The "V" Word

[ Posted Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 – 16:27 UTC ]

Did the Obama administration just issue a veto threat? I saw a headline suggesting the hint of a veto threat, so I thought I'd check out today's White House press briefing to see what was said. Now, I have to admit in all honesty, I haven't been reading these transcripts on a daily basis, so the Obama team may have previously issued veto threats of which I am unaware, but either way, I have to applaud them for even subtly hinting at the possibility of a veto. It's a weapon they haven't used much, and should consider using a lot more frequently.

The hedging is really par for the course in White House press briefings in our modern age, of course. The "Serious Journalist" crowd always gets up in arms over this fact, but it's been like that for so long and it isn't going to change any time soon, so it's really not even worth decrying here. The White House Press Secretary's job is to spin. And obfuscate. His job is not (as you might think) to answer questions. He is the official spokesperson for the administration, and so you have to expect the spin and the dodging when he speaks. It's his job, as both he sees it and how recent presidents have seen it. So be it.

Of course, another part of his job is to yuk it up with these same "Serious Journalists," and every press conference usually has a few lighthearted moments. The first of which came today when a member of the "Very Serious Indeed" White House Press Corps had a burning -- and, as he or she specifically points out, serious -- question to ask:

QUESTION:   Will Bono be by? Will Bono be by? Serious question.

PRESS SECRETARY GIBBS:   I don't think he's participating in the principals committee meeting.

Q:   Will he be consulted on this?

GIBBS:   Not that I'm aware of, no.

Q:   -- The Edge?

Q:   Will he be cleared into the White House compound today at all?

GIBBS:   Not that I'm aware of. I now see we've veered from Iran to U2.

Q:   Larry Mullen? (Laughter.)

Q:   Can we go back to Sudan?

GIBBS:   One more. Just go ahead, get it all out. Come on. (Laughter.) Let's go ahead.

Q:   Got to leave them wanting more.

GIBBS:   All right.

Q:   So you were saying?

GIBBS:   I'm sorry. Before I was so rudely interrupted with tonight's playlist...

The funniest non-serious moment, though, came later when a reporter (I assume) mangled a word in a very familiar way (it's impossible to tell from the transcript whether the reporter made this error on purpose or not):

Q:   From a standpoint of leverage or strategery -- (laughter) -- how do you prod them into that place --

GIBBS:   I love how like a "Saturday Night Live" word was just entered into the lexicon of our -- (laughter.) I'm going to curse in a minute, if that's cool. (Laughter.)

This, for those who didn't watch last week's season opener, was in reference to an inadvertent slip of the tongue which dropped another one of those "we all know which word you're talking about when you say letter-word" words -- in this case, the "F" word -- on live national television.

So I guess it's now an open secret that people in the White House watch SNL.

But after all this frivolity, towards the end of the presser a few interesting points were made, which culminated in a journalist asking the classic "will the president veto" question. Gibbs' did not really answer the question one way or another, so you'll have to decide for yourself what was said (and unsaid).

First, someone actually brought up a very intelligent point. These sorts of things usually come after all the mainstreamiest of journalists in the front rows have already taken their crack, and some lesser-known ink-stained wretch from the back row actually introduces a subject outside of the group-think of the pack. The guy or gal was making a point, more than asking a question, but it was a good point.

Q:   Next question. The U.S. Census Bureau came out with a new study saying household income declined across all groups, but at sharper percentages for middle-income and the poor. Middle-income America is the group that really is affecting these polls, the President's approval ratings. Could you talk to me about how this White House sees that?

GIBBS:   Talk about how we see --

Q:   The report -- how the White House sees the report as middle-income Americans are the ones who really affect the approval ratings of the President, up or down?

GIBBS:   I've got to tell you, April, there's not a lot of time spent correlating Census Bureau income data with approval rating polling data. We're focused on getting a policy right to turn the economy around. Obviously the President -- we saw a little more than a year ago an economic catastrophe that had been building for quite some time, with millions of jobs lost. That obviously has affected household income. It's not something we spend a lot of time, though, on --

Q:   But some pollsters say that it is directly linked -- the middle-income pocketbook is directly linked and that your approval ratings will go up or down if they see their savings --

GIBBS:   I'll let pollsters smarter than me address that.

Like I said, it was more of a point than a question. This led, a few questions later, to a more substantive discussion of the middle class and health care, which was largely dodged by Gibbs. But it's worth including for context.

