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Obama's Pressers: No Comment -- and NoDoz

The president-elect -- all smiles amid the snores?
The president-elect -- all smiles amid the snores? (Associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A month from now, the nation will say farewell to its sports-obsessed president who doesn't like tough questions. And it will replace him with, well, another sports-obsessed president who doesn't like tough questions.

"I did not select Arne because he's one of the best basketball players I know," President-elect Barack Obama said yesterday, introducing Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan. "Although I will say that I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet in American history, and I think that is worth noting."

The nominee, one of the half a dozen accomplished basketball players suiting up for Obama's inner circle, made reference to his time as a professional hoopster in Australia.

But the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick didn't want to talk basketball. He wanted to know about contacts that Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had with disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"John, John, let me just cut you off," Obama interrupted, "because I don't want you to waste your question." The president-elect said the "facts are going to be released next week" -- when he, by random coincidence, will be enjoying Christmas vacation in Hawaii -- and "it would be inappropriate for me to comment" before then. "So, do you have another question?"

McCormick tried to rephrase the question, to no avail. "John, John," Obama repeated, reproachfully. "I said, the U.S. attorney's office specifically asked us not to release this until next week."

There's no denying Obama's team has an impressive starting five: Duncan (6-foot-5), incoming national security adviser James Jones and body man Reggie Love (both 6-foot-4) all played college basketball, while Attorney General-designate Eric Holder and U.N. Ambassador-designate Susan Rice played high school ball. But Obama's response to Blagojevich questions has been decidedly junior varsity. Begging off because of an ongoing investigation? Hiding behind Patrick Fitzgerald's skirt? Warning a reporter not to "waste" a question and asking for an alternative question? All four techniques were popularized by Bush.

"We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation, and I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed" was President Bush's version.

"I would ask for your patience, because I do not want to interfere with an ongoing investigation" is Obama's.

McCormick's exchange in Chicago yesterday brought to mind Bush's tangle with David Gregory last year when the NBC newsman asked about an Israeli raid in Syria. "I'm not going to comment on the matter," Bush said. "You're welcome to ask another question, if you'd like to, on a different subject," the president added.

The opposition sees sinister motives in Obama's noncommittal ways. "The guy is strategically soporiferous," charges Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard. "He's trying to be so boring that no one will notice that he has avoided taking a position on virtually every issue that we've seen arise over the past three months."

The charge may be premature. Obama has proved himself to be far more willing to take questions than Bush, and if he makes good on his promise to release the full account of his aides' Blagojevich ties -- even on Christmas Eve -- it will be a major improvement in transparency over the current administration.


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