President Barack Obama’s first presidential news conference was performed feebly by the once-ferocious White House press corps and shrewdly — if deceptively — by the president. In the six years I did communications on former President Ronald Reagan’s White House staff, I don’t recall a single news conference in which there were no follow-up questions, no challenges to anything the president had said recently, no assertions of fact that the president was challenged to deal with. In fact, I don’t remember former President Bill Clinton, either, ever getting a full 45-minute prime-time news conference pass.
Yet Monday night, all the questions but one were of the "please, sir, could you tell us how you plan to deal with x?" variety. Only Major Garrett of Fox News raised even a slightly embarrassing question: What was Vice President Joe Biden referring to when he said the administration had a 30 percent chance of failing at some initiative? And I must confess that if I had been the vice president, I would not have been happy with the president’s answer, which was, in essence: I don’t know what Biden was talking about, but that sounds like him.
It can’t be good that the president is making his vice president the public butt of his snickering after only three weeks in office. Not that it is Biden’s fault. Along with a fair amount of blarney, Joe Biden also makes more honest and candid observations in an afternoon than many politicians make in a lifetime. One comes away from a conversation with Biden with at least one truthful nugget.
The same cannot be said for President Obama. Both Monday night and usually, the president offers his audience one of the finest verisimilitudes of sincerity and manly vigor this side of an old Laurence Olivier performance of "Henry V."
One has to listen closely to spot the straw men and general bunk that carefully — indeed, it would seem, instinctively — are laced into his answers. While he repeatedly said he was willing to negotiate with Republicans on the stimulus bill, he pointed out that some of them wanted to do nothing. Well, perhaps there may be a few who want to do nothing. But Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate are proposing their own very large stimulus packages that, using President Obama’s economists’ own methods, would create more jobs faster than Obama’s version would. In fact, according to the study, it would create 6.2 million jobs, compared with the president’s plan’s 3-4 million.
Now, whether the president’s plan or the GOP’s plan actually would create that many jobs, no one can know for sure. But for the president to leave the American public with the powerful implication that the Republicans are not worthy negotiating partners because they just don’t want to do anything in the face of the crisis is a particularly sordid bit of rhetorical manipulation.
Mind you, he didn’t lie. There are a few backbench Republicans who propose nothing. But as the leadership, backed by the overwhelming majority of GOP members, is proposing big plans and is trying, without success, to engage in negotiations with either the president or his congressional party allies, the president willfully misled, by implication, his public.
In another statement that can’t have made liberal Democrats any happier than it made conservative Republicans, he contrasted his reasonable self to both liberal Democrats who measure education success only by how much money they spend and Republicans who want to "blow up" public education. As the family friend and educational partner of Bill Ayers, who actually did blow up public buildings, the language was a little cheeky. But more importantly — and more shrewdly — he grossly mischaracterized both his opponents and his allies to make himself look like the only decent man in Washington.
As he patronizingly says (over and over again), it has taken Washington a long time to develop its bad habits and it will take time for those in Washington to get over their partisanship and ideology. But by gosh and by golly, good-natured optimist that he is, our plucky president will keep trying to hold out the hand of reason and cooperation.
Our president has let it be known that he is an admirer of Abraham Lincoln’s — as well he should be, as are we all. He should take the time to read Old Abe’s speeches and public letters. Honest Abe was exactly that. He would make his cases with meticulous and honest presentations of facts. He would describe his opponents’ arguments honestly and fairly and then knock them down by genuine reason harnessed to a profound sense of morality. Lincoln wasn’t fast and clever; he was slow and honest, and he carved out a place in the pantheon for the ages. He also noted that "you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." He thus left his newest admirer at least two lessons for a successful presidency.