Towards the very end came a much better middle class question. There were reports this week that a consumer protection bill is in serious danger of being weakened to the point of being worthless, which definitely affects pocketbooks and kitchen tables of a lot of people. Gibbs wouldn't answer the veto question directly (press secretaries rarely do, unless the president himself has already draw this line, it should be noted), but he did appear to be taking a pretty strong stance against weakening the bill too far. The gap in this final part of the transcript is due to someone else asking an unrelated veto question (about military appropriations and earmarks).

Q:   Yes, sorry if I'm late to the game on this, but is the White House concerned at all about the scaling back of the proposed consumer financial protection agency away from what it envisioned when it was introduced? And what kind of steps is the administration willing to take to make sure it's kept intact?

GIBBS:   This is a big concern of the President's and a big concern of the administration. I think we have seen what happens, whether it's credit card companies, mortgage companies; we now see it more in stories covering the charges for bank overdrafts and the amount of money that that costs of the American people each year; that the American people deserve an advocate on their behalf dealing with these entities. The President believes that strongly and believes that at the end of the day, we'll have a strong consumer finance protection agency working on behalf of the American people --

Q:   Is he willing not to sign a bill if he thinks it's too weak?

GIBBS:   The President would not sign any bill that he thought was too weak.

. . .

Q:   Is that a veto threat, then, if the consumer financial protection agency --

GIBBS:   The President will fight for and fight against anybody in the special interests who don't see it as an important part of financial regulatory reform.

Q:   Will he veto a bill without that included?

GIBBS:   I'm sorry?

Q:   Will he veto a bill that doesn't include it?

GIBBS:   We're confident that it will be in a final bill that he's able to sign.

So make of it what you will. Gibbs never even uttered the "V" word. But it's heartening to see the White House start to mildly threaten the use of the veto. This is an extraordinarily powerful arrow in the Executive's quiver, and one that they've been much too reluctant (in my opinion) to pull out. Now (extending this Robin-Hood-esque metaphor far further than I probably should), Gibbs didn't take the arrow out, nock it, and draw back his bow's string (much less aim it at anyone in particular). He merely reached over his shoulder, fingered the fletching of the veto arrow, and pulled it two inches out of the quiver -- before letting it drop back in.

But it will be interesting to see how the veto threat is indeed used in the upcoming weeks, whether the subject is healthcare reform, military appropriations, or consumer protections. Other than the military, these are indeed major pocketbook issues for the middle class. And is there anyone who doesn't think that Gibbs (protestations aside) and everyone else in the White House doesn't pay very particular attention to the polls? In particular, what the middle class and independent people think? Because tapping into populist anti-bank and anti-credit-card-company feelings might be looking pretty good to President Obama right about now.


-- Chris Weigant


3 Comments on “The "V" Word”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    It's possible that I may have been a little tough on Sam Stein of late, accusing him of generating more heat than light with some of his headlines and reports at the Huffington Post.

    As far as his question at this WH briefing is was a good question, number one...and, number prompted a very clear initial response from Gibbs as he indicated that the President would not sign the bill (Re. Consumer Protection Agency) if it was too weak.

    Sam needs to know when to quit while he's ahead! He continued to press Gibbs about whether this amounted to a veto threat or not and, of course, Gibbs was coy on that subject.

    Frankly, just based on the initial response that the bill wouldn't pass the president's desk if it was too weak was the equivalent of issuing a veto threat. In other words, I think Sam's headline was actually too was way more than a hint!

    By the way, aren't there any video links to these White House press briefings? Those transcripts give me a headache.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Elizabeth -

    I'm not sure that Sam Stein asked the question. That's another lack of the transcript, it doesn't identify the reporter, just "Q."

    [I'm pausing here, so Michale can insert the proper Star Trek "Q" reference... heh heh]

    I'm not sure the raw feed of the pressers exists online. I didn't look for it at but I was happy enough to get the transcript (their site used to crash my browser, so this was an improvement and I didn't want to press my luck). All of these are indeed filmed, so you'd think the raw footage would be available somewhere. Anyone?

    The business of "will you veto the bill with/without it?" is traditional sport among the WH Press Corps. They rarely get a straight answer, but they almost always try.


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I think Michale is going to be too busy for the next little while...learning about who Joe Biden really is. I gave him a couple of links and, you link leads to another, etc. etc. So, if you don't see him around here much, you'll know why. :)

    I'm pretty sure that was Sam Stein...unless there's another 'Sam' in the WH press corps who I don't know about...Gibbs said 'Sam" just before Mr Q asked his question.

    Besides, it's doubtful he would write about someone else's question in his HuffPost report...would he?

    Anyway, my point was that there may still be hope for Mr. Stein...I'll keep an eye on his HuffPost headlines and reports. I'm certainly willing to be pleasantly surprised!

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