In many ways, President Obama's first full scale press conference since November was classic Obama, confidently pivoting between foreign policy questions on Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan and logically laying out his case for administration policies.
But twice in the crowded 45-minute session, his answers – about his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and his wife, Michelle – provided a peek behind the president's professorial manner. For a president who presents himself as the Great Explainer, providing a picture of calm amid turbulent times, the moments provided a more visceral glimpse of the man in the Oval Office.
After several questions on the Middle East Tuesday, Mr. Obama was asked whether he thought Rush Limbaugh was sincere when he apologized for calling Georgetown University Law student Sandra Fluke a “slut.” On his radio show, Mr. Limbaugh took exception to Ms. Fluke's telling members of Congress that health insurance should cover contraceptives. Obama later called Fluke as a show of support.
On Monday, Obama's response was personal. “The reason I called Ms. Fluke is because I thought about Malia and Sasha,” the president said.
The president, who makes it a point of pride to be home for dinner with his daughters at 6:30 p.m. each night, said: “One of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way."
And, the president added, "I don’t want them attacked and called horrible names because they are being good citizens.”
The president would not comment on the sincerity of Limbaugh’s apology to Fluke. “I don’t know what is in Rush Limbaugh’s heart, so I am not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology,” Obama said, adding, “All decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don’t have any place in public discourse.”
Immediately after the question on Limbaugh, the president was asked whether he thought Republicans were engaged in a war on women. In responding, the president referenced Michelle. “Women are going to make up their own mind in this election about who is advancing the issues that they care most deeply about. One of the things I have learned being married to Michelle is I don’t need to tell her what it is that she thinks is important,” the president said.
The president argued that strong women, like his wife, will consider a wide range of issues when deciding which party to support. “There are millions of strong women around the country who are going to make their own determination about a whole range of issues…. It is not going to be narrowly focused just on contraception. It is not going to be driven by one statement by one radio announcer…. I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women.”
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the president has recently gained ground with women voters. Some 54 percent of women now approve of his performance, while 40 percent disapprove. In December, his standing with women was evenly split, with 47 percent approving and an equal number disapproving of his performance.
The president brushed aside a question about how he would respond to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney calling him the most feckless president since Jimmy Carter. Smiling broadly, with an eye on the Super Tuesday primaries, Obama said, “Good luck tonight. No, really, really.”