Now that his first White House news conference is over, if Barack Obama sounded to you less like the President reaching out across the aisle and more like the candidate pounding away at Republicans and the Bush Administration last year, you were not alone.
I was there with my colleagues in the East Room last night and watched the 44th President repeatedly deliver some partisan — and decidedly left-of-center lines: "tax cuts alone can’t solve our economic problems" and cutting taxes "lead us to this crisis;" We "won’t return to the failed theories of the past eight years;" Obama grows angry over opposition "when I hear that from people who engaged in doubling the national debt" and now offer "revisionist history."
That was strong medicine, all right. And one thing is clear. Where Obama might well have campaigned on changing the way Washington worked and reached out to Republicans to enact his stimulus package, Obama today is drawing a line in the sand.
Whether it is with exclusively Democratic votes or not, he wants Congress to simply "send me a bill that creates or saves four million jobs." In other words, It’s not important where the votes are coming from — just pass it. The partisanship that he railed against on the campaign trail is still there, so Obama himself is becoming more partisan.
"It’s gonna talke time to break down those bad habits," he told CBS-TV correspondent Chip Reid, who asked if his emphasis on bipartisanship was now over.
To underscore the shift to partisanship evinced at his news conference, Obama threw some "red meat" to those on the left who are increasingly dominant in his Democratic Party. He stated his belief that a program in which government intervenes in the economic was the only workable course, telling reporters it is "only government that can break this vicious cycle." To those who "don’t think the federal government should be involved in energy policy," Obama said, "I respectfully disagree." He made the case for the federal government to be involved in building "state of the art schools."
In recognizing a question from Sam Stein of the Huffington Post (the Huffington Post!!!??), the President did not dismiss a call from Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) for a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to investigate misdeeds of the Bush Administration.
"Noboby’s above the law," remarked Obama, "If there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted." Appearing less partisan and more presidential for a moment, Obama became dismissive of the Leahy proposal for a retribution panel and said he was "more interested in looking forward than backward." But he didn’t dismiss it outright, concluding that he would "take a look at Sen. Leahy’s proposal." Again, it’s all red meat for the left in his party who will rally the troops in mid-term elections next year.
To be sure, Obama did appear the commander-in-chief in dealing with questions on Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. His moment of pathos came when he told CNN’s Ed Henry that his "most sobering moment" as President was in "signing letters to families of heroes." And the old Chicago White Sox fan showed he was "with it" in saying he felt the scandals surrounding baseball great Alex Rodriguez was "depressing news," that kids watching "A-Rod" will learn "there are no shortcuts."
And, oh yes, after years of being overlooked and ignored by George W. Bush, press room "grande dame" Helen Thomas was in her signature front-row seat and called upon by Barack Obama. "My inaugural moment," is what Obama dubbed being questioned for the first time by the 88-year-old Thomas.
So what are my thoughts about the event itself? Well, I’m still reeling over not only being okayed for the news conference but sitting in the third row. After filling out two electronic forms over the weekend, I received word from Katie Hogan of the White House Press Office that yes, I had a seat, at the Monday news conference and that I was to be in the James Brady Briefing Room when the doors opened at 6:45 PM.
"It doesn’t matter if you get in line ahead of someone else," Katie shouted when the doors opened, "You all have assigned seats." Upon picking up my number (Seat #65) and walking back into the room, I was surrounded by colleagues who said I had done well in the selection. It was a good seat.
But, as you may have seen on television, Obama didn’t call on me. A few in back of me such as the storied Goyal of the Indian press were shouting "Mr. President, Mr. President"–a no-no in press conferences since Gerald Ford was President in the 1970’s. The President calls on who he chooses and he ignored the shouters. In fact, it appeared as though he was reading down a list of selected questioners rather than choosing those who would question him from a seating chart.
At times, he would call a name and ask aloud "is he here?" or "where is she?" (Onetime Duke University basketball great Reggie Love, Obama’s campaign "body man," walked by after putting some papers on the presidential podium before the conference, but wouldn’t say what they were).
As always, there was grumbling among my colleagues as they walked from the East Room when Obama concluded. While some of the hearty hands of the Bush press conferences were in choice seats–David Jackson of "USA Today" ("Action Jackson" to Bush) and Ken Herman of the Cox Newspapers (whom fellow Texan Bush simply called "Herman"), Obama was calling on the AP, the Networks, and new favorites such as "Huffington Post."
So while some things are the same in this Administration’s news conferences as in the previous Administration’s, there are some things that are different.