In a month when Mr. Obama has seen his top legislative initiatives falter, his willingness to take on a key foreign adversary questioned, and his job approval ratings slip, the president used the White House press corps as a foil against which to show that he will not be forced into positions or statements before he is ready.
On Iran, Obama said: “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days."
It was his most assertive statement to date about Iran since the country erupted in violence over its disputed June 12 presidential election. But he made clear he was not going to be pressured into going further than he wanted to, so as not to turn the conflict into Washington versus Tehran.
When asked about complaints by senators – including his Republican rival for the presidency, John McCain – that his response on Iran had been “timid and weak,” Obama twice asserted that “I am president of the United States” and as such will carry out his duties as he deems appropriate. As a rule, whenever a US president feels obliged to point out that he’s president, it can be interpreted as a sign he’s feeling weakened. [Click here for Europe's view of Obama's policy.]
A plug for energy/climate change bill
On energy, Obama used his bully pulpit to call on the House to pass legislation that will "spark a clean energy transformation" and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. The measure has met resistance over costs – to business, to the federal government, and to American families.
"At a time of great fiscal challenges, this legislation is paid for by the polluters who currently emit the dangerous carbon emissions that contaminate the water we drink and pollute the air we breathe," he said.
In defense of a government-run health plan
On healthcare, Obama also addressed the cost issue, insisting “this is legislation that must and will be paid for. It will not add to our deficits over the next decade.”
Some members of Congress have already declared the reform effort dead, but Obama insisted that “we are still early in this process.” And he refused, as he put it, to draw any “lines in the sand” over the details of reform, other than that it has to control costs and “provide relief to people who don't have health insurance or are underinsured.”
He aggressively defended the proposal for a new government-run health insurance plan, insisting it would not drive private insurers out of business. But he refused to say whether that’s a nonnegotiable part of his vision for health reform.
“There are a whole host of other issues where ultimately I may have a strong opinion, and I will express those to members of Congress as this is shaping up,” Obama said. “It's too early to say that. Right now, I will say that our position is that a public plan makes sense.”
A habit kicked – mostly
When one reporter asked Obama about personal behavior – his inability to quit smoking 100 percent – he seemed a bit peeved. “I understand,” he conceded. “It's an interesting human-interest story.”
It was a rare display of pique with the press, though he did allow that he is “95 percent cured” of the smoking habit and does not smoke in front of his family.
Early in his press conference, he called on a Huffington Post blogger, the second time in four Washington press conferences that HuffPo has been called on. In a moment that seemed somewhat staged, the president indicated that he knew the blogger had been involved with Internet communications coming out of Iran, and the reporter obliged with a question from an Iranian.
It’s worth noting that in all four of Obama’s hour-long Washington press conferences, he has called on 13 reporters. This was the first held at midday, in the Brady Briefing Room, not during prime-time in the East Room. But the rhythm has been the same: opening remarks, then 13 questions. End of hour.