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Obama's Pressers: No Comment -- and NoDoz

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.

Still, it often seems as though Obama is choosing his words in a way that will make them the least interesting. Asked about his earlier disparagement of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama replied that "this is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign" -- as if the words came from a rogue word processor rather than from Obama's mouth. Asked about the Blagojevich affair on Monday, Obama again retreated deep into the passive voice: "There is nothing in the review that was presented to me that in any way contradicted my earlier statements that this appalling set of circumstances that we've seen arise had nothing to do with my office."

Yesterday, the president-elect began with opening-statement platitudes: "If we want to outcompete the world tomorrow, then we're going to have to outeducate the world today. . . . We need a new vision for the 21st-century education system."

Obama followed that by allowing the vice president-elect to deliver one of his trademark meanders: "My mom has an expression -- and you all are tired of hearing me say this all through the last couple years -- that children tend to become that which you expect of them. . . . These kids, Mr. President, are the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft."

Next up in Obama's insomnia treatment was an acceptance speech by the previously unknown nominee, followed by the president-elect's own blend of convoluted and passive answers to questions: "We're going to have to work through a lot of these difficulties, these structural difficulties that built up over many decades, some of it having to do with the financial industry and the huge amounts of leverage, the huge amounts of debt that were taken on, the speculation and the risk that was occurring, the lack of financial regulation, some of it having to do with our housing market, stabilizing that."

The whole thing might have ended in snores if McCormick hadn't piped up about Blagojevich. After upbraiding the reporter for his first two attempts at a question, Obama dispatched McCormick's third try -- whether there should be a special election to fill Obama's Senate seat -- with a no-comment. "I'm going to let the state legislature make a determination," he said.

McCormick tried something more to the president-elect's liking. "Do you or Duncan have a better jump shot?" he inquired.

"Duncan -- much better," Obama replied readily. "That one's an easy one."

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