“Obama’s Second Presser Keeps Progressive Pressure On,” The Root, 24 March 2009.
The President hits primetime to make the case for his 2010 budget.
Barack Obama’s second prime-time news conference as president, held in the East Room of the White House just six weeks after the first, did not provide new, meaty policy prescriptions or one-liners that make for good television. But it did further the sense that, in America, there is a man in charge, and he—to borrow from a zinger he let rip on one nagging CNN reporter—“knows what he’s talking about.”
Those who have questioned Obama’s “overexposure” should by now have realized that the president is in the business of leapfrogging inner-Beltway protocol and addressing the American people directly. This time around, the president even allowed follow-up questions from the press corps—another nod to transparency that provided for a bit more clash. On more than one occasion, Obama stood up for himself in the face of confrontational rebuttals and proved himself to be as thoughtful and expansive a thinker as we’ve come to expect—especially in the wake of the intellectually flat-footed President George W. Bush.
Reporters focused primarily on the state of the economy and the president’s budget, which faces a vote in Congress by month’s end. At the end of his remarks—trying to soothe both markets and worried families—he compared the United States, with its complex, often frustrating impediments to legislative action and political reform, to a lumbering ocean liner: “It’s not a speedboat,” he said. “It doesn’t just turn around right away.” (That much could also be said of the president’s sometimes lugubrious, repetitive speaking style.)
Still, Obama managed to squeeze in the list of his budgetary priorities (“expectations”) no less than six times: Health care reform, energy action, investments and reforms in education, and an attempt to crack down on long-term government expenditures anchored his directive to the Democratic-led Congress. The real question in weeks ahead is whether the vote on the budget will be framed as a part of the reconciliation process, which bypasses a potential filibuster, or standard procedure, which would require the same, stubborn 60 votes in the Senate. (Ezra Klein has a good rundown here.)
Congressional arcana aside, Obama’s calmly progressive agenda is practically a revolution given the American political climate in recent years: “At the end of the day, the best way to bring our deficit down is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led to a narrow prosperity and massive debt. It’s with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest.”
In a climate where the Dow swings and frantic mattress-stuffing continue apace, it is strange to hear a president speak so confidently about investment. But, that sentiment—explained repeatedly and well—is driving the White House’s actions on the big three progressive asks and is proof that elections have consequences. At one point, he tweaked his opponents for not presenting an alternative to his budget because “they know that the biggest driver of long-term deficits are the huge health care costs out there that we’re going to have to tackle.” That’s right—the notion that health care is a major crisis is, in Obama’s Washington, the point of departure for political debate.
With that, Obama signaled that the American ocean liner may be just as big, and have just as many moving parts as it used to, but that the ocean itself is entirely different.
From the fluency with economic policy to the different stripes of reporters called upon, it may be that the once unthinkable has become routine at the White House. Obama said as much in response to a question about the role race has played in the 60 days of his presidency. “Right now, the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged,” he said, noting that inaugural-era congratulations on racial progress “lasted about a day.” Just as we’ve come to accept, without much fanfare, the walking and talking and yes, lecturing of a black president, we may come to expect a regular adult presence on American television screens, boldly explaining that the government is ready for action, and that a little patience—or, to borrow Obama’s diction, “persistence”—goes a long way.