Tuned In

Obama Meets the Press: How Did He Do? How Did They?

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Last night, President Barack Obama took questions from the press on national television to argue for his decision to pre-empt Chuck push for a massive economic stimulus package. A few impressions: 

* Did he mention Elkhart, Indiana? I thought for sure he’d mention Elkhart. Seriously, the Indiana town Obama visited yesterday came up several times, demonstrating part of the goal of the address: to move the terms of the debate beyond Washington, and to strategically position himself with Americans outside the Beltway. 

* If it weren’t clear we have a new President, you knew it by the end of this conference. In contrast with President Bush, Obama answered questions expansively, trusting/expecting his audience to follow lengthy responses in which he addressed the premise of a question, framed his opponents’ critique on an issue, then gave his argument, often multi-pronged. This led to some grumbling in the cable-news postmortems, which threw around the term “professorial.” We’ve seen this on the campaign trail as well: there’s a mindset in the press that, yes, we can follow a complicated answer, but it’s a bad strategy for reaching Americans—ya need more zingers! I have to wonder, though, how much of that is about how average Americans can really process, and how much of that is about what the press tells average Americans they’re capable of processing. 

[Update: Case in point—Slate’s John Dickerson faults Obama’s presentation for insufficient “pizzazz.” One dynamic that is going on in the new Administration is that Obama and the pundits seem to have different ideas about what kind of communication reaches the American people. Either he is failing to use the national stage the way modern politicians are supposed to (see “pizzazz,” “zingers,” etc.), or the Washington press—set in their ways and trained by decades of listening to political consultants—is failing to see how the national mood, and the kind of language, tone and complexity people want from their President, have changed. They can’t both be right.]

* That said, Obama’s audience seemed to be legislators as much as, or more than, voters: he had strong words for Republican critics (whom he charged with creating the deficit situation they’re exercised about in the first place) and, to a lesser extent, had messages for Democratics not interested in trying to bring Republicans aboard (or who, after eight years of 50-plus-one governance from the other side, now want to give it back to them). 

* And the questions from the press? A lot of process-focused stuff, for instance on the above-mentioned question of trying to bring bipartisanship to Washington. Chuck Todd got in a worthwhile question about trying to get consumers to spend our way out of the recession when consumer spending got us into trouble. (You may agree or not with the critique, but it’s an Econ 101 question on citizens’ minds, and a good point to get the President to respond to.) Nothing, unless I missed it, on Iraq. 

* Oh, and Obama took the first-ever question from The Huffington Post. Because we all know that bloggers are bringing down the values of hardworking professional journalists, he must have been the guy who asked about steroids in baseball, right? Oh, sorry: that was the reporter from the Washington Post. (HuffPo’s Sam Stein asked whether Obama would support the creation of a commission to investigate possible Bush administration crimes.) Way to keep the mainstream media relevant! Can we get a follow-up on the need for a college-football playoff?

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