Obama's 'Act Two'

Judging from the reaction of my colleagues in the White House Press Corps Tuesday night following Barack Obama’s second televised news conference, the President did not really ratchet up his latest performance much over the first such session he had with the press a month ago.

From his opening statement (read from the now-famous teleprompter, which I glimpsed for the first time), Obama tried to underscore that he is focused on the economy. Again restating that today’s economic crisis “didn’t happen overnight” and came after “many years and many failures,” the President also said there were “no quick fixes” and “no silver bullets.”

He defended his calls for regulatory powers of major financial institutions that are not banks (which the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation could step in to deal with during a crisis). Although Obama made a strong pitch for the “cap ‘n trade” energy policy, he stopped short of saying he would not sign a budget that didn’t include the controversial measure he has long championed.

As he has done frequently in speeches and question-and-answer sessions, Obama took a whack at Republican enemies of his budget. They have “short memories,” he said, reminding his critics on Capitol Hill of what he called the “$1.3 trillion deficit I inherited from them.”

And Obama once again said his budget would reduce non-discretionary domestic spending “to the lowest level it has been since the 1960’s” and “where we find programs that don’t work, we’ll eliminate them.” (Obama has yet to say how and when he intends to accomplish the latter when his stimulus package has already fattened funding for such programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts and Americorps).

The phrases are as familiar to Obama-watchers as the correspondents that he called on for the first questions from the list he had on the Presidential podium — Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, the White House correspondents from NBC, ABC, and CBS, CNN, and Fox News.

Some Things to Note

As he did in his February news conference, Obama last night called on precisely thirteen reporters and, counting the follow-up questions some of them got in, he answered eighteen questions in just under an hour. ABC-TV White House correspondent Jake Tapper’s withering description of Obama’s wordy style of replying during the February session as “loquaciously professorial” again proved right on the mark.

“How many of the questions do you think were planted?” was what several colleagues asked as soon as we got outside the gate of the White House following the news conference. At this point, no one is quite sure whether Team Obama followed the same practice as he did in February of sending a heads-up to all of the questioners who would be called on. (One who was clearly not alerted was veteran ABC Radio correspondent Ann Compton, who appeared startled when the President called on her; Obama even said to Compton “You sound surprised.”)

“Surprised” was the right adjective to describe the reaction of many of us in the East Room when the President called on the correspondent from Stars and Stripes. Coming on the heels of the Administration’s recent flirtation with and rejection of a proposal that would have required veterans’ to pay for their own health care, the query from one of the nation’s oldest military publications gave Obama an opportunity to “smooth things over” with offended vets — talking about his proposing “the largest increase in veterans’ benefits in thirty years.”

There was one noticeable difference between the February news conference and that last night: the recognition of two foreign correspondents. At a time when the American President has clearly captured the imaginations of the international community and the daily news briefings at the White House are jammed with more foreign correspondents than in memory, Obama in February disappointed his fans abroad by not calling on a single reporter from outside the U.S. With this almost surely brought to his attention, the President last night called on reporters from a Mexican news service and from the French news service AFP.

(With foreign correspondents comprising quite a large group of the 160-plus reporters who filled the East Room of the White House last night, it seems a good bet that the President will continue to include one or more of them on his list of questioners at future news conference. Among those attending a White House news conference for the first time were Guillaume Meyer of France’s Channel 24, Branka Slavica of Croatian TV, and Krisztina Bombera of Hungarian Public TV).

In terms of content, Obama said relatively little that was fresh last night. As to whether this will change — or whether he will take more questions and from a wider range of reporters — all I can say for now is the closing from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon serials: “Be with us next time.”