White House Watch: Obama's Primetime Presser and More
Wednesday, March 25, 2009; 1:00 PM
What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com. He was online Wednesday, March 25 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the White House and his latest columns.
Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.
Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch chat. Lots to talk about today, obviously starting with last night's press conference. I thought Obama did a pretty effective job of moving beyond the overheated chatter of the past week and turning the public's attention to the long-term economic problems that can't be solved overnight. But some of my media colleagues thought he was just boring. Go figure.
What did you think?
And what do you think of the new "
" initiative over at Whitehouse.gov, soliciting questions directly from citizens that Obama will answer tomorrow morning? I think it's
Tolland, Conn.: Dan-Thanks for taking the question. This one is on atmospherics. I was struck at the news conference last night how articulate and intelligent the president seemed. Even if I disagree with him on a particular issue, I found his positions well-reasoned and clearly explained. Obviously, this contrasts a bit with our previous president.
So my question is this -- how does this play with most Americans? I know some folks liked Bush's "plain-spoken" quality, so does Obama risk alienating those voters/citizens?
Dan Froomkin: That's a great question, and I'm not sure of the answer. My sense is that his appearance of competence and composure in crisis is a big reason why his approval rating considerably exceeds his election margin. But I'm not sure I can find the numbers to back that up.
I suppose that some people could find him boring. (And to be honest, I thought he strayed dangerously into that territory in his
press conference, when he didn't take follow-up questions.) But is that going to alienate anyone, except for perhaps a few members of the press corps? I don't know.
Anyone else have thoughts about this?
Dallas: Thank you Dan for taking questions today.
I was surprised last night that both Fox and CNN top commenators both thought that Obama dropped the ball last night. Lou Dobbs even said that it was a waste of time.
I did not feel that Obama had his strongest moment, but why the hard criticism from the press. Are they trying to come out and prove to the world that they are not still drooling over Obama presidency? The critics seemed more like vultures last night than normal.
Dan Froomkin: I'm not the slightest bit surprised that Fox and Lou Dobbs didn't think much of last night. It is not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that they are predisposed to find fault.
I was more surprised that some of my newspaper colleagues (see
, for instance) found it boring.
sees the Drudge effect at work;
suspects petulance over not having been given a question.
My charitable interpretation -- and it ain't that charitable -- is that your average political reporter is addicted to conflict and change. Last week was a good one for them, with the pitchforks coming out. But Obama is simply not working on the same clock, as I've documented time and again. So when he tries to take things down a notch or two, as he did last night, they're bored.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you use a teleprompter during these chats? I must know, because I'm always being told that using teleprompters is bad. I'd hate to think you were using a teleprompter as opposed to reading notes on pieces of paper like the good people do!
Dan Froomkin: You are, of course, mocking the media's obsession with Obama's use of same. I share your point of view. As I wrote today: A focus on Obama's use of the device would be entirely appropriate if he had shown an inability to speak lucidly without one. But he hasn't. So it's just that much noise.
There are so many better things for us to be worried about.
Washington, D.C.: There were a host of ahs, and that's not just my opinion, that's the opinion of, ah, just about everybody who has looked at the facts of last night's, ah, press conference. If it were easy, ah, there would be no problem here. But the fact is, ah, that he inherited a lot of, ah, ahs from the last several years.
(Having a little fun here. I do appreciate having a president who thinks about what he says before he says it. But I do think there is some fodder for parody that has gone untouched, so far.)
Dan Froomkin: Yep. Definitely at least one rung up from the teleprompter scandal.
Press Corp is an embarrassment: Hello Dan,
The D.C. press corp is an embarrassment. I think little children would have asked better questions. It seems as though many just yatter away about the game of politics w/o bothering to study the facts and real issues. Even worse, is, like the Colbert performance a few years ago, the press then seeks to spin and cover up their shameful performance. I have heard no end of new bites today saying things like "interestingly, the president did not mention the wars"....um...BECAUSE Ed Henry did not ask about the wars (or the new plan, or toxic assets, or what plan C is if this doesn't work)..instead he wants to ask again why it took 2 whole days to respond to a complex issue like the AIG bonuses....it's pathetic. I rant to you, because you seem to ask the right questions of the last and this administration. Will the press corp ever pull it together?
