Barack Obama has these East Wing presidential press conferences down to a science: He makes TelePrompTer-assisted opening remarks and then calls on exactly 13 reporters. Some sneak in more than one question, but somehow after the 13th member of the Fourth Estate has had his or her moment in the spotlight – always the AP first, then a mix of print, TV, and a few alternative outlets – the hour is up.
This has been the pattern at the three such press conferences President Obama has held to date, most recently Wednesday night, which capped off his 100th day in office. Maybe it's the rhythm to the way Mr. Obama responds that adds up to 13 questions in the allotted time. He never answers (or dismisses) a question briskly, the way President Bush did at times. With Obama, there's always a windup, several minutes of professorial discourse, then maybe an answer. Or maybe not. Sometimes the reporter follows up with a nudge that gets him back on track toward an answer.
Headlines all over the map
So what does the country learn from these press conferences? There's always a headline at the end; there has to be. A quick scan of major online media Wednesday night showed a range of headlines, which means no one point stood out. Despite the swine-flu-all-the-time media frenzy of the early part of the week (at least until Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party), swine flu did not dominate the news conference.
The Los Angeles Times keyed off his opening remarks: "Obama returns to theme of hope on 100th day of presidency."
And FOXNews.com (whose broadcast outlet chose not to televise the press conference, though Fox on cable did) zeroed in on a theme dear to conservatives, the size of government: "Obama describes big-government solutions as unwanted, but necessary."
Another possible headline could have been "Obama aims for the middle in assessing first 100 days." OK, not so grabby. But he put out a fair amount of "not too hot, not too cold" rhetoric. He repeated a theme he had emphasized earlier in the day at a town hall meeting in St. Louis, where he essentially said, so far so good.
"So we are off to a good start," he said Wednesday night. "But it is just a start. I am proud of what we have achieved, but I am not content. I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied."
Advice to the GOP
In response to a question about the Republican Party – Is it in the "desperate straits that Arlen Specter seems to think it is?" asked CBS's Chip Reid – Obama chose not to kick the opposition while it's down. Instead, he seemed to be warning his own Democrats not to get overconfident.
"You know, politics in America changes very quick," he said. "And I'm a big believer that things are never as good as they seem, and never as bad as they seem." Then he offered a bit of advice to the GOP: "... simply opposing our approach on every front is probably not a good political strategy."
Of enchantments and surprises
Of his three press conferences so far, Wednesday's probably had the biggest moment of levity. Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times managed to sneak in a four-part question, disguised as a one-parter. During these first 100 days, Mr. Zeleny asked, what has surprised, enchanted, humbled, and troubled the president most?
"Let me write this down," Obama responded with a smile, reaching for a pen and getting a laugh from the packed room. Obama played along, as he took dictation from Zeleny, who went through the list again.
The biggest surprise: "the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time."
Troubled? Obama edited the question. "I'd say less troubled but, you know, sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow – that there is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we're in the middle of really big crises."
"Enchanted." More laughter breaks out, as he gropes for an answer. "Enchanted. I – I will – I will tell you that, when I – when I meet our servicemen and women, enchanted's probably not the word I would use," Obama said, to more laughter. "But," he continued, "I am so profoundly grateful to them for what they do."
What about 'humbled'?
And finally, humbled? He skips the "I am" and goes right to the rest of the sentence: "Humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but we are just part of a much broader tapestry of American life and there are a lot of different power centers. And so I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want – [laughter] – or – [chuckles] – or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line."
As Obama spoke, he thought. He hadn't seemed to precook that one. But there was a sense, perhaps, that all this on-the-spot reflection was not just a throw-away. Maybe some of it winds up in his next memoir.