As Americans huddled around their televisions last night to see President Obama’s first prime-time press conference, they were instinctively not only judging his performance, but that of the White House press corps. Throughout the past two years, there has been scrutiny from the right regarding the press’ treatment of Barack Obama, and a defensive posture on the left that he was indeed getting the tough questions. How did they perform?
The Crib Sheet: First, it was interesting to see President Obama call on reporters from a list of predetermined correspondents that included left-wing blogger Sam Stein from the Huffington Post and just missed liberal radio host Ed Schultz, who had a front row seat last night. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, this practice of using a crib sheet was also exercised; however in Bush’s case, the liberal media elite lambasted him for it.
In 2004, Mother Jones called it a “well ordered list of reporters on that crib sheet.” And in 2003, the American Journalism Review went further by saying: “Bush himself acknowledged the event was ‘scripted’ when he called on CNN’s John King from a predetermined list of reporters. Critics argued the press should not have succumbed so meekly to such an indignity, and some even accused the White House press corps of submitting questions for advance approval–an allegation that beat reporters vehemently denied.”
It is good to know the “critics” have grown so accustomed to such “indignity” that this issue has not even been raised today, nor the double standard that would have been applied had Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh been granted front row access to a White House press briefing.
Helen Thomas: Many Presidents have had to patiently placate Helen Thomas, the former duchess of UPI, and President Obama is no different. She once referred to him as “no Martin Luther King.” Last night she scored on two fronts, first referring to Al Qaeda as “so-called terrorists” and then trying to get President Obama to publicly acknowledge that Israel has nuclear capabilities, long understood as a cheap question.
While President Obama did not adequately rebuff Ms. Thomas’ assertion that Al Qaeda are not necessarily terrorists, or even challenge her at all, he deserves a pass on this moment since the question was so absurd and insulting that many good people may have been thrown off. However, in reporting this incident, the President is getting high marks for being “refreshing” and correcting her, which did not occur. (He did use the word “terrorists” without qualification in his reply.) This might not be worthy of discussion if President Obama would at least admit there is a “Global War on Terror.” It’s a term he refuses to embrace, as his administration reverts to fighting this war in the courts and not on the battlefield.
Ms. Thomas is on record comparing Israel to the Nazis, and referring to the war in Iraq as a “crusade.” President Bush grew tired of Ms. Thomas’ remarks years ago and eventually refused to call on her. President Obama may want to adopt this practice.
A-Rod: As Congress debates a Trillion Dollar Spending Bill and another Trillion Dollar bank bailout; as our troops fight bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan; as President Obama’s Cabinet selections keep dropping out; as Israel prepares for an election; and as a new administration emerges in Washington with policy questions that deserve answer — the Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher chose this perilous time to ask the President about Alex Rodriguez and his steroid use. As a former baseball owner, President Bush often received questions about baseball, and about steroids. But in this case, in the first live White House press conference by a President with no connection to Major League Baseball, this question goes in the “missed opportunity” category.
Teleprompter: President Obama should be careful to use his teleprompter in these settings. As he delivered his opening remarks, he never once looked the American people in the eye, as he asked them for latitude in spending a Trillion borrowed dollars of their money. These are not the moments for speeches, but for answers. The first answer he gave to a reporter clocked in at over ten minutes. Unless this opportunity for a meaningful exchange between reporters and President becomes an often repeated routine, he should answer more questions and deliver fewer speeches.
Tough Questions: The toughest question President Obama faced yesterday didn’t even come from a White House reporter. It came during his visit to Elhart, Indiana where he held a Town Hall meeting. During the meeting he was asked a question by a local citizen about the “untrustworthy” people he was choosing for his Cabinet that could not pay their taxes. This prompted a chorus of boos from supporters who were not happy about this honest line of questioning. But to President Obama’s credit, he called off boos, acknowledged it was a serious question and then answered it, repeating his line that he had made some “mistakes.”
During the news conference, a reporter from a major television network commented on Twitter that it was refreshing to see a President admit the flaws of his plan, adding “when was the last time you saw a President do that?” This sums up last night’s press conference. As the press corps stood in awe of the President’s apt speaking skills and command of the lectern, they failed to see that owning minor million dollar flaws in the “stimulus bill” only distracts them from the intentional billion dollar programs that are irreversibly doubling the size of welfare, health care and government in our country.
In this case, there is no mistake for President Obama to admit since it is a calculated strategy to enact a liberal agenda in the guise of crisis management. The President earned some points last night for his handling of his first press conference. Let’s hope the press scores a few next time.