Dan Froomkin: This is a good place to rant. You are most welcome.
I didn't think the questions were terrible last night, though I do think there is (always) too much emphasis on "the game" as you put it. Interestingly enough, last night, that actually meant wasted questions about the deficit -- the issue about which Republicans are ostensibly all upset -- rather than AIG, which only merited one query.
Washington Monthly blogger
charges that "the White House press corps has more or less internalized Republican talking points (again)." And he reminds the corps that "under these circumstances, deficits aren't our most pressing problem. This preoccupation with the issue isn't helping anyone."
Obama, for his part, noted that his Republican critics "have a short memory, because, as I recall, I'm inheriting a $1.3 trillion deficit, annual deficit, from them."
I also think it is, yes, more than a bit ridiculous for the press to complain that Obama didn't talk about the wars when he wasn't asked.
And finally, I wish someone had asked any of the questions
Potomac, Md.: Dan, what are the chances that maybe Obama will pull a Bill Clinton and co-opt some of the GOPs agenda at least budget-wise?
Given what Clinton achieved with welfare reform during the GOP-controlled Congress, could Obama do the same with spending? How much unnecessary federal spending can be devolved back to states? I sort of read in the usual GOP hypocritical anti-big-spending rhetoric that this is what they want to do. Why don't we just give it to them?
Just a thought.
Dan Froomkin: I'm sure he's looking for something in the GOP agenda that he can love. But will he find anything?
Boston: To answer your query, the President is not an entertainer. If the citizenry or media find him too boring, that's a fault within themselves.
Dan Froomkin: Yes, but that doesn't answer the question, which is: Is it happening?
Toronto Canada: "Obama likened being president to piloting an ocean liner, rather than driving a speedboat -- even as his immediate audience continued to judge him as if he was driving a speedboat."
I love this word picture, it has been part of my intellectual furniture since a retired Canadian diplomat shared it with me when I was 19. Perhaps Obama was primed to use it, but I thought it came naturally to him in response to the question.
I wish he would come up with a word picture for handling the economy and why it will take some time. The first part - arresting the decline in employment - I see as when you are heading down hill faster and faster, when you put the brakes on you first stop going faster, but you're still going down hill, then you start to slow down, then you come to a stop. But I can't combine it with the stimulus image, which I think is you see an obstacle in the road, if you hit the brakes you come to a stop, but if you accelerate and steer around it, you get out of the problem and you are still going. Maybe someone else can help me with a better and more applicable word picture.
I love this calm, intellectually astute gentleman, and agree with you that he sees it as an essential part of his job that the American public, rather than the media pundits should monitor and assess his performance on an ongoing basis.
If anything I would support more of Professor Obama explaining at length such things as why bailing out Wall Street is necessary to help Main street.
Dan Froomkin: Your analogy needs work. ;-)
And I thought
, blogging for The Washington Post, made a good case that Obama needs to do a better job of explaining the economic mess. (But I don't think last night was the right opportunity.)
McLean, Va.: Dan -- How come you weren't at the press conference so you could ask one of the ten questions you had prepared yourself? If you have to be invited, how do we get WaPo to get you on the list?
Dan Froomkin: You're very kind. I write about the White House from a remove. That's my job. It has advantages and disadvantages. Plus I'm technically an opinion writer -- and it's traditionally reporters who attend.
Raleigh NC: Good afternoon. What did you think of Obama allowing follow up questions last night?
Dan Froomkin: I thought it was terrific. I thought Obama's first presidential press conference in February was a missed opportunity because he didn't engage with the press corps -- just sort of lectured away. Last night, I thought the follow-ups allowed reporters to request -- and Obama to provide -- sharper responses than he had the first time around. I think that was actually good for both sides. His second stem-cell answer, for instance, was pretty direct. I can't remember what else.
Chicago: Do you think it's possible Chuck Todd lives in such an upper class bubble that he's not aware most Americans are sacrificing, a great deal? I do. I think Chuck Todd was subconsciously asking, "What should upper class people like me be sacrificing?"
Just a side note -- every time I see these extremely highly paid media people (the Brian Williams, the Chris Matthews) do segments on people hurting economically, I want to demand that they donate half their multimillion dollar salaries to food banks.
