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A White House That Acts With All Deliberate Deliberation

By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 2, 2009

Helen Thomas is 89 years old and requires some assistance to get to and from the daily White House briefing. Yet her backbone has proved stronger than that of the president she covers.

On Thursday afternoon, Thomas gave a clinic in fortitude to President Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, during the briefing. "Has the president given up on the public option?" she inquired from her front-row-middle seat.

The press secretary laughed at this repetition of a common Thomas inquiry, but this questioner, who has covered every president since Kennedy, wasn't about to be silenced. "I ask it day after day because it has great meaning in this country, and you never answer it," she said.

"Well, I -- I -- I apparently don't answer it to your satisfaction," Gibbs stammered.

"That's right," Thomas snarled.

"I -- I'll -- I'll give you the same answer that I gave you unsatisfactorily for many of those other days," Gibbs offered. "It's what the president believes in --"

"Is he going to fight for it or not?" Thomas snapped.

"We're going to work to get choice and competition into health-care reform" was Gibbs's vague response.

Thomas took that as a no. "You're not going to get it," she advised.

"Then why do you keep asking me?" Gibbs inquired.

"Because I want your conscience to bother you," Thomas replied. The room erupted; Gibbs reddened.

Actually, conscience isn't the problem for Gibbs and his boss; it's spine. Thomas's question got at an Obama administration trait that is puzzling opponents and demoralizing supporters: Why isn't the president more decisive and forceful? On many of the most pressing issues -- the public option in health reform, troop levels in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran -- the administration has hewed to hemming and hawing.

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?

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