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Obama's Impressive Press Conference

The President gave a mostly impressive performance at his press conference yesterday. Whenever a president finds himself being compared to Harry S. Truman, it is a good day for that president.

As noted in the link above, one of President Obama’s strongest parts of the news conference was when he castigated Congress for failing to act on a variety of measures that might help the economy create more jobs. He noted pending legislation on trade, middle class tax cuts, infrastructure improvements and revising the patent system and challenged Congress to pass the bills. In addition to the Trumanesque charge that Congress is not doing all it should, here was Obama defending a proposition that the GOP denies, that government is part of the solution and not just the problem when trying to stimulate the economy. I wish the President had been a little more explicit on that point, mentioning the jobs that were saved at Chrysler and GM, the people working on infrastructure projects right this moment, etc.

The President was also strong when he went after Congress on the debt ceiling. In fact, the comparison between a Congress unable to meet a deadline and the president’s children doing their homework was priceless. He was right to point out that refusing to raise the debt ceiling can only have one consequence: making all of our economic issues worse, both long-term and short-term. And, for the first time in a long time, he began to explain to the American people the connection between the short-term and long-term challenges posed to the fiscal health of the country and, more generally, to the economic future. The longer the recession continues to drag growth below three percent, the bleaker the long-term fiscal outlook. We need to prime the pump. As President Clinton observed the other day, it turns out the much-maligned stimulus package passed in 2009 might not have been big enough.

I thought the weakest answer the president gave was in response to a question about Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board. I do not quibble with him making the point that businesses have a certain right to relocate their companies. I do not object to his saying that it is foolish to shut down a plant that has already been built and risk sending the jobs overseas. But, he might also have included a line about the danger of encouraging a “race to the bottom” among corporations, where they relocate to right-to-work states like South Carolina, with its meager social services, and end up leaving taxpayers with the bill for their workers’ health care and retirement. President Obama might also have usefully pointed out that states like Washington that are not “right-to-work” states have higher wages, higher education levels, etc., in part because of the role of unions in fighting a more humane society.

The President is right not to get involved in the gay marriage debate. After all, it is a state issue and not a federal issue. But, one thing bothered me. When he said, “I am not going to make news on that today,” he was speaking in the kind of insider-baseball language that can doom a presidency. Yes, everyone in the room understood what he meant. And, I suspect many people listening understood what he meant. But, not only does he appear to be playing a game by offering such a response, he seems to place his own communications strategy above the merits of the issue, a stance that pleases no one. Had he been forthright and said, “Look, I need to speak to the American people about the economy, Afghanistan, Libya, Greece, emergency responses to wildfires and floods, all issues that are vital. Gay marriage is a secondary issue, and I am not going to let it dominate the news when I need to talk to the American people about their economic future,” I would have given him high marks for candor. But, instead, his answer, though understandable and, in a sense commendable, looked like a dodge because of that one moment of inside-baseball chat. Joke with the press afterwards Mr. President.

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Overall, I wonder why the President does not do more such press conferences. He has such a wide and deep grasp of the issues, his answers are so fluid, his ability to communicate effectively so obvious, I think he does himself a world of good when he meets the press. And, he needs to mount the bully pulpit with greater frequency to shape the on-going debate this country is having about the role of government, the future of Medicare, how should our tax code meet the demands of justice, etc. President Obama needs to make his case for the decisions he has made. He needs to challenge the anti-government ideology of the GOP. At the end of the day, he needs to make sure that the 2012 election is a mandate, one way or the other, for solving our country’s fiscal issues. No more gauzy campaigning for “hope” or “change” this time. In 2012, the President needs to be specific and, as he demonstrated yesterday, he is quite capable of working those specifics into an overall narrative about the direction in which he wants to lead the country.

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July 18-31, 2014

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