President Obama caught a big break today during his 78-minute news conference. He managed to articulate his core political message for the ’10 midterms without being needlessly sidetracked by questions about that fringe Floridian who would surely win top prize on America’s Got Idiots.
Few White House reporters wanted to bring up the aspiring book-burner and thus risk taking heat for awarding him further publicity; nobody mentioned him at all until the 41st minute, when Jake Tapper of ABC News asked whether Defense secretary Robert Gates’ phone call to the pastor may have inadvertently “elevated” his stature. And nobody mentioned him again until the last moment, when Obama was asked whether the book-burning threat had endangered U.S. troops fighting abroad – a question that Obama had answered in the affirmative half an hour earlier (“this kind of behavior, or threat of action, puts our young men and women in uniform in harm’s way”).
Given the fact that this news conference was staged early in the day, few Americans probably watched it live. Most will catch up with it later on, seeing only the choicest sound bites. Obama didn’t want to step on his political message by saying something controversial about the pastor, or about the planned Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, and have it replayed endlessly on cable and the Internet all weekend long. He eluded that pitfall.
Instead, he managed – particularly during the first 30 minutes – to underscore the points that he made on the stump earlier this week in Milwaukee and Cleveland. The points were nakedly partisan, befitting the election season that officially kicked off on Labor Day. He basically said that the Republicans wrecked the economy and screwed the middle class during the previous decade; that the Republicans have subsequently shown little interest in helping him to clean up the wreckage; and that if voters in November put the Republicans back in power on Capitol Hill, the same conservative credo that wreaked havoc before will be resurrected again. Or, in his words, “the policies they are (advocating) now are the same policies that got us into this mess.”
It’s a populist message that seeks to frame the midterms as a choice between an incumbent party that sticks up for the middle class, and a party beholden to corporate interests that wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires.” It was striking to see Obama talk this way in a news conference; in his previous (and rare) forums with the White House press corps, he rhetorically sought to reach out to the opposition party, to pluck the chord of bipartisanship. He has clearly come to realize that extending his hand is a waste of time, because the basic Republican impulse is to chomp right up to the elbow.
Today, his partisan task was obvious. Building on his stump speeches, he aimed his White House remarks at the millions of torpid Democrats who currently seem inclined to skip Nov. 2. The latest Gallup poll reports that 50 percent of grassroots Republicans feel “very enthusiastic” about the midterms – while only 25 percent of Democrats say they feel that way. Obama is the only Democrat who can conceivably narrow that enthusiasm gap, by persuading many of his ’08 voters to park their complaints about his tenure. In short, it’s his job to ensure that the base comes home.
He tried to do this today by speaking plainly. Yes, people are still frustrated and angry about the economy (“moms are sending out resumes and not getting calls back”), but he argued that the Republicans are demonstrably making things worse. They’re “holding middle-class tax relief hostage” by insisting that the rich should be allowed to keep their Bush tax cuts – even though we’d have to borrow $700 billion over the next 10 years just to indulge the rich. By the way, the public sides Obama with on this issue; Gallup reports that only 37 percent of Americans want the rich to keep those tax cuts.
Obama also pointed out that Senate Republicans, for the past month, have been blocking a package of small-business incentives aimed at creating jobs. (Fortunately for Obama, however, Ohio Republican George Voinovich said yesterday that he’ll vote next week to end the blockage, and that he’s fed up with his party’s nonsense: “We don’t have time for messaging. We don’t have time anymore. This country is really hurting.” His willingness to speak out may have something to do with the fact that he’s retiring.)
All told, Obama was probably relieved that his message wasn’t hijacked by the sideshow du jour – which is what happened in July ’09, when he weighed in, at the very end, about the Cambridge arrest of historian Henry Louis Gates. This time, at the very end, the Manhattan Muslim project did come up, as did the Florida publicity hound in Florida. But the questions went like this: “What would it say about this country if they (the project’s sponsors) were talked out of doing that?” and “Hasn’t the (pastor’s) threat itself put American lives in danger?”
When a Fox News guy tosses softballs like that, you know this president has had a decent day.