Barack Obama’s 4/29/09 Press Conference: Speaker Extraordinaire; Policy Wonk; But Quality as Commander-in-Chief Unknown

–Richard E. Vatz

Last night’s presidential press conference, held on Barack Obama’s 100th day in office, was representative of what we already knew about the Chief Executive: he’s rhetorically brilliant (by which I mean persuasively efficacious) – perhaps, if too early to say with certainty, the most brilliant rhetorician in the modern presidency. Furthermore, he is up on all issues — rarely, it seems, does he appear uninformed. Unfortunately, these qualities do not mean that his policies will turn out well.

He was asked 13 questions in this press conference, and a word or two should be said about the quality of the questions. One expects top media representatives to ask significant questions, and some did, and some did not.

The most inane question was asked by THE NEW YORK TIMES reporter on the president’s list. Jeff Zaleny asked, “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office? Enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most? And troubled you the most?”

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When a president is rhetorically brilliant, he hits the softballs out of the park, and President Obama did not disappoint on any of them. Most representative: what “enchanted” him the most? He answered, “When I meet our servicemen and women, ‘enchanted’ is probably not the word I would use — but I am so profoundly impressed and grateful to them for what they do. They’re really good at their job. They are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf. They do so without complaint. They are fiercely loyal to this country. And, you know, the more I interact with our servicemen and women, from the top brass down to the lowliest private, I’m just — I’m grateful to them.”

You cannot find me a better, more reassuring Democratic presidential answer to a softball question.

The exceptional questions – some of the best I have ever heard in a presidential press conference – came together, four in a row, by Jake Tapper of ABC, Mark Knoller of CBS Radio, Chuck Todd of NBC, and Jeff Mason of the BOSTON GLOBE. They asked important questions about critical long-term foreign policy: What if the United States’ alleged “torture” is critical to getting information about a hyper-destructive enemy? What is the likelihood of the Pakistani Taliban acquiring that country’s nuclear weapons? Would the violence in Iraq change your timetable for withdrawal (unreferenced: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s saying we’ll never abandon Iraq)?

President Obama fudged the torture question, eliciting a follow-up question by a second reporter (questioners usually could not ask their own follow-ups), Knoller, regarding the claim of its alleged established success in acquiring information to forestall military disaster. The President claimed without evidence that such information can be obtained in other, unspecified ways, and that Vice President Cheney’s evidence of effectiveness of intelligence so obtained was classified (which he, the President, incidentally could declassify). The President’s confidence ebbed from beginning to end on the Pakistani Taliban nuclear safety question. Finally, he alluded to none of the difficulties regarding guaranteeing a withdrawal from Iraq, which is why such announcements can be problematic.

The nature of the unbridled euphoria of the first 100 days of a president’s term comes from what the late political scientist, James David Barber, used to call an “active-positive” presidency, the hyper-legislative activity of liberal presidents.

The more serious and sober analysts realize that one has to wait to find out if the policies work.

There was an absence of questioning about the projected deficits, especially after four years, as a consequence of this administration’s hyper-spending. In Sunday’s “60 Minutes” Lesley Stahl could not even raise the matter after establishing that Vice President Joe Biden claimed they will have cut the deficit by the end of this administration’s first term.

President Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1979 that the Soviet Union’s attack on Afghanistan gave him insight into that country’s intentions that he had not previously acquired showed he was not ready for a primetime presidency. Even more so, his feckless handling of the Iranian hostage-taking in the last year of his presidency showed why the country was eager to go to a President Ronald Reagan.

So far, President Obama, good rhetoric and good feelings all around, but as some good questioners in your 100 day-in-office press conference implied, we need to wait perhaps for days 1361-1461 in office to find out whether your presidency is good style, but failed substance.

Professor Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University

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