In his first prime-time press conference, President Barack Obama said the United States is in “”winter of our hardship” and gave detailed and analytical answers to questions on the economy, Iran, the Bush administration, what he saw of the hardships of average Americans — and made it clear that he doesn’t believe bipartisanship means acquiescence.
Obama jumped right into his main pitch in his opening statement: he issued yet another blunt warning about the state of the economy and urged immediate passage of his economic stimulus plan — a plan that he said didn’t contain any pet projects and wasn’t perfect but was a crucial start. The full text of his opening statement is here. Here are some other meaty excerpts from the press conference.
And by the end? Partisans may differ (in fact these days you can read articles and posts and know what a given writer is going to say before you even read it in many instances), but one measure of how it went was the reaction of administration officials, captured for posterity by The New York Times’ The Caucus blog:
So the first presidential press conference of the Obama administration is now in the books. At the White House, the senior administration officials seem to be smiling. Why? First, Mr. Obama made no obvious blunders. While he has delivered thousands of speeches, he has never held forth for so long before reporters during a prime-time setting.
In the West Wing, the strategy was to avoid making news. On that score, Mr. Obama seemed to succeed. But he did speak substantively. And in a new administration, everything a president says is treated as new, so his words will be parceled and examined in the hours to come.
A final takeaway: He said he was committed to trying to bridge bipartisan divides, but conceded that it won’t be easy.
“Old habits are hard to break,” Mr. Obama said. “And we’re coming off of an election and I think people want to sort of test the limits of what they can get.”
The next test comes in the morning.
And grading will come in sooner than that. Appearance is reality in politics, particularly when how someone comes off in public can mean translatable political clout that shows up in polls. A snap online poll by the Cincinnati Enquirer gave Obama high marks. There are certain segments of the U.S. that Obama will never win over unless he resigned (and even then some would probably say he did it “arrogantly”). But how did it play with press perceptions in terms of content and what the presser said about the way Obama seems to think?
Here’s some media reaction:
The AP has a long detailed MUST READ report analysis. Here’s the lead (there is a lot more after that so read it all):
No drama with Obama. No joking with Obama.
In his first prime-time news conference, Americans saw a determined, deadly serious President Barack Obama make his case for a historically huge economic recovery plan — pledging to push it through Congress in record time, even if he and fellow Democrats must steamroll Republicans to do it.
No more blind bipartisanship with Obama, either.
He’ll watch the Super Bowl with Republicans. He’ll visit them on Capitol Hill. He’ll even put three Republicans in his Cabinet. “What I won’t do,” Obama told reporters assembled in the East Room, “is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place.”
It was a thin line in the sand — and a veiled slap at Republicans — that won’t be lost on Obama’s liberal supporters. Many are growing restless with a Democratic-controlled Congress that is slashing tens of billions of dollars to schools, states and other valued constituencies from the Obama-backed stimulus bill.
But Obama wasn’t speaking to liberals alone. For most Americans — those who don’t watch cable news or troll political blogs — this was their first look at the 44th president at work.
They saw a grim-faced leader, rarely smiling or laughing. They heard his deep, steady voice often pausing in mid-sentence to underscore dire economic numbers — the 1,000 (pause) men queued up for only 35 (pause) firefighter jobs in Miami; the 598,000 (pause) jobs lost last month; the 4 million (pause) jobs he promises to save or create.
This was not the time or place for soaring oratory, so Obama brought determined humility and resolve.
Obama says his plan will spur job creation and long-term growth by:
# Doubling the production of alternative energy in the next three years
# Modernizing federal buildings and improving the energy efficiency of 2 million American homes
# Making investments to have the country’s medical records computerized within five years
# Equipping schools with 21st-century classrooms
# Expanding broadband access
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has a batch of impressions. Here are three of the most interesting:
• An Aggressive Obama: The president clearly has lost patience with congressional Republicans who have spent the last week questioning the spending increases in the bill. He repeatedly flashed frustration and even a bit of ire when talking about critics of the legislation, noting that Republicans were the ones who had overseen a doubling of the national debt over the past eight years. It remains to be seen whether Obama’s tone will be portrayed as forceful or angry.
