My colleagues in the White House press corps had the usual grousing after the President’s news conference Thursday: that Barack Obama’s answers were too long, that he took questions from only ten reporters (and only one, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, got to ask a follow up question), and that, as he did at his televised news conferences last year, the President chose his questioners from the correspondents in the front two rows with one exception (that being my friend Macarena Vidal of the Spanish news agency EFE, who asked about the President’s deployment of National Guardsmen to the Southwest border and his criticism of the Arizona immigration law).
But there was also a fresh criticism from the press once thought to be eating out of Obama’s hand: namely, that the President is increasingly sounding juvenile, whining about others and playing the “blame game” that his subordinates insist the administration is not playing
The case of Obama as “juvenile-in-chief” was most evident in his remarks about the Minerals Management Service (MMS), whose director Elizabeth Birnbaum resigned or was forced out hours before the White House news conference.
In his opening statement dealing with the oil spill off the Louisiana coast and the criticism of White House involvement in the cleanup along with BP, the President introduced a new villain into the controversy: the MMS.
“When Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that had been plagued by corruption for years,” said Obama. “This was the agency charged with not only providing permits, but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling. And the corruption was underscored by a recent Inspector General’s report that covered activity which occurred prior to 2007—a report that can only be described as appalling. And Secretary Salazar immediately took steps to clean up that corruption. But this oil spill has made clear that more reforms are needed.”
Then he went on about the MMS: “For years, there has been a scandalously close relationship between oil companies and the agency that regulates them. That’s why we’ve decided to separate the people who permit the drilling from those who regulate and ensure the safety of the drilling.”
When Chip Reid of CBS News injected the exit of Elizabeth Birnbaum into the news conference, the President said: “Well, let me just make the point that I made earlier, which is [Secretary of the Interior Ken] Salazar came in and started cleaning house, but the culture had not fully changed in MMS. And absolutely I take responsibility for that.”
For a moment, he sounded as though he was taking responsibility for what he deemed “corruption” at the MMS.
And then the whining started.
“There wasn’t sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place,” said Obama, “There’s no evidence that some of the corrupt practices that had taken place earlier took place under the current administration’s watch. [emphasis added]. But a culture in which oil companies were able to get what they wanted without sufficient oversight and regulation—that was a real problem. Some of it was constraints of the law, as I just mentioned, but we should have busted through those constraints.”
That’s not too hard to interpret. If there is or was “corruption” and “corrupt practices” at the MMS, then it primarily occurred under George W. Bush and his Department of the Interior—or, as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs frequently dubs it, “the previous administration.”
The President had other moments when he whined and played the “blame game.” He made a backhanded whack at Republicans who had pressed for more offshore drilling and for the oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) with the slogan “Drill, Baby, Drill.”
“Part of the reason you never heard me say, ‘Drill, baby, drill,’” said Obama, “[is] because we can’t drill our way out of the problem. It may be part of the mix as a bridge to a transition to new technologies and new energy sources, but we should be pretty modest in understanding that the easily accessible oil has already been sucked up out of the ground.”
You get the picture. The complaints and finger-pointing are mounting, and Obama’s present “villains” are the oil companies, the Republicans, and, of course, the previous administration. He even took a whack at Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), once a co-architect with Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) of alternative technologies legislation. Graham has been having second thoughts about the legislation as it now stands and Obama noted to the press that “Lindsey isn’t on the bill right now.”
If there is anything to be gleaned from yesterday’s news conference, it is the whining, the complaining, and finger pointing of the President who increasingly behaves like a “juvenile in chief.”
And in an increasingly turbulent election year, my prediction is: this is only the beginning.
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