Dan Froomkin: I don't know. Although I'm quite sure the upper class bubble is aware that their taxes are likely to go up -- so isn't what they're asking: Why isn't everyone else being asked to sacrifice, too? (Of course, that's even worse.)
Todd, who is a very sharp guy in lots of ways, is now 0 for 2 in asking intelligent questions at presidential pressers. The last time, he asked why the stimulus plan encourages increased consumer spending. "[I]sn't consumer spending or overspending how we got into this mess?" Todd asked. Obama, whose restraint is really sometimes quite impressive, chose not to respond: "BECAUSE THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT." Although he could have.
Boynton Beach, Fla.: The media seems to be overcompensating for its MIA performance during the previous administration (failing to aggressively report for fear they would lose access to key players). It is now trying so hard to be hard-nosed that it isn't stopping to think out what people want to know. That's why Obama is effective when he escapes the Beltway morass. People want answers, not politics and if the 535 in Congress don't want to work on our behalf, they can stand in the unemployment lines too.
Dan, please speak to the standards that Obama is establishing for future presidents: i.e., intellectual, curious, able to think on their feet, serious, but with an ability to laugh at himself...
Dan Froomkin: It is interesting how different the questions are when he's talking to "real people." As I wrote after his first town hall meeting, turning Washington's attention to what's going on in the real world may be as important reason to do them as any.
As for standards for future presidents, I don't think detailed personality traits are fair ground. So what I'd like to see is clear, consistent action on such issues as transparency, especially using the Internet, which I do think would set a standard we could reasonably expect the next president to follow.
Re: boring: How can we seriously be wondering if people are bored by Obama? Everywhere he goes, ratings shot up, so clearly we arean't bored by him. We -want- to see him and -want- to hear him.
Dan Froomkin: That's a good point.
Unmined, ah, parody: Your questioner must have missed Jon Stewart having some fun with Obama's pauses by inserting inflammatory, hysterical phrases in the pauses.
Dan Froomkin: Link? Link? I need a link!
Minneapolis, Minn.: The media tends to have distaste for politicans demonstrating their detailed knowledge of issues. Witness the derision of Clinton and Gore when they embraced their inner policy wonks.
Dan Froomkin: And that's a good point, too.
But what does that say about our elite media exactly?
I blame, in part, our treating
as the highest form of political discourse.
Chicago: I like Obama, but I must say I am distracted by his constant teleprompter use. I've seen him make some embarrassing stumbles using it, so now every time he uses it I'm nervously waiting for another stumble to happen. He is an extremely gifted speaker, which makes his reliance on it kind of hard to understand. I wish he'd wean himself off it.
Dan Froomkin: Hmm. OK, maybe I've dismissed the matter a bit too cavalierly. But it still doesn't rise to the level of if-he-didn't-have-a-Teleprompter-could-he-talk?
The best explanation I've seen for why Obama wants to get every word just right, by the way, was in a profile of Obama speechwriter John Favreau, by
of the Chicago Tribune: "'I've never worked for a politician who values words as much as the president does,' Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said. 'The speechwriter is an unusually important person in the operation. [Obama's] willingness to entrust his words to others is limited.'"
Seattle, outside Beltway: Dan, I've been noticing the echo chamber effect of the Beltway seems to magnify things most Americans (95 percent) don't care about - e.g. top tax rate returning to Reagan's lowest rate - and ignoring things most Americans care about - e.g. jobs, tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, investments in America instead of Wall Street bonuses.
Is this normal or are the media really failing at their job? Or is it that most media pundits make more than $250,000 a year?
Dan Froomkin: Actually, I blame cable.
Helena, Montana: Did Anne Compton just not have a question to ask or was that "how come I just suddenly see that you're a black man" question really prepared in advance? I really have respected Anne's work when she was reporting on ABC TV, but that question was really bad.
Dan Froomkin: Oh, I don't agree at all. I thought it was a great question. The role of race is a fascinating, but entirely undercovered story. In fact, I think it's crazy how much the press corps ignores it. It was also an admirable attempt to get Obama to introspect a bit, and talk about how conversations take place and how decisions are made. It was my favorite question of the night. And I was sad that Obama basically ducked it.
Here, for the record, is what she asked (after expressing surprise that she was called on): "I'm just wondering whether, in any of the policy debates that you've had within the White House, the issue of race has come up or whether it has in the way you feel you've been perceived by other leaders or by the American people?"
