Obama's Prime-Time Talkathon

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009 10:29 AM

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.).

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 nonexistent. 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 in Delaware, 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."

A look at the morning papers, starting with the Los Angeles Times:

"In his strongest response yet to Republican attacks on his economic stimulus package, President Barack Obama hit the airwaves and the road Monday to make the case for quick action, warning that delay risks turning 'a crisis into a catastrophe.' " New York Times: "President Obama took his case for his $800 billion economic recovery package to the American people on Monday, as the Senate cleared the way for passage of the bill and the White House prepared for its next major hurdle: selling Congress and the public on a fresh plan to bail out the nation's banks."

Chicago Tribune: "The president has controlled the evening -- important for a leader who already enjoys stong public support in his confrontation with Republicans in Congress."

USA Today: "President Obama took his case for more than $800 billion in economic stimulus directly to the American people Monday, accusing Republicans of playing politics with a plan that's 'exactly what this country needs.' " Washington Times: "A somber President Obama used his first prime-time press conference to pressure Congress Monday night to pass his massive economic stimulus spending bill, acknowledging it is imperfect but declaring he won't negotiate with Republicans who think government should not intervene substantially in the economy."

New York Post: "President Obama played defense last night over the massive $800-billion-plus stimulus plan he's pushing Congress to pass, insisting there's no pork and unnecessary spending, despite swelling criticism."

Slate's John Dickerson says Obama "held a graduate seminar on the first 20 days of his administration with all of the methodical procedure and pizzazz he might have applied to teaching contracts at the University of Chicago Law School.

"The performance was systematic, commanding, at times belabored, and a test of a new kind of political communication."

Bloggers tended to divide along partisan lines. Josh Marshall: "You watch this performance and you can see that every day Republicans keep this guy off TV is a win for them. Like every great pol, Obama's a great communicator. And he's making the argument."

National Review's Mark Hemingway: "The Democratic Great Communicator Isn't Always: As good as he is delivering a speech, Obama is not a good extemporaneous speaker. It's been rare in his political career you get to see him doing both back to back and the contrast is stunning. The conference was, frankly, boring and long-winded. His answer to the first question was an unforgivably meandering and pointless 10 minutes."

Power Line's John Hinderaker: "Substantively . . . it was a weak effort. Obama repeatedly characterized his opponents (the Republicans) as people who want to do nothing about the current economic crisis . . . This is not just disingenuous; frankly, it's an outright lie. The question is whether it's an effective one."

Walter Shapiro gives us some historical insight:

"As [Pierre] Salinger tells it in his memoir, With Kennedy, he asked the president-elect in Palm Beach a few weeks before the Inauguration, 'What do you think of opening up your press conferences to live television? I don't think there's any doubt you can handle it. You proved that against Nixon in the debates.' The courtier's flattery with which Salinger posed the question guaranteed that it would appeal to JFK's vanity.

"Kennedy's confidence prevailed against the opposition of his top advisers, notably Ted Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy, and Dean Rusk. Even more irate over live television were the White House correspondents for the major newspapers who feared that show-business values would trump substance."

Some good Gallup news for Obama:

"The American public gives President Barack Obama a strong 67% approval rating for the way in which he is handling the government's efforts to pass an economic stimulus bill, while the Democrats and, in particular, the Republicans in Congress receive much lower approval ratings of 48% and 31%, respectively."

Is Obama being too negative in his sales pitch? The Washington Times compares him to 43:

"From crisis to catastrophe. Off a cliff. Dark, darker, darkest. Mortal danger of absolute collapse. Armageddon.

"President Obama and top Democrats on Capitol Hill are deploying these and other stark predictions of doom and gloom to push through their economic-stimulus package. In terms not heard in Washington since the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter's watch, the new president has sought to terrify Americans into supporting the $800 billion-plus bailout bill.

"While President Bush was accused shortly after taking office in 2001 of 'talking down the economy' -- and for saying the economy was 'slowing down' -- Mr. Obama is using ever-heightening hyperbole to hammer home his message. But the strategy brings great risk for the 'Yes, We Can' man, who just three weeks ago told America in his inaugural address that despite 'sapping of confidence across our land,' his election meant Americans had 'chosen hope over fear.' . . .

"Every president must walk a rhetorical tightrope when talking about the economy, a lesson Mr. Bush learned quickly, being bashed just after taking office for delivering somber news. The United States was just entering a mild recession -- it had been in one, it turns out, for about nine months -- and the new president said so.

"Liberals went berserk. 'Every time we turn around, this guy is bad-mouthing the economy. Is that lifting our spirit or dumping on it in order to sell his tax cut?' liberal comentator Bill Press said on CNN. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, in an article headlined 'Thanks Ever So Much, President Poor-Mouth,' said, 'Even if Bush turns out to be right in his predictions of gloom, that doesn't mean he was right to make them.' The New York Times lectured Mr. Bush, saying that presidents were supposed to be 'cheerleaders for the nation's economy.' " Of course, the situation today is about 100 times worse.

