Technology with attitude

Obama and the press play wiffle ball while Americans strike out?

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During his second take-it-to-the-people appearance this morning in Ft. Myers, Fla, President Obama mentioned that “last night, I addressed the nation…”

Really? And all along I thought that was supposed to be a press conference, not a speech. But, while every president has tried to use every public forum to make points, the President’s first official face-off with the White House press corps was another swoon in the fascinating, often collaborative drama of the new no-drama-Obama world.

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I mean CNN had a digital clock on screen most of yesterday counting down the hours, minutes and seconds to the event like it was the first Apollo moon shot. Much of the TV I watched before and after the press conference had people who questioned the Administration’s stimulus plan getting pretty beaten up. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC was particularly cutting on the new Republican Party chief and at least one senator, a Democrat, who had pushed to cut out some portion of the $800 billion.

Maybe they deserve it. And I don’t want to just say, “No, we can’t.” But I also don’t believe in giving the guy a pass because, aside from recording and recreating for our audiences the hope, enthusiasm and change he represents, it’s also the press’ job to hold his feet to the fire as the most powerful man in the world. Admiration for who he is and what he represents shouldn’t mean getting weak in the knees at critical moments, at least not for the press.

I went on “Hardball” late in the evening, where Chris and his guests seemed to think the press conference went well for Mr. Obama. I said I thought he’d been given pretty much of a walk by most of the reporters. The show had barely aired when I got an email from an old friend and a long-time, respected Bay Area journalist about my remarks.

“Please say it isn’t so” was the subject line. “Saw you on Matthews’s show tonight,” it read. “Rather surprised at your comments, including “the reporters didn’t do their jobs.” Are you planning to move out of Marin County?”

I’m not moving, but I get the point. I was also hyperventilating a little on “Hardball” about the DC press just because I wanted to throw a small wrench into the hungry engine of hero worship going on a lot of places where watchdogs are supposed to be standing guard. (I didn’t see Fox last night, which may have taken a different view.)

Let’s take a brief spin through the press conference:

Mr. Obama likes to give long answers, unlike the last guy. And sometimes it seemed that he’d mastered the concept of the more you say, the less you have to say as he used every question about the economic crisis to repeat many of his talking points on it. The reporters obliged him pretty much; there weren’t a lot of fastball follow-ups. Also, the White House had announced that they’d chosen a day in advance who would be called on to ask questions (hint: someone from Huffington Post; no one from the Wall Street Journal). So what were all those other pros doing there besides filling the theater? Good backdrop, I suppose.

While some analysts last night and this morning gave him kudos for expertly dissecting and articulating what all these billions meant, I thought he whiffed on some questions.

Was the second $350 billion in bank bail-out money enough? He didn’t answer the question. Was he going to go after the prior administration for crimes in the conduct of policy, as Senator Leahy wants them to do? Didn’t really answer the question (though there was no real comfort in his waffling, “looking forward” response for all those shadow waterboarders and phone tappers). And the venerable Helen Thomas asked him if any country in the Mideast had nukes. He said he “would not speculate..” What? He’s the President of the United States and he doesn’t know if Israel has the bomb?

He said “I don’t think I underestimated” Republican resistance to his stimulus package. OK, maybe he misunderestimated it (tip of the hat to W). That’s why he “lost the narrative” for a few weeks, as one pundit put it.

But the real double espresso for me in that hour meant for pressing on the truth is when he was asked about his dire language that he’d used about the economy, that without his package, the country was headed for an economic spiral we might be “unable to reverse.” No, he insisted. What he said was that we might be in a spiral that’s “much harder to get out of” if his plan isn’t passed.

Sorry, Mr. President, but you did say “unable to reverse” at your first town hall in Indiana only hours before. If Tim Russert were still alive and had Barack Obama on “Meet The Press”, he’d use the clip to confront him.

What’s the big deal? Hey, I hope the audacity of hope and about a trillion dollars gets the job done, too. I don’t like to talk or think about icky scenarios, either. But one of the things we were promised by this President was straight talk, express and local. He’s not living up to that promise or doing public service by fudging in the name of optimism.

The “lost decade in Japan” doesn’t really mean anything very specific unless you’re Japanese. To give credit, he did step to the brink of full disclosure by using the “c” word. But, Mr. President, do us all a favor and spell out what that catastrophe would look like. Use a little fear-mongering because it works, we’re staring at it anyway and why not? It isn’t the speech-making equivalent of waterboarding – more like showing citizens and elected officials the ugly equipment so they have a better sense of what might happen.

Let’s start parsing the high rhetoric of hope with the plain language of reality.

For more, read Bronstein at Large.