"But what does that say about our elite media exactly?": It means that they know they don't know the details as well as they should. Hence the question last night about whether we need a global currency(!) when the Chinese were talking about currency reserves.
Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. And indeed, the people covering the White House are basically all generalists. Or rather, they're political reporters, and to that extent they specialize, it is in conflict and calling horseraces.
You know what I would love? I would love news organizations to start sending the appropriate beat reporter to the press conferences. And maybe columnists, too.
Philadelphia: I thought both press conferences were pretty similar in tone, and are distinct from his other settings. I'd guess he's very deliberately using these sessions to be "professorial," to take his time and think through his answers out loud. As a pretty close observer, but not fully obsessed, that's my view.
I don't get the commentary about Obama always being in campaign mode. That was the product of the Clinton administration, followed by GWB, and picked up now. It's how the presidency works, as opposed to a dictatorship. Reagan certainly did it, via Deaver's PR/packaging genius. The one recent president who did not constantly campaign was GHWB. Look where that got him.
Dan Froomkin: Well, I do think you're right that the two pressers had more in common than not, and that he was quite professorial in both.
As for the distinction between campaign mode and communication mode, I'm not sure. I guess to me the complexity of the message, and the willingess to give voice to opposing views would be a factor.
Boston MA: I actually find the President pretty funny. I laughed out loud at his answer to the Middle East question at the end: "Well it doesn't make it easier"
Let's face it, what going on right now is pretty dense stuff that requires thought and complexity. Americans generally don't find that entertaining. But maybe we are changing.
Dan Froomkin: That was some pretty dry humor, wasn't it?
Stephen Collinson of AFP had asked: "Mr. President, you came to office pledging to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. How realistic do you think those hopes are now, given the likelihood of a prime minister who is not fully signed up to a two-state solution and a foreign minister who has been accused of insulting Arabs?"
Obama replied: "It's not easier than it was," and there was, if I recall a little pause before he continued: "but I think it's just as necessary."
Brooklyn, NY: "Oh, I don't agree at all. I thought it was a great question."
But it's a bit of a softball question, isn't it? Don't you sort of have to accept his answer whatever it is? You couldn't say about his other questions? Then again, I suppose every single questions doesn't have to have a "gotcha!" element to it, does it?
Dan Froomkin: It's the change-ups that work the best. Remember when Bush was asked his biggest mistake? His (inability to) answer was incredibly telling. He joked about not having been given the question ahead of time -- by which, I suspect he meant that his aides hadn't prepped him for such a query. So a) an unexpected question can sometimes elicit the most genuine, unrehearsed answer; and b) a personal question can, too. Incidentally, I would have liked to hear what Obama considers his biggest mistake so far.
Chantilly, Va.: Boring? Pedantic? Seriously? There is a huge amount of work to be done...were people expecting Obama to tell knock-knock jokes?
(And the whole teleprompter thing is just ridiculous. What a non-issue. Sheesh.)
Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comment.
Philadelphia: Why should anyone be surprised that Republicans, on Capitol Hill and out in the country, don't approve of Obama? Obama is a pretty liberal Democrat doing pretty liberal stuff -- increasing government spending, raising taxes on the rich, lifting restrictions on abortion, closing Guantanamo Bay, etc. If I was a Republican, I wouldn't approve of him either.
Dan Froomkin: That's worth keeping in mind. Although statistically speaking, there must be some Republicans out there in the real world who do approve of him -- although there don't seem to be any in Congress.
Yelm, Wa: Can political reporters ever find a way to find more objective ways to cover something which is so subjective by nature ?
Dan Froomkin: No. But they can base their subjectivity on their knowledge and wisdom and experience, rather than by triangulation.
Juneau, Alaska: It was refreshing having a president talk to the us as though we were adults and not try to scare and frighten us to get a bill/budget/opinion passed.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comment.
Boring Press Conference: Maybe Obama could do the next one in iambic pentameter? What do people want from him? If the press asked more probing, interesting questions that explored his thought process on issues, these things would be much improved. But they ask about the talking points of the day and he responds with the talking points of the day. The interesting answers all came from questions that were a little out of the blue.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good points.
And I think limerics would be good.
Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to run. Thanks everyone for all your excellent questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every day at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.
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