of the reporters in the question period earnestly asked whether Obama was being bipartisan enough. (I don’t recall George W. Bush being asked similar questions; perhaps only Democrats are expected to divide the fruits of electoral victory evenly with the party that the voters rejected.)

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A viewer who changed the channel after Obama had hurried through his prepared remarks might have had cause for concern about the occupant of the Oval Office. But in the question-and-answer period that followed, a different Obama emerged—a leader whose combination of articulateness, passion and mastery of policy detail is unrivalled among his recent predecessors, with the exception of Bill Clinton.

In his answers to questions, Obama improvised the Rooseveltian Fireside Chat that he should have given earlier in his prepared address. He gave concise and clear explanations, in terms that laymen can understand, of the problems that banks have in evaluating their assets, of the role of the stimulus as part of a larger economic-recovery package, and other complex issues, without being either academic or condescending. He gently mocked do-nothing conservatives, while expressing respect for views different from his own. In style, the contrast with the combination of inarticulateness and irritability of his predecessor could not have been greater.

Obama owned the occasion. Even the cynical White House press corps seemed awed, realizing that the president for a change was the smartest person in the room. As if to emphasize their smallness of mind and character, the journalists embarrassed themselves by gotcha questions and even one silly question about steroid use by baseball player Alex Rodriguez. Would Washington journalists at FDR’s first press conference, at the nadir of the Depression, have dared to ask him about Babe Ruth?

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Speaking of Rodriguez and Ruth, I have to say that Obama struck out a few times. His claim that there is no pork in the Congressional stimulus package because there are no earmarks is a talking point that invites ridicule and ought to be retired at once. Even worse, he suggested, as he has done before, that he actually believes fiscal conservative propaganda about an imaginary “entitlements crisis.” He made the surreal comment that Republicans ought to face up to the alleged fact that entitlements are a greater danger to the economy than the costs of the stimulus and bailout. Republicans should concede this? What is Obama thinking? It is Republicans who push the misleading “entitlement-reform” meme, as part of their cynical strategy to lump Medicare (the victim of health cost inflation) with Social Security (whose long-term problems are minor), in order to kill Social Security by means-testing it into the status of an unpopular welfare program for the poor only. On the entitlement issue, Obama needs to be deprogrammed by Peter Orszag, his budget director.

Most troubling of all, the president missed a chance to hit a ball out of the park by distinguishing between the $800 billion stimulus plan to “jolt” the economy (in Obama’s phrase) and the $350 billion TARP II program to rescue the banking sector. Obama and the Democrats may have suffered from the confusion of the two programs in the minds of many Americans who think that the $800 billion stimulus package is going to enrich the bankers. This confusion, and not just the adroitness of Republicans in ridiculing particular programs included in the stimulus bill, may account for the fact that Obama’s own popularity is much higher than that of his legislative program. Having failed to do so in his press conference, Obama needs to spend some time in the days and weeks ahead educating the public about the differences between the stimulus and TARP.

But although the new president can improve his game, it is clear that as much as any American politician of our time he has the brains, eloquence and temperament for the job. His masterly performance in his first press conference should dispel any anxiety that he was an appealing candidate but not a competent executive. Obama is back. And so is America.

Michael Lind is Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation.