Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Presser in Chief

President Obama’s first White House press conference was a marked contrast to the ones we were subjected to under President Bush. For one thing, he spoke in complete sentences — at times complete paragraphs — and he had complete control of more than just the talking points of the topics. Where Mr. Bush was content to get out the ten-word answer that he had rehearsed (including the little rehearsed drop-in joke or quip), Mr. Obama knew the depths of what he was talking about down to the granular level. That’s because he was responsible for crafting the policy he was promoting, not just grasping the topic sentence and leaving the details up to his staff and cabinet.

It’s clear that President Obama still sees himself as an outsider, spending enough time both yesterday in Elkhart, Indiana, and at the press conference to mention the “folks” who are hurting and making note of local projects such as highways and bridges that need building in northeast Indiana, and mentioning the city of Elkhart several times at the press conference last night. This is a clear strategy to get the people behind him and oppose the “Just Say No” tactic of the Republicans. This sort of populism can be effective in the short term, but at some point it’s going to become a little tough to sell unless he and Michelle and the kids move to Muncie. But for now, it’s working to the degree that cable TV is covering his appearances at these events as Breaking News and he is open to fielding tough questions from unscreened audience members.

The president was adamant that the stimulus plan has to pass, and basically called out the Republicans to either lead, follow, or get out of the way. The right-wing Orcosphere has been full of chatter about pork and fear-mongering from the White House and Congress, but as Mr. Obama and rational people have pointed out, the plan is remarkably free of earmarks, and compared to the tenor of the Bush administration — “mushroom clouds” — Mr. Obama seemed pretty matter-of-fact: if we don’t do this, he was saying, who will? He has clearly gotten back whatever mojo he lost last week, and there are a few more people who have learned what his primary and election opponents learned last year: underestimate this man at your peril.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the press conference overall; there were no sentences that challenged the most skilled linguist, there were no “Oh, lookit the kitty!” moments, there were no “heh-heh” nicknames for the reporters who asked questions. The performance was smooth and cool, like a nice jazz piece of understated control. That’s quite a change after eight years of a bad imitation of Spike Jones and his City Slickers.