I love being on Twitter, if anyone wants to check me out, but I don't reveal state secrets there. As CQ Politics reports, "A congressional trip to Iraq this weekend was supposed to be a secret.

"But the cat's out of the bag now, thanks to a member of the House Intelligence Committee who broke an embargo via Twitter.

"A delegation led by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, arrived in Iraq [Monday], and because of Rep. Peter Hoekstra , R-Mich., the entire world -- or at least Twitter.com readers -- now know they're there. 'Just landed in Baghdad,' messaged Hoekstra, a former chairman of the Intelligence panel and now the ranking member, who is routinely entrusted to keep some of the nation's most closely guarded secrets."

Katie Couric made a bit of news on my CNN show the other day when I asked her about the persistent and personal criticism she was subjected to after assuming the CBS anchor chair. As the Huffington Post reports:

"She admitted 'it's not a lot of fun being pummeled in the press,' but that she does not take it personally: "I think that there are a lot of unhappy, sort of insecure, vitriolic people out there, and I always sort of feel bad for them, that this is how they spend their time.' " Before we leave the question of Michael Phelps and the bong, I want to pose this question: If every journalist who's ever tried marijuana recused himself or herself from this story, how many people would be left to cover it?

Mike Edison, the former publisher of High Times, questions why Phelps is getting such rough treatment:

"George W. Bush never had to answer for his 'youthful indiscretions.' Michael Phelps, not so lucky.

"Having been caught red-handed with a smoking bong firmly pasted to his maw, the long knives are out for the Olympic hero.

"Let's see if I've got this right. Phelps isn't a future Hall of Famer juicing himself with the 'cream' and the 'clear,' or getting his gluteus maximus pin-cushioned with designer 'roids. He isn't a doped racehorse, or a testosterone-shooting bike nerd trying to turn his Lycra-Spandexed bum into a blur pedaling across France.

"He isn't even the current president of the United States, who freely admits to having toked his share of tropical trumpets back in his Hawaiian hoodlum days, not to mention tooting some of the Big Island's finest imported disco dust.

"He's a 23-year-old rock star who got caught smoking pot. How is Phelps going to do the breast stroke covered in tar and feathers?

"Get it straight, sports fans: Phelps' biggest crime here wasn't snarfling the bong (or 'dope pipe,' as it was called by the News of the World, the crack team of global do-gooders who broke this earth-shattering story). It was reinforcing every negative stereotype about college-age stoner dorks ever perpetrated on the square world. The flipped-back baseball cap alone is worth more hard time than any hit of South Carolina chronic."

In Salon, Joe Conason goes a step further, questioning our laws:

"The brutal exposure and possible arrest of alleged pothead Michael Phelps, probably the best athlete on earth, demands fresh attention to old questions: Why is marijuana still illegal in the United States? And why do we prosecute people for using the herb? . . .

"More than a few of the athletes who have identified themselves as cannabis users in past years have done so without the shame that Phelps claimed to feel when he offered his endorsement-saving mea culpa. Some insist that using marijuana eased physical pain or even improved their game. Former Dallas Cowboys lineman Mark Stepnoski, who played on two Super Bowl-winning teams and is now an active proponent of legalization, said he smoked pot throughout his career without impairing his game . . .

"Of course, it isn't only athletic stars who have been known to indulge in reefer madness. Important scientists such as Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Margaret Mead, and Carl Sagan, billionaire executives like Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates, and a great many of the literary and musical geniuses of the past century or so -- William Butler Yeats, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan among them -- got high. So have many of our top elected officials, notably including Arnold Schwarzenegger, the current governor of California, a highly successful actor and businessman whose pot habit was immortalized on film in 'Pumping Iron'; Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor of New York City, another hard-driving billionaire who once told a magazine interviewer that he had not only smoked dope but 'enjoyed' it; Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House; and Al Gore, former vice president, Google director, and winner of both the Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize.

"What should be the most devastating blow to the foundations of marijuana prohibition was struck just two weeks ago, when Barack Obama, yet another confessed former pothead, ascended to the presidency. Obama has never tried to conceal that he smoked quite a bit of marijuana in his youth (and seems to be considerably more ashamed of his continuing abuse of tobacco). Last year, he joked with New Yorker editor David Remnick about the references to drug use in his memoir, 'Dreams From My Father.' 'Oh, look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.' It was the kind of activity, he said, that can be attributed to the 'confusion' of a teenage boy. He made no further apology -- and nobody seemed to care."

And he hadn't even won any gold medals.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company