• The Best of a Bad Situation: Obama repeatedly referenced the fact that he has “inherited” the economic morass in which the country currently finds itself. In the first few weeks of his administration, Obama seemed reluctant to lay the economic problems at the feet of former president George W. Bush and congressional Republicans, but as the debate on Capitol Hill has gotten more partisan, the president has appeared more and more willing to put the blame on the GOP. The goal of this sort of rhetoric is simple: Obama is trying to make lemonade out of lemons. But the lemons were bought by George W. Bush. (Bad metaphor alert!)
And he points out something that was QUITE notable:
• New (Media) World Order: Obama largely stuck to the script when it came to choosing the reporters who got to ask questions. He led off with the wires (Associated Press, Reuters), moved into the networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) and hit the big national newspapers (New York Times and Post). But, then, on the twelfth question of the night, Obama broke with tradition by giving Huffington Post’s Sam Stein a chance to play on the big stage. It’s a symbolic acknowledgment by the president (and his advisers) of the power of HuffPo and of the Internet-based media more generally.
Americablog’s Joe Sudbay was credentialed to attend the press conference. Read his post HERE.
The news conference was the centerpiece of an intense and highly orchestrated campaign by the administration to wrest control of the stimulus debate from Republicans and reframe it on Mr. Obama’s terms.
Earlier Monday, the president took his message on the road, traveling to one of the most economically distressed corners of the nation, Elkhart, Ind., where he spent an hour answering questions in a high school gymnasium.
Mr. Obama spoke in stern tones as he sought to highlight the severity of problems facing ordinary Americans and speed the process of getting the legislation through Congress.
His answers were frequently lengthy, yet for the most part he avoided disclosing any details of his approach to dealing with the economy or other domestic and foreign policy issues. He suggested that he had adapted smoothly to his new office, but said he found it sobering to sign letters to the families of fallen troops.
RealClearPolitics’ Politics Nation blog has a lot and here’s a taste 4 U:
# Theme: After spending the first two weeks of his presidency in Washington, DC, Obama clearly is seeking new momentum in the stimulus fight by returning to his Washington outsider roots. He mentioned the town of Elkhart at least a half dozen times to reinforce the idea that while Washington and the media focus on the Congressional sausage-making, ordinary Americans just want quick action.
# Notable Quotes: Called this no “run of the mill recession.” Says he did not come into office just to be able to spend a trillion dollars. Criticized Republicans who have even argued – as Mitch McConnell did on the Senate floor – that the New Deal policies did not work, saying they seem to be fighting battles “I thought were resolved a long time ago.”
# Balanced some of his attacks on Republicans by noting the “unprecedented” number of Republicans in his Cabinet, and said he hopes his overtures toward the GOP “will be reciprocated.” Joked that perhaps he should have called for no tax cuts just to let Republicans take credit for them. Even hits fellow Democrats who have been “resistant to reform.”
SOME IMPRESSIONS FROM THIS MODERATE REGISTERED INDEPENDENT VOTER:
1. He showed he’s doing his homework. This didn’t seem like a President who crammed for a press conference or a candidate who crammed for a debate. Clearly he’s talking to a lot of people.
2. He showed he’s analytical.
3. The prediction: he will “wear well” as he does more and more press conferences.
4. He tends to talk to the sides and it doesn’t reduce his effectiveness but from the standpoint of media he should look more directly into the camera.
5. He definitely has the “it” in terms of communication that FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan had. “It” won’t matter if his job performance proves lousy or his administration gets enmeshed in scandals.
6. JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan — all made use of the press conference which could be a highly effective tool. Presidents who use it in prime time can bolster their clout by having a bully pulpit all to themselves during peak TV hours. It can backfire if programs are interrupted by perfunctory appearances. This wasn’t one of them.
