Man, is this president disciplined.
Every politician is taught to stay on message. They should use a video of President Obama's first White House news conference tonight to teach fledgling politicos how to do it.
Not many presidents could speak for 60 minutes without making news beyond the purpose of the news conference, which was to push the economic stimulus package. Are you going to meet with the Iranians, Mr. President? We'll look for opportunities. Will you lift the ban on photographing coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq? That's something we'll have to look into. What's in your bank bailout plan? Well, I don't want to upstage my Treasury Secretary. It seems clear after just three weeks and one news conference that Barack Obama is going to run his White House the way he ran his campaign: a tight ship, disciplined from the top down, putting out fires as soon as there's smoke. That's not a bad template for organizational management, although the wild cards of unpredictable Washington politics and arrogance creep could corrupt it.
Every president establishes his own style. Mr. Obama's first news conference (which you can hear here) demonstrated how different his will be from the chief executives who've come before him, including but not limited to George W. Bush. Obama struck a professorial tone, giving long-winded answers that veered off into tangential cul-de-sacs but always found their way back to the main artery (that's a notable difference from Bush right there).
He was new at this, and so was much of the White House press corps. Many news organizations change their White House correspondents when a new president comes into office. These days, they often install the reporter who covered the winning candidate's campaign. So CBS News, ABC, NBC, the Associated Press and many others had correspondents there who had never played the supporting role at a White House news conference before. Some, especially on the print side, seemed nervous and tentative. We can only hope they find their voice quickly, and avoid melting into the same spineless blob that covered President Bush for most of his tenure. I want to hear challenging questions, designed to compel answers that tell me something I didn't know before. That's not so hard as it sounds.
President Obama could have been giving a constitutional law lecture. I don't know if they employ the Socratic method at the University of Chicago, but it sure seemed like it. Every modern president knows in advance on which reporters he will call, and in what order, and has certain organizations he's going to ignore. But presidents typically scan the room and find their desired target among the raised hands and pens. Not Obama. He simply worked his way down his list, even announcing the reporters' affiliations. "Jennifer Loven, AP?" Check. "Chip Reid, CBS?" Check. Whether a reporter had a hand up or not, if it was his or her turn on the list put together by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, he or she got the call. "Sam Stein, Huffington Post?" Check.
Wait a second - Huffington Post?
That's right, I believe this Sam Stein guy made history tonight, by becoming the first blogger ever called on at a White House news conference. Perhaps President Bush called on one once, but I don't remember it happening. President Obama actually called on a blogger who works for Arianna Huffington. And Mara Liasson from NPR. And good old Helen Thomas, now a columnist for the Hearst Newspapers. These are people whose probing questions had been left out in the wilderness to die for the last eight years (well okay, Bush called on NPR every now and again, but he banished Helen a long time ago). Now this is change I can believe in.
Even Mr. Stein's question about prosecuting members of the Bush administration with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't faze the unflappable Obama. Nobody is above the law, the president said - but I prefer to look forward, not backwards.
I kept waiting for this scholarly president to ask one of the reporters to give the class the facts of Bush v. Gore, or maybe Roe v. Wade.
But I must confess I do miss the nicknames President Bush gave all the reporters. I wanted to hear Obama call out "Lefty? A question? What about you, Chickenhawk?" The closest we got was Chip and Jake, but those are actually their names.
Now let's see if the president keeps his promise of a news conference every week. We already know there was some puffery in the campaign rhetoric, but it would be refreshing for a candidate who pledges transparency and accountability to actually deliver some once in office. As long as he has something to promote, such as the stimulus package, we're likely to see him back at that podium, but don't expect anything surprising to come out of his mouth. He'll be on message, ticking off his points, completing his regimen. It might as well be one of his daily 60-minute workouts. Let's see how long it takes before the White House Press Corps gives him some heavy lifting.