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Obama's Second Presser

[ Posted Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 – 19:29 UTC ]

I waited to write this until after President Obama held his second prime-time press conference, so I could give my reactions. President Obama did his usual job of unflappably answering questions in an intelligent and adult manner. This will come as less and less of a shock to the media and the public as time goes on (as the memory of what preceded him fades).

Obama himself didn't make much news. There were a few memorable lines, such as "I'm not going to lie to you" -- again, the shock of hearing such things will wear off with time, I'm sure. About the only newsworthy thing Obama came up with was a challenge to congressional Republicans to put up or shut up on the budget. He made this point several times, essentially saying: "Where's your budget, guys?" But for the most part, Obama was content to restate his case for his budget plan and for fixing the economy. And, almost as an afterthought, on his final question the president hit a thematic high point on the subject of "persistence" -- making his point (persistently, one has to say) that this is exactly what the American people should expect from him on all sorts of issues -- the persistence to follow through on them and get something done.

But while Obama's performance can be summed up in a paragraph, that would make for a very short column. And we can't have that.


So I'd like to grade the media's performance, instead. Now, a few background points before I begin. The media (the television media in particular) are miffed at Obama right now, for three reasons.

The first is that Obama is proving over and over again that he simply doesn't need their services as a "filter" to explain to America what to think. Obama is quite capable of speaking directly to the public in almost any setting or format, from late-night talk show to extended sit-down interview. Just to give two examples from the last week.

The second reason the press is huffy with Obama right now is that he absolutely refuses to follow their lead, or act in accordance with the narrative story they have chosen for that week (or day, or even hour). This infuriates the media, because it winds up making them look like idiots. In their 24-hour-news-cycle world, getting a storyline out there is much much more important than getting the storyline right. This winds up forcing the media to complain about exactly the opposite thing within days, which makes them look like idiots. "The stock market says Obama is a failure" doesn't work when the market goes up, so they have to think up something else. "Obama's trying to do too much, too fast," becomes "Why isn't Obama doing more -- he shouldn't have time to go on Jay Leno!" The most recent manifestation of this bizarre spin dance was the morphing of "Obama can't get his message out" into "Obama is overexposed in the media." And this is within days of each other, not some gradual change over a great period of time. The schizoid nature of the media's performance is actually happening so fast that the American public (which admittedly doesn't have a very long attention span or memory) is actually noticing. Obama is simply not playing by the rules these people think they are allowed to lay down, and it is causing them much consternation.

And the third reason the media is in a snit is because he didn't come to their party. I'm not making this up. Obama blew off the annual Gridiron dinner, where the elite media types let their hair down with the people they are supposed to cover, in a "roast" sort of atmosphere. Obama (probably wisely) decided not to get all dolled up and eat fancy food and crack jokes with the media, because it would have sent the wrong message right now, when in the midst of so many crises.

In addition to these three reasons the media is currently grumpy with Obama, there is also another dynamic, which came out of his first press conference. Last month, the media's complaint was "he didn't take followups!" They accused Obama of "running out the clock" or "filibustering" the questions by giving long involved answers and then not taking followup questions. This time, they decided, things would be different!

If this sounds a little like schoolchildren on the playground, you are not alone in this perception. But that's the game they decided to play today, although I have to say it was obvious that some of the reporters were actually capable of asking good followups. And that some were not.

The first two questions were from some woman from the AP (you'll have to excuse me, I'm doing this from very hastily-written notes) and from NBC's Chuck Todd. They both asked their question, Obama largely answered, and then they proceeded to "follow up" with exactly the same question. Now, to be fair, because they were the first ones playing this "I have a followup" game, the first parts of their followups were cut off because the microphone had been passed on, so perhaps there were pearls of wisdom which I missed. I doubt it, but I have to be scrupulously fair here and at least mention the possibility.

Particularly stupid was Todd's question (I am paraphrasing): "Why haven't you required the American people to make some sacrifices in this economic meltdown?" This question, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the Big Media types. They are so far out of touch with the American people and what the public is going through, that they would even conceive to ask such a moronic question in the first place. Obama looked a bit incredulous as he answered: "I don't know what color the sky is on the planet you live on, Chuck, but back here on Earth..."

No, wait, that can't be right. Must have misread my notes.

Seriously, though, Obama gently explained to this pampered member of the chattering class that the American people were already suffering quite a bit in this economy, and that they are indeed making sacrifices on a daily basis of a type that you have absolutely no clue about because, well, you make way too much money for asking such stupid questions.

ABC's Jake Tapper was next, and although his followup was also the same question he initially asked, he gets a pass since Obama didn't really answer it (either time) -- "Would you sign a hypothetical budget bill which didn't have these things in it?" So, while his followup was identical, it was still worth asking, since Obama hadn't answered it.

CBS' Chip Reid actually came up with a followup question that was different than what he initially asked, and was relevant. Just to give credit where credit is due.

Then we got two questions from the "out" group. Since I already brought up the schoolyard metaphor, I will elaborate upon it. There are two kinds of reporters sitting in the press conference audience. The first group is the "in" group, who expect to get called upon. These are the ones who can afford to play silly games to "out-followup" each other, for bragging points later. Then there is the group who does not expect to get called upon. None of these (the ones that actually were called upon) asked a single followup question, because they were so grateful at being called upon at all (and probably because the "in" group didn't let them in on the game beforehand).

The first of these was from a woman from the foreign press, who asked about Mexico. The second was from Stars And Stripes who was so nervous he kind of mispronounced the question. Obama was patient with him, and asked him politely to repeat his question.

