By Tom Shales
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Most of the facets of President Obama's personality that have made him intensely popular were on display last night during his second prime-time news conference, and so he emerged from it still every inch "President Wonderful," as it were, untouched and intact.
On one hand, Obama looks as if he's been working too hard, but then that's exactly what we expect of the president -- especially one who's trying to lead the country out of a ruinous recession. We expect him to work hard, to put in impossible hours and never let the priorities of the job leave his mind, not even when he's playing with his daughters or dancing with his wife.
Once or twice, Obama also seemed somewhat defensive. He was even a bit snippy -- though justifiably so, it appeared -- when goaded by a CNN reporter to explain why he didn't act more swiftly in condemning executives at AIG who, to the country's great indignation, received cushy bonuses after its leaders drove the company into an iceberg.
Why did it take a couple of days, reporter Ed Henry wanted to know. "It took a couple of days because I like to know what I am talking about before I speak." Whack! It was a little like an old-fashioned teacher rapping a naughty student's knuckles with a ruler.
That would seem to have been a crowd-pleasing moment, the crowd being however many millions were watching the broadcast and cable networks that carried the news conference live. We like our Obama tough even though we also like, and probably prefer, our Obama gentle.
It looked as though Obama was hampered by a technical dislocation or two. He began with an opening statement -- too long an opening statement, as it happens -- but one that seemed longer because something seemed to be wrong with the prompting device, which reportedly had been relocated to the back of the room. Obama was not looking squarely into the camera the way he usually does when talking to us "folks at home." He wasn't making eye contact as effectively as usual; in fact his eyes looked a little blurry and weary. His delivery was also somewhat halting at times.
Yes, they are little things, the hesitancy in his speech pattern, the prompter and the president's gaze. But the little things in a presidential appearance add up to the big thing of How He Did and whether he came out of the event in better, worse or the same shape as when he went into it.
No president, not even Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, has looked as comfortable on television as Obama did on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" Thursday night. Although pounced on later for a remark about the Special Olympics that some people found in bad taste (the criticism was way out of proportion to the alleged offense), Obama was a model of cool and a regaling charmer as he sat there chatting with Leno on what the host called the greatest night of his life.
While nearly everything went Obama's way during the Leno appearance, however, he seemed to be facing a gremlin or two at the news conference. He tried to include a wide spectrum of journalists in the 13 that he called on; they included reporters from the military's Stars and Stripes newspaper, Ebony magazine, the Spanish-language Univision network, even Agence France-Presse -- a choice that seemed odd considering some of the exclusions. But hey, it's his gig.
He proved himself again an astutely pithy phrasemaker. When asked about the use of embryonic stem cells in potentially life-saving research, Obama said, "I have no investment in causing controversy." Regarding the persistence of problems in the Mideast, Obama said in a sort of footnote to history, "I'm a big believer in persistence."
Indeed he is so persistent that, because he wanted to end the news conference on the topic of the economy, he steered the Mideast question around to economic issues again, for his wrap-up. So it was that even though Obama did look tired, and had to wrestle with a seemingly faulty prompting device, and wasn't quite as energetic as in many of his other TV appearances, he still came out victorious -- not just President Wonderful but President Feel-Good as well.