By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
In his first daytime news conference yesterday, President Obama preempted "All My Children," "Days of Our Lives" and "The Young and the Restless." But the soap viewers shouldn't have been disappointed: The president had arranged some prepackaged entertainment for them.
After the obligatory first question from the Associated Press, Obama treated the overflowing White House briefing room to a surprise. "I know Nico Pitney is here from the Huffington Post," he announced.
Obama knew this because White House aides had called Pitney the day before to invite him, and they had escorted him into the room. They told him the president was likely to call on him, with the understanding that he would ask a question about Iran that had been submitted online by an Iranian. "I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet," Obama went on. "Do you have a question?"
Pitney recognized his prompt. "That's right," he said, standing in the aisle and wearing a temporary White House press pass. "I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian."
Pitney asked his arranged question. Reporters looked at one another in amazement at the stagecraft they were witnessing. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel grinned at the surprised TV correspondents in the first row.
The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised. But yesterday wasn't so much a news conference as it was a taping of a new daytime drama, "The Obama Show." Missed yesterday's show? Don't worry: On Wednesday, ABC News will be broadcasting "Good Morning America" from the South Lawn (guest stars: the president and first lady), "World News Tonight" from the Blue Room, and a prime-time feature with Obama from the East Room.
"The Obama Show" was the hottest ticket in town yesterday. Forty-five minutes before the start, there were no fewer than 107 people crammed into the narrow aisles, in addition to those in the room's 42 seats. Japanese and Italian could be heard coming from the tangle of elbows, cameras and compressed bodies: "You've got to move! . . . Oh, God, don't step on my foot!" Some had come just for a glimpse of celebrity. And they wanted to know all about him. "As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting," McClatchy News's Margaret Talev empathized with the president before asking him how much he smokes.
Obama indulged the question from the studio audience. "I would say that I am 95 percent cured. But there are times where I mess up," he confessed. "Like folks who go to AA, you know, once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with."
This is Barack Obama, and these are the Days of Our Lives.
As if to compensate for the prepackaged Huffington Post question, Obama went quickly to Fox News for a predictably hostile question from Major Garrett. "In your opening remarks, sir, you said about Iran that you were appalled and outraged," Garrett said. "What took you so long?
"I don't think that's accurate," Obama volleyed testily, calling his toughening statements on Iran "entirely consistent."
The host of "The Obama Show" dispatched with similar ease a challenge from CBS's Chip Reid, asking whether his hardening line on Iran was inspired by John McCain. "What do you think?" Obama replied with a big grin. That brought the house down. And the studio audience laughed again when ABC's Jake Tapper tried to get Obama to answer another reporter's question that he had dodged. "Are you the ombudsman for the White House press corps?" the president cracked.
The laughter had barely subsided when the host made another joke about Tapper's reference to Obama's "Spock-like language about the logic of the health-care plan."
"The reference to Spock, is that a crack on my ears?" the president asked.
But yesterday's daytime drama belonged primarily to Pitney, of the Huffington Post Web site. During the eight years of the Bush administration, liberal outlets such as the Huffington Post often accused the White House of planting questioners in news conferences to ask preplanned questions. But here was Obama fielding a preplanned question asked by a planted questioner -- from the Huffington Post.
Pitney said the White House, though not aware of the question's wording, asked him to come up with a question about Iran proposed by an Iranian. And, as it turned out, he was not the only prearranged questioner at yesterday's show. Later, Obama passed over the usual suspects to call on Macarena Vidal of the Spanish-language EFE news agency. The White House called Vidal in advance to see whether she was coming and arranged for her to sit in a seat usually assigned to a financial trade publication. She asked about Chile and Colombia.
A couple of more questions and Obama called it a day. "Mr. President!" yelled Mike Allen of Politico. "May I ask about Afghanistan? No questions about Iraq or Afghanistan?"
Sorry: Those weren't prearranged.