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The area in which Obama has been most forceful recently has been, of all things, his effort to win the Olympics for his home city of Chicago, which caused him to fly off Thursday evening on a quick lobbying trip to Copenhagen. The first lady announced that the Olympics campaign was a "take no prisoners" mission.
On Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House on Thursday, environmental activists were demanding to know why Obama wouldn't, as they put it, "show the same foresight and commitment to our climate that he's showing to Chicago with this emergency trip to Copenhagen for the 2016 Olympics." They dressed up in green track suits, put on Obama masks, and carried a banner with the Olympic logo and the message "Obama: Climate Change Is Not a Game."
Gibbs had been scheduled to give his daily briefing at 1 p.m., then pushed it back to 1:15. At 1:27, the public-address system gave a "two-minute warning" for the briefing. Gibbs walked in 10 minutes later. The extra prep time was probably unnecessary, because the answers ranged from namby to pamby.
The topic of the day was the meeting with Iran near Geneva, and Reuters's Matt Spetalnick pointed out that the meeting "appears to have given Iran more breathing space, several more weeks at least."
"Today's meeting was a constructive beginning" was Gibbs's noncommittal comment.
CBS's Chip Reid tried anew to see whether the White House would give anything in the way of deadlines and timetables for Iran's compliance; he failed. "We've worked this methodically," Gibbs said.
And that was one of the bolder positions the White House spokesman took. Negotiating with Republicans on health care? "I'm not going to get ahead of the bill." The Fed refusing to release the names of banks that received government funds? "I'm not going to get into discussing an active legal case." Gasoline sanctions against Iran? I'm not going to get into the pluses and minuses." Predator missile strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan? "Not going to get into discussing that," Gibbs said with a wave.
Neither could the press secretary commit to allowing the top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, to testify before Congress. Gibbs's reason: He had not "seen the comments" requesting the general's testimony.
Sometimes, of course, the refusal to take a position is a tactic to thwart opponents, or reporters. But the reluctance to be forceful has emboldened Obama's opponents -- a fact pointed out to Gibbs on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman.
Weisman noted that the right wing had already forced the resignation of environmental adviser Van Jones and arts official Yosi Sergant and was now alleging that Kevin Jennings, who runs the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, had failed to report statutory rape in an incident 21 years ago when he was a teacher in Massachusetts. "Do you have anything substantive to say about what they are saying about this guy?" the reporter asked.
Gibbs did not. "I think the Department of Education had a statement on this," he said, allowing that "it's a shame" to watch conservative critics go after administration officials.
"Some in your camp would say that the White House has the power to stop it simply by no longer pushing these guys out of their positions," Weisman pointed out.
Gibbs's bold answer: The two officials "resigned on their own volition."
Can he say that with a clean conscience?