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Logic Behind Obama News Conference Hard To Fathom

President Obama answers questions during his news conference at the White House on Tuesday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama answers questions during his news conference at the White House on Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama declared May as Older Americans Month, National Foster Care Month, National Building Safety Month, Jewish American Heritage Month and National Physical Fitness and Sports Month.

The president also issued a statement on the investiture of the new king of the Netherlands.

While small and routine, these moves were all easy to understand, as were the accompanying proclamations from the White House press shop.

What was not clear was the executive thinking behind the 45-minute news conference the president had held in the morning.

Announced shortly after 8:30 a.m. and slated for 10:15, this was to be the first such media availability in two months — and just the third this year. A mood of expectation arose in the briefing room, especially as the start time slipped to 10:30 and then 10:45.

It felt as though something newsworthy must be happening. But as it turned out, not so much.

The president had no announcement to make — not even an opening statement. Instead, he plunged right into the queries, nearly all of them posed in a challenging tone. What about Syria, the Boston Marathon bombing, Mexico, the Republicans in Congress and the challenge of administering Obamacare?

The president wound his way through the session, wrapped it up and then returned to respond to a shouted question about Jason Collins, the NBA player who announced Monday that he is gay.

As usual, the president was mostly calm and explicative. But what stood out were the moments when he seemed at a loss to deal with the ongoing frustrations of dealing with Congress.

Again and again, the president seemed to be saying: "OK, that didn't work out so well, but I tried to do what needed to be done and the Republicans wouldn't let me."

No one should doubt that the Republicans are working to thwart this president on a host of issues. They would be the first to say so.

But no matter how frustrating a president finds this dilemma at the heart of our shared-power system, it does not advance his cause to wear his frustration in public. The chief executive is always better served if he can appear larger than the quotidian give-and-take. Yes, he must acknowledge the difficulties he faces, but he also needs to transcend them.

To this end, this president is not well-served by his tendency to sarcasm, as when he reacted to a downbeat assessment of the past few months from Jonathan Karl of ABC News: "If you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home. Golly. I think it's a little — as Mark Twain said, rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point."

That elicited some chuckling in the briefing room, but also prompted immediate online coverage that made the president sound downright self-pitying. Some compared the session to President Clinton's infamous defense of his own relevance at a news conference in 1995.

Every encounter between the president and the media is subjected to instantaneous analysis and superficial scorekeeping. But in this instance, it was hard to see what the Oval Office expected the scoreboard to show, or what the strategy was to serve the policy or political goals of the moment.

Was it intended, for example, to advance the recent overtures to the opposition? In recent weeks, the president has broken bread with an array of Senate Republicans. He also managed to be generous in his remarks and demeanor at the dedication of George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas last week.

Such gestures have made more headlines than headway — at least so far. But this kind of outreach, however halting and awkward, may well be the only way forward; and the building of that bridge must begin in the Oval Office.

The president undermines that chance when he struggles through a news conference with no apparent theme or overarching purpose other than to catalog his grievances and complain about the lack of cooperation from the other side.

This may well have been the opposite impression from what the president and his people hoped to convey this week. But it happened anyway. Well into his fifth year in the White House, this president still seems ill at ease in the news conference format. He is driven by the energy and conflict of the encounter, rather than the other way around.

This lack of mastery stands in striking contrast to his renown for holding throngs in thrall, at home and abroad. Even in the informality of a Washington dinner (such as the White House Correspondents' Association gala last weekend), Obama is a gifted presenter, holding forth with the timing and wit of a professional comedian and then turning reflective and serious. Addressing an audience, he is nearly always on.

But in the unscripted free fall of an on-camera news conference, that mastery is notably missing. Early in his first term, the president gave long, professorial answers to every question. When he and his inner circle were dismayed by the distractions and tangential stories that came from these sessions, they came to rely more on one-on-one interviews. Those were more productive from the president's point of view, but they did not address the underlying fault.

Tuesday's go 'round showed that fault remains.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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