11.03.10

Aloof, Even in Defeat

The president’s press conference was eerily calm and deliberate—as though his party hadn’t been blown out the night before. Howard Kurtz talks to White House reporters on the challenge of penetrating Obama’s armor.

The magnificent white columns still greet visitors with grandeur. The presidential seal remains affixed to the lectern. And when Barack Obama walked into the high-ceilinged East Room today, beneath a trio of glittering chandeliers, it seemed that very little had changed.

As exhausted aides David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs looked on grim-faced, an overflow crowd of journalists saw a president very much as we’ve come to know him: Calm. Deliberate. Focused. Speaking in perfectly parsed paragraphs, his gaze steady, his cadence unvarying.

Outwardly, there was very little indication that the Democrats just had their clocks cleaned and lost control of the House.

You almost wanted him to clench his teeth, slam his fist, kick the lectern—anything to show that he was teed off. Instead, we got nice-sounding verbiage: “Common ground…honest and civil debate…eager to sit down.”

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It wasn’t until 33 minutes into the news conference that ABC’s Jake Tapper asked a deceptively simple question: “What does it feel like?”

“It feels bad,” said the president, who earlier had been more analyst than activist, saying some election nights are “exhilarating” and some “humbling” without specifying whether he felt the latter.

Tapper said later that the question was no accident. “I knew he was going to feel bad, that he was invested in the races of a lot of people who lost their jobs last night,” the reporter explained. “He made more than 60 calls, and not all of them were congratulatory. That’s a lot of time on the phone. People forget, these are numbers to our graphics departments, but these are real people who spend their lives working hard so they can get to a certain place.”

“He was introspective,” Savannah Guthrie said afterward. “There was almost an evolution within the news conference itself. At first he seemed like the president we’re used to—very detailed, technically proficient, but not portraying a lot of emotion.”

The pressure was on Obama as he walked into the room, with 21 television cameras in place to record his reaction. The networks were live, the story line was set.

“Hi Katie,” said CBS’s Chip Reid, seconds before going on the air. “I’m just going to make the point that they’re talking about finding common ground, but it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult.”

Much has been written, probably too much, about the president’s temperament. He was elected in large measure because he seemed a steady presence in the face of a financial meltdown. Two years later, the man who roused crowds in outdoor stadium with soaring rhetoric had somehow been reduced to a mechanic-in-chief, working on that car that never seems to get out of the ditch.

Today, as he made the predictable offer to work with the new Republican House—the kind of thing that politicians always say the day after a huge setback—Obama seemed no more perturbed than if he had lost a family game of gin rummy.

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Pelosi’s Next Move
Obama was not reduced to insisting, as Bill Clinton did a few months after his party lost both houses in 1994, that the president, under the Constitution, remains “relevant”—an observation that was validated the next day with the tragic Oklahoma City bombing. Nor can one imagine Obama spending election night talking for hours with confidants and acting “very depressed,” as former Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe told The Daily Beast that Bill Clinton was when he lost the Hill.

Obama has always seen himself as a consensus-builder, and that style failed him in the face of a unified Republican opposition that tried to thwart him at every turn. As the news conference dragged on, he repeatedly offered to listen to any ideas the GOP might have, glossing over the fact that those ideas—spending cuts, repealing the health care law, tax cuts for the affluent—are diametrically opposite from his own.

The reporters tried to penetrate his armor: Wasn’t the vote a referendum on his policies? Wasn’t it, as the AP’s Ben Feller put it, a “fundamental rejection of your agenda”? “Are you maybe not getting it?” asked NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.

The president was neither defiant nor dramatic. He kept encasing his answers in sedimentary layers of facts and assertions. Maybe he could “tweak” his health care program to reduce paperwork on small businesses. If half of those in an exit poll wanted health care repealed, as Fox’s Mike Emanuel pointed out, Obama simply said that half felt differently.

It wasn’t Yes We Can, but Yes We Can keep trying within the parameters of the election results and the willingness of the opposition to engage us in a fair exchange of ideas.

Except for the response to Tapper, the session had turned repetitive and dull until, 57 minutes in, a Reuters reporter asked whether perhaps the president had grown out of touch.

Suddenly, he turned reflective. That was the “inherent danger” of living “in a bubble,” Obama said. He was an ordinary guy who’d gotten to know the people of Iowa, but “when you’re in this place, it’s hard not to feel removed.” There were no TV cameras around when he reads 10 letters each night from regular folks, and “some of them just break my heart.” Yes, the Democrats had been hit by a “shellacking,” he allowed, but “this is a growth process” and he had to keep working on it.

Now, for the first time, Obama was not a cautious politician reciting his lines. Now he sounded like a human being.

“He was introspective,” Guthrie said afterward. “There was almost an evolution within the news conference itself. At first he seemed like the president we’re used to—very detailed, technically proficient, but not portraying a lot of emotion.”

CNN's Ed Henry said it can be difficult to draw Obama out. "This president's not going to bite the lip--that's not his style," Henry said, contrasting him with Clinton. And "if you press too hard, you get flak for being mean to the president."

White House officials called the presser "to get him out there and show he got it. But it wasn't until the last question that he gave the answer they wanted to get."

The Republicans have done something clever in the last 48 hours. Rather than drop confetti and claim some sweeping mandate, they have carefully described the vote as a repudiation of Obama’s policies. John Boehner has done it, Haley Barbour has done it, and it’s no accident. They don’t want to be accused of overreaching; they want to be seen as reflecting public unease with big government and big health care.

The hard slog of legislative compromise—tax cuts versus real spending cuts, not the feel-good promises of trimming waste and abuse –lies ahead. But Barbour, the Mississippi governor who is eyeing the White House himself, is right: Obama still has the megaphone. The question is whether the president can make himself heard: not in the sense of making more appearances on the Daily Show and The View, but in breaking through to the voters who rejected his party.

Today, after a somewhat tedious hour, he made a start.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources," Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.