Tom Shales: Obama Deftly Handles Another Prime-Time News Conference

By Tom Shales
Thursday, April 30, 2009

The questions put to Barack Obama at his news conference last night covered nearly every topic but the Craigslist Killer, and if that had come up, Obama probably would have answered it in stride. You ask, he'll answer -- earnestly, disarmingly, enchantingly, even -- and most of the time convincingly, which is no small accomplishment for a politician.

Obama has given more prime-time news conferences (three) in his first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his first four years. And he seems to enjoy facing the press as much as Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did. Obama, celebrating his 100th day in office, has enough seriously worrisome problems to thwart a comic-book hero, but he was his comfortingly cool and collected self last night, even taking the time to answer a marginally frivolous four-part query from a New York Times reporter, about which things had most troubled, enchanted, surprised and humbled him since he took office.

"Now let me write this down," the president said with perfect comic timing. And he did appear to be jotting down the four terms so he could answer them in order -- no hint of talking down to the questioner or making light of the question.

Barack Obama is a truly flabbergasting president. And in a good way -- not the way some of his predecessors were. He's not flabberghastly.

When Obama answers a question, you don't slap your forehead and moan, "Oh, brother!" He is, as guest expert David Gergen noted on CNN after the news conference, not only "up to speed" on the pressing issues of our time but also articulate about addressing them in a friendly, accessible way. He's not the student who wears a button that says, "Smartest kid in class," but clearly he is, at least when surrounded by the White House press corps.

Obama can use a five-dollar word such as "overarching" in one sentence and a few sentences later utter a folksy "doggone it." His verbiage is a melting pot that's always bubbling. A few times, he did stumble over words, and once or twice appeared semantically stranded, unable to find the precise language he wanted to use. But compare him with his predecessor and such moments seem trifling.

Of the dozen or so questions asked, not all were about the economy. The first was about the swine flu pandemic, a disease outbreak that has had the oddly salutary effect of taking people's minds off the economy. Gracious to a fault (even if there has been talk about prosecuting members of the previous administration for authorizing torture of prisoners), Obama even went out of his way to praise the Bush administration for gearing up to face the bird flu.

The bird flu fizzled, but America was ready.

All the teleprompter problems that plagued Obama at a previous prime-time news conference appeared to have been resolved, and the president made eye contact with us folks at home in the early part of the one-hour session, when he read prepared statements about congressional action on the budget and how to deal with the flu ("Cover your mouth if you cough," for example).

He really doesn't want to be President Everything, he as much as said -- not an all-purpose problem-solver who takes the nation's temperature and holds its hand while devising budgetary reforms, fighting a few wars, changing immigration laws and shoring up Detroit to keep it from sinking lower than New Orleans did. Obama doesn't want to run car companies or banks, he said late in the session: "I've got enough to do." He was deflecting criticism from those who contend he wants to grow the government. The disbelievers will still be unconvinced, but there appear to be relatively few of them, and many are just the predictable strident voices of the kind of partisan pedantry that Obama has said he abhors.

The TV networks always get a little jealous when a president, or any news figure, turns out to be a great communicator. They start looking for ways to distract viewers. During the early minutes of the news conference, ABC ran little poll questions and news squibs at the bottom of the screen. That was just video gingerbread, and wildly unnecessary at that.

Meanwhile, CNN, in what looked an awful lot like desperation, embedded the news conference in a day-long (or is it week-long) gimmicky "National Report Card" routine, as hired experts and members of Congress rated the president on this and that. Graphically speaking, it was a mess, and one sympathized with Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer and other CNN talents caught up in one of those Producers' Brainstorms that didn't work.

Fox stations, meanwhile, chose not to carry the news conference at all. One of the regularly scheduled shows that did air: a series called "Lie to Me."

MSNBC showed its strengths -- at least two of them, anyway -- by going to ravaging Keith Olbermann and ravishing Rachel Maddow. Two smart people are a lot better than an arsenal of computerly contraptions.

Some industry sources were heard to grumble in recent days about the advertising revenue being lost because of the presidential news conferences. Oh, boohoo! What's a president going to have to do: Start programming networks, too?

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