President Obama used his first White House news conference in five months to grab some of the Super Tuesday campaign spotlight away from his GOP rivals, chiding them for their policies on Iran, women and contraception, and immigration, as well as the nation’s deteriorating political decorum.
As the Republican candidates campaigned outside the Beltway, Obama campaigned aggressively inside it, from the bully pulpit.
The setting was the Brady Briefing Room, a cramped alternative to the far grander East Room, where many previous news conferences have been staged. And Obama was by turns feisty, jocular and severe, parrying with a standing-room-only crowd of reporters who shouted questions without waiting to be called upon.
He was father in chief, fretting about whether the rough-edged debate over health insurance coverage for women’s contraception will keep his daughters and other young women from engaging in public life.
He was campaigner in chief, asking Latinos to back his reelection bid as a way to “send a message” to Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform.
And above all, Obama was commander in chief, chastising Republicans for what he has called “loose talk of war.”
“What is said on the campaign trail — those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” he said. “They are not commander in chief. When I see the casualness with which those folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs involved in war.”
Speaking hours after three of the Republican candidates addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on the need to harden the U.S. posture toward Iran, Obama said that “those who are . . . beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be.”
Typically, he added, “it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price. It’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”
A war in the oil-rich Middle East could pose a significant threat to Obama’s reelection effort if it triggered further increases in the price of gasoline.
The president pounced at a chance to turn the tables on reporters, posing his own rhetorical questions when asked about GOP criticism that his policies aim to keep gas prices high to encourage Americans to support renewable energy.
“Do you think the president of the United States, going into reelection, wants gas prices to go up higher?” Obama scoffed, drawing laughs from the press corps. “Is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense?”
The president was not afraid to get personal, invoking his wife and daughters in a discussion about his appeal to female voters.
He explained that his phone call to Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke last week was motivated by his hope that his daughters, Sasha and Malia, will be able to engage in public discourse without fear of being personally attacked. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh had called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she testified before Congress in favor of the Obama administration’s rule requiring health insurance providers to cover contraception.
Obama said he wants his daughters to “engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way. And I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.”
When a reporter asked whether other Democrats are pandering by referring to the contraception debate and Limbaugh’s remarks as a “war on women,” Obama referred to his wife, saying she has helped him understand that women will make up their own minds.
“One of the things I’ve learned being married to Michelle is I don’t need to tell her what it is that she thinks is important,” he said. “And there are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own determination about a whole range of issues. It’s not going to be narrowly focused just on contraception. It’s not going to be driven by one statement by one radio announcer.”