Next up was Major Garrett from Fox News. In a "blast from the past" question, he asked about the world economy and managed to get in both the words "communist" (talking about the Chinese) and "socialist" (talking about Europe) in the same sentence. Bravo! Nothing like Cold War references for a bit of nostalgia, eh? But I am being unkind to him, because I have to say he was one of the few who asked a followup question the way these things are supposed to be asked. He asked a very short, very pointed question to get Obama to answer one part of his initial question that Obama didn't answer. So, again, I have to give him credit for that.

Mike Allen of Politico asked a tough question about Obama's budget item on charitable giving. Obama responded well, and defended a very tough-to-defend policy in strong terms. Allen also asked a good followup -- a tangential question from his initial one which was relevant to what Obama had said.

We then got a few questions from the smaller media representatives. Kevin Chappelle from Ebony asked about the homeless, and Ann Compton from ABC Radio asked about race. Neither asked followups. Compton was the prime example of the "out" group, as evidenced by Obama prompting her with "You sound surprised" (that he had called upon her). Her answer was honest: "I am," which summed up the playground dynamics nicely.

John Ward from the conservative Washington Times was next, and asked about stem cells. He, too, to give him credit, asked a good followup which was different (yet related) to both his question and Obama's answer.

Obama closed with a question from Stephan Collinson from AFP, a foreign media operation. Naturally, he asked about the rest of the world (Israel, in particular). He wouldn't have had the chance to ask a followup in any case (he didn't), because before he was called upon an unidentified voice called out "last question!" so everyone knew Obama's answer would be the wrap-up. This is where Obama hit his stride on "persistence," in what should be (but probably won't be) the most-quoted part of the whole press conference. He truly was trying to define his philosophical approach to his entire presidency, but I'm not betting the farm that the media will pick up on it.

So there you have it. Obama's second press conference was a success for the president. The media was a mixed bag, with some good questions and some truly clueless questions. About what you'd expect, in other words.


-- Chris Weigant


8 Comments on “Obama's Second Presser”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    I really, really, REALLY enjoy watching Obama treat minor newspapers and websites with the same regard that major papers and the cable news guys have enjoyed since time immemorial.

    Lesson: print is dead ("print" being defined as traditional, big business media). The "new media" now enjoys the same access and delivers the quality that "print" used to deliver. IOW, the internet really HAS democratized the news, and Obama is exploiting that to its fullest potential.

    Print is dead. Long live the internet!

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That was a very fine summary of a very fine press conference. I don't know about y'all, but it just seems like Obama's been around forever and the last crew is less than a distant, fade memory.

    My favourite part: Ed Henry, from CNN...ahem...I am happy to report that I'm listening to them less and less with each passing day.

    But, back to Ed and his question...why, oh why, did it take sooooooooo very long for President Obama to voice his outrage over the dreaded AIG bonuses...Why, Mr President....

    Well, Ed...said the President, and I paraphrase...I like to take the time to know what I'm talking about before I open my mouth. Ha! Something the media has never learned...and Ed is still "licking his wounds"...and trying to figure out why...WHY!?

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth -

    Whoops! Forgot Ed Henry's question and Obama's answer. He should be shoehorned in between the Stars And Stripes guy and the Fox News guy (I told you my notes were kind of cryptic, missed this one during the writeup).

    This was a big one to miss, as you point out. Obama's answer was one of the best of the night, and I have it written down almost exactly as you reported it -- "I like to know what I'm talking about" is why I didn't respond to the cable news' insane expectations.

    An excellent answer, and one that showed better than most of the night what I was trying to say here -- there is a WIDE GULF between what the talking heads on teevee think is important, and what the American people think is important. They're still desperately trying to chase down a non-story ("who knew and when did they know it?!?") which nobody but themselves actually cares about. Obama hit this one out of the park. The public cares about the bonuses, and the whole AIG thing, but they decidedly DON'T care about "should Obama have said something on Friday instead of on Saturday" and all the rest of it.

    I'd like to see some poll numbers on what the public thinks of the media themselves. I bet their numbers are sinking like a stone. I mean, OK, report the story if there is one, but stop trying to manufacture one where there isn't.

    Anyway, thanks for pointing it out, this was a big error of omission for me.

    What would I do without you guys to keep me honest?



  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    Obama just held another very quiet sitdown (a day or so ago) with some VERY minor press. He's done this a couple of times, where he invites in people (from this recent one, for example) from Bangor, Maine, and South Dakota and Missouri. Small-town newspaper folks. And he lets them ask him questions.

    Of course, he's making some political hay, since some of the states he concentrates on are ones with senators he is trying to convince to vote with him (like Maine, for instance). But still, the fact he is smart enough to reach out to the small-town press like this shows one whale of a lot of political savvy.


  5. [5] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Excellent synopsis of the presser. Obama's Ed Henry smackdown was indeed the high point and I'll be interested to see how the media spins it.

    On a side note, while I

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ...and, I forgot about the idiot who asked why the President had not asked for more sacrifice of the American people during this economic is my understanding that this joker asked this question with a straight face...not an easy task, to be sure

    ...darn near fell off my chair...

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I think the reason the President missed the Gridiron Dinner is because his veep wanted desperately to be there in his stead! From what I hear, he was in his element.

    Did you hear the one about the decline of print journalism? of Biden's finest moments!

  8. [8] 
    bigdayqueen wrote:

    It seemed to me that President Obama took real time explaining his positions. He came across as pragmatic, interested in seeing all sides, not rushing to judgement ( ahem, Ed Henry) and hopeful for long term growth and prosperity. My 85 year old dad noted the explanation about the effect of marginal tax rates on deductions; his response being.."what the @#$%, who let that get into tax code in the first place, just gives rich people all the breaks".

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