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At His First Prime-Time News Conference, Obama Is Serious and Expansive

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In a prime-time debut for the new Oval Office occupant and a press corps often accused of being too enamored of him, President Obama faced journalistic skepticism from the opening question.

Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press kicked off last night's news conference by asking: "Do you think that you risk losing some credibility, or even talking down the economy, by using dire language?"

Obama controlled the tone of the East Room proceedings, speaking with utmost seriousness, gesturing with his hands and displaying a command of the facts. His lengthy, multi-part answers -- allowing for just 13 questions -- went well beyond what the journalists asked and defended his record while taking not-so-veiled slaps at the Republicans as "folks who presided over a doubling of national debt."

The reporters' questions were direct, succinct and restrained, with none of the showmanship that has sometimes marked past news conferences. The journalists stopped short of confrontation, as though they were sobered by the gravity of the financial crisis.

Obama made a bit of history by calling on the first blogger at such a session, Sam Stein of the liberal Huffington Post. Stein asked about a cause popular on the left, the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate Bush administration wrongdoing. The president said he hadn't seen the proposal by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). [Story, Page A4.]

Obama kept mixing conciliation with criticism, telling Loven that the country faces "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," yet he is "absolutely confident" that he can solve the problem and noting that some critics opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. That first answer, which included a defense of his planned banking bailout, ran more than five minutes, showing how a president can monopolize the microphone.

Since John F. Kennedy launched the genre of televised jousting with journalists in 1961, the format has tended to favor presidents -- even those not particularly quick on their feet -- because they can filibuster, deflect unwelcome questions or keep circling back to their main message. Follow-ups are often uneven, or non-existent. As if to underscore the point, the second question, from Caren Bohan of Reuters, dealt with U.S. policy toward Iran.

Several reporters based their queries on the presumption that the president had gotten off to a rocky start. CBS's Chip Reid asked bluntly "what went wrong" with Obama's efforts at bipartisanship: "Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington works?" (Obama's answer filled 26 paragraphs in the transcript.) NBC's Chuck Todd asked why Obama wanted to stimulate consumer spending when such spending was "how we got into this mess." The president disputed the premise.

Obama clearly ducked when CNN's Ed Henry asked whether he would lift the ban on photographing flag-draped soldiers' coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base, Del., saying that Obama has "promised unprecedented transparency, openness in your government." The president said a review is underway.

Obama smiled only once, while sidestepping a question from Fox's Major Garrett about Vice President Biden's comment that he and Obama agreed they had a 30 percent chance of getting an unspecified policy wrong. The president pleaded a faulty memory of the exchange.

The only question that strayed from domestic or foreign policy was from The Washington Post's Michael A. Fletcher, who asked about the admission by baseball star Alex Rodriguez that he once used steroids. Obama pronounced that "depressing news."

Afterward, MSNBC's Chris Matthews praised Obama's "amazing ability" to communicate, while Fox's Bill O'Reilly called him "very eloquent" but "dull."

In prompting the broadcast networks to preempt such fare as "The Bachelor" and "House," Obama guaranteed himself a sizable audience. And by talking until 9 p.m., he left virtually no time for analysis on those networks.

While prime-time news conferences were a regular feature of Ronald Reagan's presidency, his successors had trouble getting the broadcast networks to carry them. On several occasions, despite White House pressure, two and sometimes three of the networks refused to air sessions called by George W. Bush, his father and Bill Clinton, relegating them to the cable news channels.

Last night's event was part of a presidential media blitz, including sit-downs with five network anchors, that will continue tonight with an interview on ABC's "Nightline."

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