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The President-Elect, Talking Turkey

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 27, 2008

President-elect Obama had nearly finished his third news conference in as many days yesterday when he decided to favor his audience with one more tasty morsel of information about the just-announced members of his economic team.

"I want you to know that both Paul and Austan have special turkey-cooking recipes, if anybody out here needs some advice on how to make the ideal turkey," Obama offered.

Let's leave aside the question of whether credible cooking advice could come from Carter Fed Chairman Paul Volcker or University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee. Let's also look beyond the question of whether, at a time when the economy has gone afoul, we want it run by people who specialize in making "the ideal turkey."

The real news is that Obama had clearly run out of things to say.

It is a case of being careful of what one asks for. When Obama went to ground for about 10 days, making no public announcements and furtively slipping in and out of the gym, pundits wondered what had become of the "transparent transition" he promised. But Obama buried that complaint this week with an extraordinary blitz: His second, third and fourth news conferences set a new record for a modern president-elect, and he still has nearly two months to go.

But Obama is not in charge yet -- a point he makes with such regularity it seems to have become a tic. And so, after he makes the day's personnel announcements, voices concern about the economy and speaks vaguely about his plans, there isn't much left to say. In an interview with ABC News's Barbara Walters broadcast Wednesday night, Obama found himself talking about giving up his BlackBerry ("This is a problem") and his daughters' chores:

Michelle Obama: "They're gonna need to be able to make their beds and . . ."

Walters: "Really?"

Michelle Obama: "They do that now."

Walters: "In the White House they're gonna have to make the beds and clean up their rooms?"

Barack Obama: "Doing that since they were 4 years old."

Michelle Obama: "That's gonna be one of my goals. Don't make their beds. Make mine." (Laughs)

Barack Obama: (Laughs).

At yesterday's news conference, the president-elect discussed his shopping plans in response to a query from the New York Daily News's Tom DeFrank. "Well, we are going to do some Christmas shopping," he said. "And Malia and Sasha have already put their list together. It's mostly for Santa. They send their letter every year. But -- but we may do some extra shopping as well."

At Tuesday's news conference in Chicago, Obama found himself discussing a reporter's headgear:

Obama: "I didn't recognize you because you don't have the floppy hat that you had during the campaign."

Reporter (picking up hat): "I actually do."

Obama: "There it is. Man, that's what I'm talking about."

The overexposure of the president-elect seems designed to reinforce two points. First: He plans to hit the ground running. "We need people who are going to be able to hit the ground running," he said yesterday. This was the same wording he used on Tuesday, his strategist David Axelrod used Monday, his adviser Valerie Jarrett used on Nov. 12, his transition chief John Podesta used on Nov. 11, and Obama used back on Nov. 8.

Second point: that "there is only one president at a time," as Obama put it yesterday. And Tuesday. And Nov. 18. And Nov. 8. And Nov. 7. Axelrod, Goolsbee and Jarrett have dutifully echoed the point on the airwaves.

That's technically true -- but the actual president seems to have no interest in making news of any sort. Yesterday, he ventured into the Rose Garden to deliver the news that he was pardoning two turkeys, Pumpkin and Pecan. "Pumpkin and Pecan have an exciting trip ahead of them: Later today, they will fly to Disneyland aboard 'Turkey One,' " the commander in chief announced, before turning wistful. "This is my final Thanksgiving as the president. Over the past eight years, I have been given many reasons to be thankful."

With that act to follow, Obama can't be surprised that people are treating him as if he's already the president. At yesterday's session in Chicago, CNN's Ed Henry gave him the business, demanding to know why he had tapped so many former Clinton aides and even a Bush man, the Pentagon's Robert Gates.

"Paul Volcker has been around a long time," Henry pointed out. "You talked about [how] John McCain was going to come back to Washington if he won and would just move people into different chairs. We got Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates --"

Henry didn't even get to mention Rahm Emanuel, John Podesta, Greg Craig, Ron Klain, Eric Holder, Bill Richardson and the rest before Obama cut him off.

"First of all, that's not the topic," Obama instructed Henry. "We're not talking about my Cabinet, because I haven't made those appointments yet."

And besides, the 81-year-old Volcker, who spent a quarter-century in the federal government, "hasn't been in Washington for quite some time," the president-elect added.

Plus, he cooks a mean turkey.

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