One Smooth Talker

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009; 7:27 AM

Barack Obama hit his cruising speed last night.

He glided from swine flu to torture, from Chrysler to Pakistan, from the Specter defection to abortion to immigration, seemingly without breaking a sweat. He broke up the East Room crowd when Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times asked what had surprised, enchanted, humbled and troubled him about the office, insisting on writing down each verb. And he gave an answer that actually involved thinking out loud.

The novelty has worn off, the answers are crisper and businesslike, and on his 100th day in office, the new president seemed comfortably in charge.

The questions were serious but not confrontational, and here's what was striking: It was 46 minutes before a reporter put the focus solely on the economy, when Andre Showell of BET asked about minority unemployment during the recession. Does that mean it has slipped as a journalistic priority, or that there were so much else on the menu? (You'd think someone could have asked about the economy having just shrunk at a 6.1 percent annual rate.)

Obama mainly called on the establishment press: NBC, CBS, ABC, Time, Wall Street Journal and, knowing he'd get an auto industry question, the Detroit News. He avoided several land mines. He said flatly that waterboarding is torture but sidestepped Jake Tapper's question about whether Bush administration officials should be held liable. He said Pakistan's government was fragile but that its nuclear arsenal is safe (as if he could be sure). And he said that despite Arlen Specter switching sides, he doesn't expect the Senate to be a rubber stamp--which has the additional virtue of being true.

In sum, Obama played error-free ball, and if the hour wasn't exactly exciting, it gave him a chance to reassure the country on several fronts--not a bad outcome for a commander-in-chief.

"This was a clinic in how you hold a good news conference," Bob Schieffer said afterward. And that was about all he said, for Obama has mastered the art of running out the clock, leaving the network pundits only two minutes to wrap up and stifling the punditry.

There was a dramatic example of how, as the president himself observed, he can't just push buttons and make things happen. Obama said he was optimistic about Chrysler avoiding bankruptcy, even as he kept repeating that he doesn't want to be in the auto business. Within hours, the WP and NYT were reporting that talks had broken down and the administration has decided to push the automaker into bankruptcy.

How much longer will the broadcast networks continue to cede valuable prime time to Obama? Fox's Dick Morris grumbled that when he was advising Bill Clinton, the networks gave him only two evening platforms in four years. No mention that Fox broadcasting had blown off this one.

Sign of the times: At least seven of my Twitter pals were live-blogging the presser. And Charlie Gibson's network put up a graphic: "ABC's Terry Moran is 'Tweeting' . . . "

L.A. Times: "In a strikingly defensive explanation of his stance on Bush-era anti-terrorism tactics, President Obama on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the harsh interrogation techniques he has banned might have yielded useful information, but that he was nonetheless willing to rule them out on moral grounds.

"It was a nuanced performance as Obama walked viewers of his prime-time news conference through a policy that has led him to declare tactics such as waterboarding torture but to stop short of advocating prosecution of the architects of the practices."

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