President Obama had a simple goal in his first press conference in more than five months: Don’t step on his own message(s).
The challenge for Obama was that he faced a barrage of questions on a series of controversial topics — Iran, Israel, Syria, Rush Limbaugh — that had the potential to steal headlines from the president’s preferred messaging if he made any sort of news on any of those fronts.
With one possible exception — “Do you think a president of the United States going into re-election wants gas prices higher?” Obama joked at one point in an off-key moment — he largely accomplished that goal, virtually ensuring that his tough talk against the GOP candidates on foreign policy matters would be the story of the presser.
“What’s said on the campaign trail....those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said at one point. “They aren’t commander in chief.” At another, he argued: “If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war, they should say that.”
With his rhetoric, Obama was working to make the case that while it’s easy to call for military action when you are running for president, it’s much harder to justify it when you are the president and your decision means American troops will be put in harm’s way.
This was another “adult in the room” moment for Obama in which he tries to cast himself as someone committed to getting it right while portraying his Republican opponents as interested solely in scoring political points.
(Need more evidence? “This is not a game,” Obama said at one point regarding foreign policy. And, he repeatedly noted he doesn’t undertake the use of military force in a “casual” manner.)
Even as Obama was trying to make that “adult” case, he was dodging political pitfalls left and right.
He carefully avoided reiterating his controversial remark that the 1967 boundaries of Israel would be a starting point for negotiations about Middle East peace.
Asked about Limbaugh and his comments regarding a Georgetown Law School student named Sandra Fluke, Obama was similarly diplomatic. “I don’t know what’s in Rush Limbaugh’s heart,” he said, before adding: “All decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don’t have any place in the public discourse.”
Staying on message is an underrated skill for presidents — and candidates. (Just ask Rick Santorum.) Obama’s ability to successfully navigate a series of potential political muddles in order to push his desired message out loud and clear should serve as a reminder to Republicans that the incumbent is possessed of considerable rhetorical gifts and will be no easy mark come fall.
He clearly struggled to stay on message during his first three years but as the calendar has turned to 2012 Obama seems to have found his focus.