Opinion: Obama’s news conference: So much to talk about, so he did. The result: So little to remember

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Holy Harvard, this president loves to talk.

Upwards of 9,000 words’ worth during his first White House news conference since last spring.

He took 76 minutes to answer 13 questions. (Full text, as usual, right here on The Ticket.)

And that’s what turns out to be a problem for this man, so otherwise notorious for his spoken eloquence, discipline and icy control.

Obama lost control of his own news conference -- in his own house. Is he flailing?


In politics -- especially presidential news conference politics -- it’s not how much you say. It’s not even what you say or don’t say.

It’s what people remember you said.

Quick! What was the main Obama team message out of this news conference? The economy? Afghan corruption? Playing defense on healthcare costs? Admitting he hasn’t....

... been able to keep some promises, like closing Guantanamo? Or changing the harsh partisan tone of the capitol? Or blaming minority Republicans? Or the import of religious freedom? Or the Mideast peace talks? Or whether the latest new stimulus spending really is stimulus spending? (Laughter) Or... Obama talked so long about so many things that, in terms of strategic public communications strategy, he talked about nothing.

Obama’s mind and mouth were on talking point cruise control, running through the prepared topics and answers his staff gave him, until the end. Then, strangely enough prompted by a question from Fox News’ Wendell Goler, the Great Stone Face opened and he began to speak like a human being, movingly, about religion, the Muslim religion and all religions, and their freedom to worship in this land and the Americans who are fighting to preserve all that.

All well and good. And if you like Obama, you’ll love that.He sees the proposed Koran-burning as a provocation to Muslims while the 15-story mosque near ground zero is not a provocation of American sensitivities but an exercise of religious freedom.

Most commentators will likely talk that one to death. It was indeed surprisingly arresting for this guy. So those who watched or read it get a sense that he’s a human sometimes. But, honestly, from the point of view of politics -- which is what a president is all about -- so what?

The Obama White House’s obvious goal from the minute you’re reading this until the last poll closes on Judgment Day, Nov. 2, is what they have done and are doing about this messed-up economy they inherited. And the millions of lost jobs that are just starting to come back.

But not many believe it yet. But they really are, trust him, if only he could talk enough to convince sufficient voters that truly today would have been so very much worse without the invisible stuff he did while he was selling healthcare in more than five dozen town halls last year that nobody cared about.

After a year-plus of ignoring the job/economy polls and jabbering healthcare and financial reform and coaxing Blue Dog Democrats to head for the cliff with them, Obama’s Chicago crowd is full throttle Jobs/Economy.

Read the president’s opening remarks (displayed for him on his Teleprompter, see photo below). They were designed to set the tone for the entire news conference:

‘Before I take your questions, I just want to talk a little bit about our continuing efforts to dig ourselves out of this recession and to grow our economy.

‘As I said in Cleveland on Wednesday (full Cleveland text and commentary here), I ran for president because I believed the policies of the previous decade had left our economy weaker and our middle class struggling. They were policies that cut taxes, especially for millionaires and billionaires, cut regulations for corporations and for special interests, and left everyone else pretty much fending for themselves. They were policies that ultimately culminated in a financial crisis and a terrible recession that we’re still digging out of today.

‘We came into office with a different view about how our economy should work. Instead of tax cuts for millionaires, we believe in cutting taxes for middle-class families and small business owners. We’ve done that.

‘Instead of letting corporations play by their own rules, we believe in making sure that businesses treat workers well and consumers friendly, and play by the same rules as everyone else. So we’ve put in place common-sense rules that accomplish that.

‘Instead of tax breaks that encourage corporations to create jobs overseas, we believe in tax breaks for companies that create jobs right here in the United States of America. And so we’ve begun to do that....’

But there was no news in that. The media has heard that at greater length twice since Monday. So they began sniffing for something else. Something, uh, new, as in news, the thing pols work so hard to appear to create at most media opportunities to get free exposure for themselves and their agenda.

But with nothing new to digest (‘As I said in Cleveland...’), the questions began arriving like mortar rounds from all directions: So you think Democrats will do badly come Nov. 2? Where exactly could you compromise with Republicans on tax cuts? So this is really a second stimulus? Two months already and no head of the new consumer protection agency -- what’s up with that?

Nine years after Sept. 11 why do you think Americans seem even more suspicious of Islam? What about the Middle East peace talks? And the settlements? And who’s-it the Florida pastor? How can you lecture Afghan President Hamid Karzai about corruption when so many of the corrupt officials are on the U.S. payroll?

And then came Chuck Todd’s classic changeup: ‘How have you changed Washington?’

Uhm. ‘Well,’ the president began, before launching into a lengthy recounting of how bad things were there before when you-know-who was on duty.

Finally, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shouted, ‘Last question.’

He should have said that 40 minutes earlier. By the end of what’s likely the president’s last formal news conference before the midterm, Obama had been allowed to talk so long and not brought so many questions back to the economy that his own economy message was buried amid all the other ingredients of the day’s news stew.

Using timing and fresh content to control the news flow is an elemental lesson usually etched in a politician’s mind on the very first day of the very first campaign. Not on the 596th day of governing from even a redecorated Oval Office.

Related Item:

41 Obama White House aides owe the IRS $831,000 in back taxes

-- Andrew Malcolm

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