So now the inevitable question will be: as #6 indicates, will some say he’s another JFK? Walter Shapiro, one of the country’s best centrist political analysts, writing in The New Republic has an extensive piece on JFK’s press conferences.. His point was that in the beginning even JFK wasn’t another JFK:
But only by viewing the press conferences in their entirety do you get a sense of what made Kennedy’s performances the gold standard for presidential Q-and-A’s. The Kennedy Library graciously provided me a copy of JFK’s first three press conferences (all conducted within his first 19 days in office), which, alas, I am not allowed to post with this article. What was striking was the new president’s mastery of his material (he rarely looked down at notes), his decisiveness and his candor.
…It is fascinating to watch Kennedy as he realizes that humor can be a potent weapon in a press conference. Through most of the January 25 broadcast, JFK treats the format with the gravity of a presidential debate. There is no hint of levity in Kennedy’s solemn response to a question about whether an “inadvertent comment” on live television “could possibly cause some grave consequences.” About a half hour into the press conference, Kennedy tries a small joke at the end of a lengthy answer about the House Rules Committee, a Southern-reactionary bastion that continually would bottle up liberal legislation during his presidency. After expressing the vain hope that “a small group of men” would not prevent the entire House from voting, Kennedy added, “I merely give my view as an interested citizen.” As the reporters in their rumpled suits and narrow ties burst into laughter, a puckish grin crosses Kennedy’s face as he revels in his look-what-I-discovered-about-live-television moment.
In the 48 years since that inaugural 1961 live press conference, we have seen eight subsequent presidents bob and weave, spin and sow, as they used the White House press corps as foils to drive home the political message of the day. But John Kennedy was different for one transcendent reason–he actually answered the reporters. Sure, there were presidential evasions and a bit of politically convenient double talk. But, for the most part, Kennedy took the questions seriously and responded with bracing forthrightness. Salinger is a bit over the top when he claims in his book, “Lacking the memoirs JFK would surely have written, the transcripts of his press conferences become his most revelatory legacy.” Kennedy’s shimmering press-conference legacy is that truth-telling beats twaddle and trickery nearly every time.
Putting aside Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the partisan new and old media types who could easily pre-write their monologues, stories and posts on such events months before they happen, the question becomes this:
How will Obama’s first press conference be judged by thoughtful people in coming days?
Did it advance his administration’s goals? His personal goals? Will he be seen as having answered reporters or evaded them? Will he be perceived as having been forthright or just one more powerful political hack at the top of the heap bobbing and weaving?
Time…and the polls…will tell.
And what it tells could translate into future clout — or not so much future clout.
UPDATE: The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro was unimpressed with Obama’s performance and doesn’t think it’ll help him:
Through most of his inaugural primetime press conference, Barack Obama seemed like he was channeling a particularly loquacious combination of Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and the ghost of Hubert Humphrey. The president’s response to the first question from the Associated Press about the risks of sounding too apocalyptic about the economy ran (or, to be more accurate, crawled) for nearly 1,200 words–and ended with Obama saying “Okay” with an implicit question mark as if he were requesting permission to keep on talking. A national poll from the Pew Research Center released Monday afternoon found that 92 percent of Americans described Obama as a “good communicator.” There is a suspicion that those astronomic numbers had dipped by the time that Obama exited from the East Room of the White House at 9 p.m. on the dot.
In Obama’s defense, the press conference was the first extended glimpse that many Americans had of their new president since the Inaugural Address. No one can deny the complexity of the economic challenges facing the nation–and President Obama is uniquely equipped to play Explainer in Chief. But Obama radiated the sense of a leader who has digested too many economic briefings and memorized too many talking points in preparation for his primetime rendezvous with the public. He clearly came out in an over-caffeinated mood ready to do battle with his Republican congressional foes, whom he had already vanquished-and, as a result, he over-reacted to last week’s Fox News commentary instead of focusing on the exact shape of the stimulus. What shone through the entire press conference is how irked the president is with laissez-faire conservatives who believe, even now, “that the government has no business interfering in the marketplace” and that “FDR was wrong to intervene back in the New Deal.” (Presumably Amity Shlaes, the Roosevelt-ripping author, should not plan on any immediate Oval Office invitations).
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.