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03.25.09

The President Vs. the Press

Last night’s press conference showed Obama’s long-term thinking at odds with the media’s short-term baiting. So who’s in control here?

Viewed from above, it would be easy to cast last night as a kind of psychodrama that pitted Obama’s intentions—fixing the multiple messes he inherited from the Bush administration and reorienting America’s priorities in a direction of greater equity and sustainability in the face of a massive economic crisis and growing populist outrage—versus the press corps’ desire to exploit that outrage to get Obama to blow his cool, show some emotion, and make some noise.

The key moment came when CNN’s Ed Henry tried to stir up some trouble. Here’s his question:

Thank you, Mr. President. You spoke again at the top about your anger about AIG. You’ve been saying that for days now. But why is it that it seems Andrew Cuomo seems to be, in New York, getting more actual action on it? And when you and Secretary Geithner first learned about this, 10 days, two weeks ago, you didn’t go public immediately with that outrage. You waited a few days, and then you went public after you realized Secretary Geithner really had no legal avenue to stop it.

This is a presidency defined by cable news food-fights and Maureen Dowd-style armchair psychoanalysis.

And more broadly—I just want to follow up on Chip [Reid] and Jake [Tapper]—you’ve been very critical of President Bush doubling the national debt. And to be fair, it’s not just Republicans hitting you. Democrat Kent Conrad, as you know, said, quote, “When I look at this budget, I see the debt doubling again.” You keep saying that you’ve inherited a big fiscal mess. Do you worry, though, that your daughters, not to mention the next president, will be inheriting an even bigger fiscal mess if the spending goes out of control?

Note both Henry’s tone and content. First off, the question has no relationship to substance. Instead it’s about

a) An alleged political horserace between Andrew Cuomo and Obama that, as far as I can tell, does not exist

b) Why Obama “waited a few days” before “go[ing] public with that outrage?”

c) And following up on his bros “Chip and Jake,” he wants to know, why isn’t Obama’s budget enjoying universal praise, as “it’s not just Republicans hitting” him, but a conservative Democrat is as well.

Obama tried to explain the relationship between the priorities of his budget and the recovery he predicts, as well as the eventual reduction in the deficit he both inherited and will be increasing. But because Obama, unlike George W. Bush, decided to allow follow-up questions, which vastly reduces the ability to dodge questions he does not like, Henry was able to focus again, laser-like, on the president’s refusal to act out about AIG as quickly as Henry would have liked, and again raised the so-far nonexistent Cuomo vs. Obama contest: “So on AIG, why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” and goading him again, into a contest with Cuomo by using that most favored of journalistic weasel words, “seems.” (As Hamlet should have taught us, the word “seems” is a license to make shit up. “Seems madam?” he says to his lying mother, “Nay it is. I know not seems.”) “It seems like the action is coming out of New York in the attorney general’s office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we’re outraged. Why did it take so long?” Obama’s answer: “Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

There you have it. CNN wants emotions, theatrics, the stamping of feet, mano-a-mano anger, and outrage contests. This is a presidency defined by cable news food-fights and Maureen Dowd-style armchair psychoanalysis. Obama wants to “know what he’s talking about,” pick the best policy to achieve it, and explain it as calmly as he can to his country.

It was clear that Henry spoke for his MSM colleagues: Take a look at the blogging of the news conference by the New York Times’ Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleny: At 8:28, Cooper writes: “Finally! A break from the wonkish budget talk.” Eight minutes later, Zeleny adds, “At the half-way mark, Mr. Obama has yet to make much news.” In the meantime, Obama has been trying to explain, in part using the press and in part going over the heads of the press, why what he’s trying to do with his budget will address the source of their concern about their futures. Where’s the fun in that?

Another irony of Cooper’s complaint is that all that “wonkish budget talk,” as she puts it, was in response to the singular focus of the regular press corps on the size of Obama’s predicted deficits—a Republican Party/Fox News talking point. It was only when Obama went outside the cozy club of White House regulars that he received any questions that deviated from this apparently agreed-upon national narrative. The reporter from Univision asked whether Mexico was becoming a national-security problem. The fellow from Stars and Stripes asked about the future of the defense budget. The British-sounding gent from Agence France-Press asked about progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace issue. (Curiously, or perhaps not, Cooper complained, after it ended, “I’m still slackjawed over the shocking lack of national-security issues raised,” as if only the words “al Qaeda,” “Iraq,” and perhaps “Russia” constituted national security.)

In fact it was Obama’s desire to go outside the usual places—not only to those above, but also to Ebony magazine, and a surprised Ann Compton of ABC Radio—that provided the most interesting and thoughtful exchanges of the evening and those that departed from the “look-at-the-deficit-and-what-about-some-anger” insider script.

It could not have gone unnoticed that, yet again, he ignored the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. But he protected himself from the charge of only going to putatively friendly outlets like HuffPo by ignoring the lefties in the room—I spotted a silent Mother Jones correspondent sitting behind Politico’s Mike Allen while his question was asked—and called on right-wing ideological outfits like Fox News—worried about a “global currency”—and The Washington Times, whose correspondent asked a thoughtful question about stem-cell research.

Overall, my takeaway was this: Given the scale of the post-Bush problems we face and his own comfort and confidence in his cool, circumspect intellect and demeanor, Obama is betting he can pass through the current wave of AIG-inspired outrage and hysteria to get to the other side of the debate where his plans and priorities will set the tone and lay the practical foundation for American politics for the next four-to-eight years. If the insider D.C. press corps refuses to play along, well, he’ll find one that will.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.