Obama in Campaign Mode At Third Press Conference

One hundred days after becoming President and his third nationally televised press conference just over, one thing you can say about Barack Obama:  he never really gets out of the campaign mode.

As my colleagues and I filed out of the East Room of the White House last night, the sentiment among us was that, sure, Obama did an outstanding job in this forum.  He always does.  This is one of Obama’s strengths:  rather than “soundbites,” the 44th President specializes in “mini-speeches” as he replies to reporters’ questions.  Whether the subject was the growing “swine flu” epidemic, the issue of prisoner interrogation conducted during the previous Administration, the auto company financial rescue or the switch from Republican to Democrat by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, Obama deployed his own well-crafted “stump speech.”

It was almost as if it were a year ago and he was still Candidate Obama on the campaign trail.  And, as several of my colleagues who prepared question and were not called on pointed out, his “mini speeches” kept the questioning low for the one-hour session.  In fact, Obama took seventeen questions from thirteen reporters, or about as many as he did at his press conference last month.

It Sounded Good, Didn’t It?

As we waited in the James Brady Briefing Room to be escorted to the East Room for the event, we guessed about which questions would highlight the “100 Days” milestone.  The consensus was he would face the most questions about the economy and the swine flu pandemic.  

Obama did say in his opening remarks that he was “pleased with our success” during the first 100 days.  But after speaking of his desire to have greater success during the “second 100 days” and the “third 100 days,” the opening question from Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press was about the swine flu and whether he would close the border with Mexico (he won’t) and then Deb Price of the Detroit News weighed in with a question about the Chrysler and GM reorganizations (of course).  

The latter question gave Obama a chance to sound a bit like a free marketeer — something he isn’t often accused of these days, with the administration having ordered the firing of GM head Rick Waggoner and then summoning credit card executives to the White House to “suggest” new guidelines.  “I would love to get the U.S. government out of the auto business,” he proclaimed, adding that he wanted the auto industry to be “strong, competitive, and viable.”  

Well, it sounded good, didn’t it?  But whether the auto industry is actually moving in that direction or whether the government will sell its controlling interests in it are for another day’s story.  

CBS-TV’s Chip Reid asked the anticipated question about Specter’s change of parties and whether the almost-filibuster proof Senate it has brought about will make Republican nightmares of “one party rule” come true.  Obama, of course, praised Specter’s “strong independent streak,” and then promptly predicted the Pennsylvanian was “now free to work with us”– a not-so-subtle hint that he would provide the pivotal vote in ending filibusters in the Senate against anything Obama wants and Republicans don’t.  As a Republican, Obama noted, Specter was “feeling pressure not to [work with the White House].”  

Most of the remaining questions dealt with the controversy over interrogation techniques of captured terrorists under the Bush Administration, recent turmoil in Pakistan, withdrawal from Iraq, abortion, and immigration reform.  Then there was the softball of the night:  the query about what surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled Obama the most about the Presidency.  This gave Obama the opportunity to pause, write down the four feelings, ponder aloud and deliver some warm-sounding banalities.  

Obama did his utmost to sound above politics and even spoke of “a whole host of areas where we can work together” with Republicans on Capitol Hill.  But in sounding all-too-many things that Republicans cannot work with him on — the auto industry, immigration “reform,” to name two — Obama clearly showed that he was in fact going to be the partisan Democrat that he always was.  The “never-ended campaign” that was crafted by Bill Clinton’s war-room pros Stan Greenberg and James Carville lives.

And, as was demonstrated last night, it is once more overseen by a master.