Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama, No Drama

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.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Still Having A Ball?

It took more than six years for George W. Bush to admit making a presidential mistake. It took Barack Obama less than two weeks.

This past week, we were treated to an odd sight in our newsroom. A glance up at the bank of TV screens showed President Obama on five channels at once - except this wasn't a State of the Union speech or some other live event broadcast on every network simultaneously. This was the evening news, on CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox. And there was the president, with the American flag strategically positioned behind his cocked head, with cutaways to a thoughtful-looking network anchor seated in an Oval Office chair, saying "I screwed up" and "It's my fault" and "I take full responsibility" to each one, over and over again (referring to Tom Daschle's tax problems and the withdrawal of his nomination at HHS). It was coincidence that every network aired its taped presidential interview at the exact same time; the rest was careful White House choreography. The exact same shot - almost identical words - given prominent placement by networks eager to trumpet their Oval Office access.

A student of history to be sure, President Obama is transparently determined not to repeat the mistakes of past presidents (even those who never admitted making any). Jimmy Carter was a notorious control freak; Barack Obama is delegating key White House tasks - not all of them, but just enough. Bill Clinton tackled thorny issues too quickly, without Congressional input; Obama's going slowly on some, and is involving Congressional leaders, from both parties, at every turn. President Bush - well, we all know what he did wrong, and in most cases, Obama's doing the exact opposite. A snarky Dick Cheney needled the Obama team this week for its multi-layered flow chart of many czars. You could almost hear the derisive collective snort from the Obama White House. The last thing they intend to do is simply photocopy the Bush White House Way and repeat it.

But that too could be a mistake. Surely, something must have been done intelligently in the Bush administration. There must be some systems worth replicating.

Well, maybe not.

So here was President Obama granting interviews, so early in his administration, taking the blame and moving on. Days before, he roamed the halls of the Capitol, meeting face-to-face with the loyal opposition, on their turf. It's certainly refreshing to have a seemingly candid, articulate, fully-functioning adult running our country. I'm still waiting for the news conferences he said he would have on a weekly basis. If you're keeping score, that may be his first broken campaign promise. He will finally have one, Monday evening, in prime time, no less. Let's see if he has another the following week.

As for the economy, well, so far, the only job creation has been at the White House. President Obama is cramming people into the West Wing. Do we really need a czar for this and a czar for that? Is his model Abraham Lincoln or Peter the Great? It remains to be seen if the Obama White House will be brilliant and efficient, or a top-heavy nest of sniping bureaucrats mud-wrestling for power. Then there's the stimulus package. Every liberal or Democratic interest group in America has emailed me, begging me to lobby Congress to pass it, and to make sure their pet project is included. If George Bush had proposed this package, would you support it? Is this the best way to spend our hard-earned trillions? More importantly, will it work?

We don't know, of course. We can only hope (unless we're Rush Limbaugh). I worry that it won't. I'm not a big fan of deficit spending. I don't believe in it in my own economy, and I certainly don't like it on the macro level. Bill Clinton's deficit reduction was, I think, the most significant accomplishment of his presidency. The red ink run up by the last three Republican presidents has been a nation-weakening embarrassment. But now Obama is poised not only to repeat that mistake, but to multiply it, with an annual deficit next year perhaps exceeding one trillion dollars. No nation can sustain that level of debt. I realize that in this instance, Obama's historical touchstone is not Lincoln but FDR, but unless there's a world war coming that we don't know about, there's no guarantee that we, too, can spend our way out of this economic collapse.

But then, we've got to do something, right? There seems to be agreement on that. As long as these moves don't turn us into the Weimar Republic.

Was it really just two weeks ago that I was crammed into the Newseum at the Huffington Post Ball on inaugural eve? That is hard to believe. There was an incredible air of hope and optimism and celebration there. Exuberant celebrities counted down at midnight to the end of the Bush Era, and the dawn of Obama Time. Bloggers and pundits and liberal activists partied shoulder-to-shoulder, jockeying for hors d'oeuvres and dancing the night away to Sting and Sheryl Crow and They had shivered for 20 minutes on a long VIP line just to get inside. There was a jubilant Howard Dean, and a shimmying Demi Moore, with kids and Ashton Kutcher in tow, and a grumpy Robert DeNiro. Here came Don King's hair, and there went Dustin Hoffman and Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx (at one point, a friend pointed out that there were at least five Oscar-winning Best Actors on the dance floor). Ben Affleck grabbed a cheese puff from a passing tray. Vaguely recognizable TV stars mingled with CNN talking heads. I ran into one of our favorite Bay Area Congresswomen, Blue Dog Democrat Ellen Tauscher, with her new fiance. We bonded over our wedding plans.

At one point, the dance floor crowd surged into a previously off-limits area, and a tall, beautiful woman grabbed my hand and pulled me to safety. This woman is strong, I thought. Then I saw that her other hand was being pulled by her massive husband - Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. We popped out into an open space, where paparazzi shouted "Forest! Forest!" (since my friends call me Forrest Gump, I of course thought they were shouting at me). Whitaker obliged, smiling and waving for the cameras. Somewhere there's a great picture or two of a beaming Forest Whitaker, his gorgeous wife and a short, startled-looking, bald guy holding her hand.

(Okay, those two paragraphs should satisfy those of you who have been begging for the HuffPo celeb ball report. You know who you are. To the rest of you, thanks for the indulgence).

That party was all about dispatching the sorry past and embracing the possibilities of the immediate future. You didn't really think it would be stumble-free, did you? Barack Obama already has to replace three of his original Cabinet choices, and as far as Congressional Republicans are concerned, the honeymoon is already over (if you have paid all your taxes, please send your resume to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Attention: Rahm Emanuel). Some form of the stimulus package will pass, festooned with Lord knows what. If it doesn't work, the bloom will be off Obama's rose before you can say "one-term president." I have been cautioning starry-eyed friends for two years that this man is not the Messiah. Clearly, he's learned from the past, but that's no guarantee that he's not doomed to repeat some of it anyway. Nobody said this would be easy, least of all him. Euphoria wears off, and reality sets in. Two weeks ago, Obama made history. Now it's all about creating the future, and that may take a lot longer.