Obama v. The Media: President Superman And The Kryptonite Presser

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 25, 2009

I sometimes wonder why President Obama bothers giving press conferences. It’s not that he is bad at them, but his speeches are much better and the press conferences tend to be ordinary. Robbed of a teleprompter and unable to read off a prepared answer, this eloquent President of ours “umms” and “ahhs” his answers just like any ordinary mortal. The difference between his peerless prepared oratory and his humdrum repartee when it comes to answering questions is striking.

Of course, this does not mean that there is no point in examining the President’s answers in the press conference. There are a number of responses that stick out and that naturally cause observers to wonder whether Barack Obama governs the same country of which we are citizens.

Asked why he should have new authority to regulate financial institutions in light of the furor over the AIG bonuses, the President replied that “it is precisely because of the lack of this authority that the AIG situation has gotten worse.” One wonders why he thinks that is the case. The bonuses were expressly allowed by the stimulus package that Congress passed; indeed, the President’s own Treasury Secretary had Senator Chris Dodd place language in the stimulus package allowing for bailout recipients to get bonuses. One may potentially conclude, thanks to this Keystone Kops method of governance, that the best course of action would be to give the President and his Administration less power, not more, but of course, the Obama Administration is in no mood for logic.

That does not mean, however, that there should be any slackening in the effort to remind people that it was because of the Treasury Secretary’s insistence that bailout recipients get bonuses, the malleability of Senator Chris Dodd concerning the issue, and the failure of stimulus package proponents to even so much as read the bill they asked Congress to approve, that the AIG bonus tempest even became an issue. Having the President try to tell us that the AIG bonus tempest came about because the President lacked power is more than a little rich.

The President, it should be noted, claimed that it took him a couple of days to come out and speak up about the AIG bonuses “because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.” That’s a good policy, but perhaps the President would have known what he was talking about a bit earlier if only he had read the stimulus bill and if only his Treasury Secretary told him about the provision he had inserted concerning bonuses for bailout recipients. I’d hate to think that our current economic problems and the Obama Administration’s recent stumbles come about because the President’s eyes glaze over when reading legislation he is advocating and because Presidents and Treasury Secretaries just don’t talk anymore.

Asked by ABC’s Jake Tapper whether he would allow Congressional Democrats to strip the budget of both a middle-class tax cut and cap-and-trade, the President bobbed and weaved and did just about everything that he could not to answer the question. I think that cap-and-trade is lousy policy and prefer a particular carbon tax proposal above all, but it is quite newsworthy that the President appears to be forced to back away from his cap-and-trade proposal and his middle-class tax cut. Many people predicted that the President would find a way to ditch the latter–which served as a campaign promise last year–so the White House deserves some opprobrium over its potential failure to deliver on a key Obama campaign promise. The fact that the Administration is pledged to overturn the Bush tax cuts in 2011–despite the likelihood that economic growth won’t be nearly as robust as the Obama Administration claims it will be when the tax cuts are overturned–makes the rhetorical brickbats even more justified. The Obama Administration is clearly not all that invested in fighting for any kind of tax cuts, the parlous economic situation notwithstanding. Despite its claims to be against only “tax cuts for the rich,” the Administration appears to be allergic to tax cuts for anyone.

Called out on his fiscal irresponsibility, the President did not hesitate to fish out his old line about having “inherited” all of the fiscal problems we are about to be beset with. That’s funny; whatever the state of the budget deficit handed over to the President, he has done nothing in his latest budget to tighten the nation’s belt. Quite the contrary; the President followed up a nearly $800 billion stimulus package with a budget that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will increase the deficit to $9.3 trillion. At some point, blather about the fiscal problems “inherited” by Team Obama must give way to the serious realization that the Administration has done nothing to ameliorate the fiscal challenges the country faces. Instead, it has come out swinging for the fences with a budget replete with programs designed to fulfill the fantasies of just about any Democrat, regardless of the fiscal consequences. Responding to the bleak CBO numbers, the President argued that growth in the out years would be higher than what CBO claims. Perhaps it will. But when it comes to budgeting–and not just budgeting–the Administration, while hoping for the best, must prepare for the worst. Instead, President Obama and his team have opted to prepare for the best, and hope really, really, really, really, really hard that their fondest fiscal and economic dreams come true.

Finally, when it came time to address the Obama Administration’s decision to reduce the tax deduction for charities, we got this beaut of a rationale for the Obama Administration’s stance on the issue:

People are still going to be able to make charitable contributions. It just means if you give $100 and you’re in this tax bracket, at a certain point, instead of being able to write off 36 (percent) or 39 percent, you’re writing off 28 percent. Now, if it’s really a charitable contribution, I’m assuming that that shouldn’t be the determining factor as to whether you’re giving that hundred dollars to the homeless shelter down the street.

It would be delightful to think that people give to charities purely out of the goodness of their hearts. But those of us for whom the color of the sky is blue know that there are some cold, hard calculations that go into decisions concerning charitable giving and while the President may choose to be sarcastic concerning his answer on the issue–and make no mistake, the sarcasm is redolent in the President’s answer. Verily, it drips off the computer screen–the fact of the matter remains that by reducing the charitable contribution deduction, the Obama Administration is reducing the ability of charities to receive contributions. “War On Philanthropy”? You’d better believe it, although, of course, the President claims to know better than the charitable organizations that have raised alarms concerning his stance on the charitable contribution deduction; challenged by a question from the press on whether he disagrees with charities that criticize his proposal and claim that it would reduce charitable giving, the President answered without hesitation “Yes. I am.”

Obama knows best.

Were this a set piece oratorical event, there would likely be little of consequence to quibble about. One may take issue with Barack Obama’s policies but there would probably be nothing to take issue with in terms of rhetorical performance. There rarely is in a prepared speech delivered by the President, with his trusty teleprompter aiding him.

But when it comes to press conferences and other events in which the President is forced to engage in give-and-take with reporters, Barack Obama comes down to Earth quite noticeably. And why shouldn’t he? As good a speaker as he is, as intelligent a politician as he has proven himself to be, he still tries to defend indefensible policies against the questions of a press corps that surprisingly proves itself to be skeptical at key moments. No one should expect the results to be all that pretty.

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