Tuesday, February 10, 2009

President Obama's Press Conference

I heard the first part of the Presidential press conference on the radio driving home from work, watched the rest of the Q & A on TV, first PBS, then NBC because the PBS picture was too small and squeezed for my non-HDTV. Overall, a double rather than a home-run. But he did get on base, not bad.

Some initial thoughts:

1. As someone I know pointed out, Obama needs to take some Alexander Technique classes or find a good Drama coach, asap. He can talk the talk, but he can't walk the walk. Literally, his stroll to and from the podium in Ronald Reagan's corridor didn't come across too well. He needs to hold himself erect and stride purposefully, rather than just bopping along. One's posture reflects a great deal, when President it reflects the National Posture towards whatever. Before his next press conference, he really needs to work on his walk. in the meantime, and until he gets it right, it might be a good idea to use a different briefing room where he doesn't have to stride to and from the podium.

2. He showed some flashes of anger and resolve, which was nice to see, but it didn't seem as focused and controlled as it might be. What is the precise target of his emotions? That was unclear.

3. He didn't seem to be particularly well-briefed. A question about showing the arrival of war dead on TV seemed to take him by surprise, as did a question (pretty clearly intended as a friendly one) about steroids in baseball. He needs better staff work, and better answers worked out in advance. He should have been able make a decision on the air, to answer something like: "Yes, I will allow cameras to show the arrival of Americans who have died in the service of their country. There is nothing shameful about it. I join all Americans in saluting the fallen."

4. The stimulus message is still not clear. He said that he didn't pick $800 million "out of a hat," which immediately suggested (at least to me) that he did. The number is too close to the number of the TARP bailout not to look like a deal--$800 million for the banks, $800 million for the working stiffs. The rationale to do anything and worry about it later simply didn't compute. Better to know where you are going. We've just spent trillions of dollars under Bush and have little to show for it--other than defeat staring us in the face around the world and a collapsed economy. As someone I know suggested, he might "recalculate" his strategy and divide his bills into specific purpose-driven proposals: a health care bill, a highway bill, a jobs bill, and education bill, and so forth. Panic and hysterical threats of catastrophe were the Bush administration M.O. Americans voted for change. Even if he gets this through without Republican support, it looks like a setback--because he promised bipartisanship. His off-the-cuff remark about a different negotiation strategy vis-a-vis the Republican leadership at least shows he's thinking about this problem. Perhaps he should take out all the tax cuts in conference, if he's going to pass the bill without Republican support, just to show them who's boss?

5. The press was being tough, but fair. My guess is to show they don't work for him, and also to answer the challenge Obama laid down when he complained that Washingtonians were wimps because they wanted to take the day off when it snowed, unlike Chicagoans. There was a lot of grousing about that, in my opinion, perfectly honest remark. A friend told me that it is a mistake to upset the permanent bureaucracy in DC, that Carter suffered because he eliminated free parking. A suggestion to make nice from someone I know: Obama could announce the he will issue an executive order to make Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday federal holidays once more (in an economic slowdown, people don't have to work as hard). That's two paid vacation days instead of President's Day. He could announce it on February 12th, paying tribute to Lincoln, making a statement about himself and where he plans to take the country. And giving a make-up gift to disgruntled Washingtonians and civil servants at the same time..

6. Finally, the rhetoric about looking forward and not looking backward sounds too much like Bush. How do we know where we are going if we don't look back to see if we are on the right track? And if our navigators are no good, they need to be replaced. In a way, the stimulus package is suffering because Geithner was connected with the last bailout bill. A different Treasury secretary might have more "oomph." Obama was begging for people to pay attention to Geithner--bad. People should want to know what Geithner has to say on his own. IMHO, we have a crisis of confidence in leadership at all levels: financial, political, and military. There probably needs to be a serious house-cleaning, and yes, heads must roll and some people from Wall Street must go to jail to set an example. The sooner Obama accepts this and takes care of it, the better off he will be. Ronald Reagan's most important move was to fire striking air traffic controllers--who had endorsed him. Obama needs to do something similar to show he's his own man.

7. He should try to announce something completely new at a press conference, to move the ball forward and show he's controlling the agenda rather than that events are controlling him.

8. He should not have abruptly ended with: "All right. Thank you, guys," and then walked away. It looked like he couldn't stand the heat, so got out of the kitchen. He would to better use the conventional format of a friendly reporter asking, as the last question: "Thank you, Mr. President."

In conclusion, Obama needs to grow into the job. Given his growth as a candidate, there is no reason to doubt that "yes, he can" improve his performance in televised press conferences...