Jeff Zeleny is one of America’s most celebrated young journalists. Last night, he achieved a new pinnacle of excellence by subjecting President Barack Obama, a happily married man with two children, to the equivalent of an eHarmony questionnaire. “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?” Though I haven’t gone back into the archives, I think I can confidently say that last night was the first time the word “enchanted” was used in the White House since Nancy Reagan tried talking her astrologer into “enchanting” the Sandinistas into laying down their arms.
There is a real and growing sense that Obama is a post-ideological figure, which is another way of saying that he is successfully moving the American center to the left.
But it was President Obama who did most of the enchanting last night. At the end of his third White House press conference, the president wryly explained that he wasn’t out to meddle in the private sector. If all he had to contend with were “Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu,” he would “take that deal.” And the assembled members of the press corps laughed with Obama, which was telling. The political right, lest we forget, is convinced that Obama’s aggressive intervention in the economy reflects a statist—some would say socialist—mind-set. Yet I got the impression that no one at the press conference took that idea seriously, and not just because of Obama’s sardonic wit. There is a real and growing sense that Obama is a post-ideological figure, which is another way of saying that he is successfully moving the American center to the left.
Consider, for example, that all of the questions about the economy were very fine-grained. The explosion in America’s public debt hardly came up at all during the press conference. Instead, Obama was asked detailed questions concerning the fate of Chrysler and the unemployment rate for African Americans. Broad ideological questions were pushed to the side. And interestingly enough, the president never called on Fox News, despite giving correspondents from every other major news network a crack at the microphone.
To his credit, though, Obama took on a number of incredibly thorny questions. One reporter asked Obama point-blank if the Bush White House sanctioned torture. My guess is that lefties won’t be thrilled with Obama’s carefully measured response—he essentially said that the last administration had made a “mistake”—but he said something rather impressive. Rather than maintain that enhanced interrogation techniques are never effective, a subject that is hotly disputed, he argued that we shouldn’t use them even if it becomes harder to obtain valuable information as a result. This is exactly the question a number of Obama’s critics have been asking, and he didn’t shy away from it. That took guts. Obama also gave an unusually thorough answer to a question on the controversy over his forthcoming commencement address at Notre Dame and his backing of the Freedom of Choice Act during the campaign. Once again, ardent pro-choicers will likely balk at Obama’s statement that “the Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority.” At the same time, he offered a forceful defense of the right to an abortion, one that will likely resonate with pro-choice Republicans like suddenly spectacularly famous Arlen Specter.
As if to capitalize on Specter’s stunning defection to the Democrats, Obama seemed particularly keen on reaching out to Specter-ish fiscal hawks, particularly in his opening statement. A number of times, the president pressed the skinflint theme of trimming the deficit and containing health-care costs and making government cheaper and more efficient, a calculated rebuke to the tea-party protesters and their Republican allies. Essentially, Obama is trying to peel the onion that is today’s much-reduced Republican Party, to draw all but a handful of conservative bitter-enders into his warm, loving embrace.
Then, of course, there was the small matter of swine flu, or, as the pork lobby likes to call it, “beef flu.” Earlier in the day, I saw World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan explain that, “It really is the whole of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic,” and the scene bore an eerie resemblance to the opening of a zombie movie. The montage I have in mind quickly goes from a panicked cable newscast to armies of undead flesh-eaters roaming the streets. Emotions are running high in the heartland. Yesterday, three normally sane friends called me to express their fear that the swine flu represented the end of civilization. My guess is that Obama’s soothing remarks on the subject will calm all but the most apocalyptically inclined. Wash your hands, you filthy rubes, and all will be well.
I think it’s safe to say that the press conference was a success. There was even a silver lining for conservatives. On Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has basically embraced the approach backed by the many members of the Republican right in 2006—a big investment in state-building and counterinsurgency efforts in both countries. The far harder question for conservatives is how do you make anything stick to the new Teflon president?
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.