The Washington Post

In the Loop: Obama isn’t fond of speaking from the Oval Office


President Obama was last seen speaking from the Oval Office on national television in August 2010. It’s not clear he’ll do it again. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Did you catch President Obama’s Oval Office speech on Aug. 31, 2010, announcing the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq? No? Too bad.

It was a historic speech — not just because he told 29.2 million viewers we were done fighting in that country, but also because it may have been the last one he’s going to give from behind his office desk.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Obama gave only two televised Ovals in his first term. The first was a somewhat ponderous 17-minute yawn on June 15, 2010, explaining how he was indeed on top of things regarding the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Two months later, he gave a much stronger speech about Iraq.

But he looked uncomfortable in that setting, just sitting and looking into the camera — and we’re told that he was.

So in the past four years, Obama has abandoned that format, preferring to make important speeches outside Washington, at sites related to his message; or standing behind a lectern in the East Room after a stroll on a red carpet through the Cross Hall; or on the South Lawn after a walk down a narrow sidewalk.

Gone is the gravitas of speaking from the Oval Office. While reporters and pols may recognize the East Room or the South Lawn, those White House locations are barely, if at all, recognizable to most Americans — let alone particularly significant to them.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been ample reason to use the Oval Office, such as after the killing of Osama bin Laden or the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., or, more recently, in response to events in Ukraine and Gaza.

Presidents surely have overused the Oval Office backdrop. Richard Nixon used it some two dozen times in his 61 / 2 years in office, including his resignation speech though mostly to talk about Vietnam. Ronald Reagan used it the most, 34 times, according to a count by the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, including speeches about the Venice Economic Summit, arms control and the deficit.

Jimmy Carter used it 10 times, most famously in 1979 to talk about the energy crisis, droning on about how we should carpool, take public transportation, “park your car one extra day per week,” “obey the speed limit” and “lower your thermostats.”

It’s hard to imagine another setting for John F. Kennedy discussing the Cuban missile crisis, or George W. Bush talking about the 9/11 attacks. Bush, by the way, spoke from that office only six times. Apparently he, too, was less than comfortable speaking from there; he used the East Room and other White House venues as well.

If Obama doesn’t speak from the Oval again (the White House hasn’t ruled out the option), he will have used it fewer times than any president since Harry Truman, who in 1947 gave the first televised address from that office — on conserving food to aid war-ravaged Europe.

Again with the wacky tobacky

The congressman who brought a joint to a hearing, and injected weed jokes into speeches long before legalizing marijuana became mainstream, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), is holding his final House Oversight subcommittee hearing before the August recess on — what else? Being stoned.

Mica uses the phrase “smoking the funny weed” to dismiss ideas he finds ridiculous (he also has a recurring joke about “sitting on our assets”), and in his role as chairman of the Oversight panel’s subcommittee on government operations he has held almost monthly hearings about marijuana this year. He skipped April (nothing on 4/20?).

On Thursday, riffing off an old John Candy movie, Mica will chair a hearing titled “Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Operating While Stoned.” (Kids, do not smoke and fly.)

Despite Mica’s evident fascination with the drug, he is no supporter. But he’s long been up for a healthy debate. In fact, in 1999, he held a hearing on pot legalization — the first one since 1988, according to New York Times coverage of that Bill Clinton-era hearing.

“He is one of the most obsessive drug warriors in Congress,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “It’s kind of a mystery to me why he cares so much about this issue.”

At previous hearings, Mica has referred to marijuana as a “gateway drug” and criticized the Obama administration’s decision to turn a blind eye in states where it’s legal.

But Mica may want to check in with his constituents. A new Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters found that a majority — 55 percent to 41 percent — support allowing people to “possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.” And those coveted millennial voters? They support it 72 percent to 25 percent.

She’s no stranger

Adding a layer of irony to last week’s embarrassing performance — you know, when a U.S. congressman mistook a nonwhite U.S. official for a foreigner — the Indian American woman testifying once was a staffer on the same committee.

Yes, Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, was a staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 1999 through 2002.

After more than a decade working in U.S. government and policy, Biswal returned to the committee, which appears to have been the first stop in her Capitol Hill career, to find that at least one congressman did not bother to read her bio before questioning her at a hearing.

Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.), in a cringe-worthy moment, kind of smirked and referred to India’s government as “your government.”

Biswal, who was testifying with Arun Kumar of the Commerce Department about India’s new prime minister, seemed to take it all in stride. She even tweeted Saturday that it was “an honest mistake.”

To be fair to Clawson, he’s new, so it’s not as if he would have remembered Biswal from her time on the committee. And it’s not as if it came up during the hearing. . . . Oh, wait — yes, it did.

“Before that, Ms. Biswal served . . . as a professional staff for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where she was responsible for South Asia,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), introducing her.

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Colby Itkowitz is the lead anchor of the Inspired Life blog. She previously covered the quirks of national politics and the federal government.

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