Friday, January 23, 2009
Why Can't The President Just Eat His Waffle?
Remember when then-Senator Obama refused to answer questions on the campaign trail, because he was busy eating his waffle?
I wondered, before the inauguration, if we'd see a better attitude from Mr. Obama once he became President.
No such luck, I guess:
Asked how he could reconcile a strict ban on lobbyists in his administration with a Deputy Defense Secretary nominee who lobbied for Raytheon, Obama interrupted with a knowing smile on his face.
"Ahh, see," he said, "I came down here to visit. See this is what happens. I can't end up visiting with you guys and shaking hands if I'm going to get grilled every time I come down here."
Pressed further by the Politico reporter about his Pentagon nominee, William J. Lynn III, Obama turned more serious, putting his hand on the reporter's shoulder and staring him in the eye.
"Alright, come on" he said, with obvious irritation in his voice. "We will be having a press conference at which time you can feel free to [ask] questions. Right now, I just wanted to say hello and introduce myself to you guys - that's all I was trying to do."
I hate to say it, but Hillary Clinton was right: this man is not prepared to be President at 3AM. He doesn't like surprises, and he doesn't handle them well.
Mind you, these were reporters trying to do their jobs, with hardly any warning. The President had more warning than they did -- he surprised them, after all -- but he was still unprepared, and his attitude seemed to be: "Give me a break, guys; I'm off duty. I'll answer questions another time."
Sorry. The President is never off duty.
What makes this even worse, in my eyes, is that President Obama has already placed strict restrictions on the press -- what and when they can photograph, how many questions, who at a press conference will be called upon (and who needn't bother), and so on.
This is, in short, the American Presidency on training wheels.
Please get with the program, Mr. President. We don't have time to protect you from the rigors of the office you sought; we need you to protect us.
That's your job. And, like it or not, part of our job is to ask tough questions now and then -- and to hold you accountable for your answers.
All too soon, the President will have to deal with sudden international crises, as all Presidents do -- and he will wish he were back in that press room, being asked an unexpected question by a largely-friendly press corps.
UPDATE: Perhaps this was an isolated incident, as commenter Gordo has suggested. But I'm not the only one to see a troubling pattern here:
This might be the simply the problems of a new administration struggling to cope with a flood of calls and perhaps the complex machinery of the modern office. But it might also indicate that President Obama’s messages about open government have not reached press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff.Read the whole thing. David Cay Johnston is a veteran reporter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and, by the sound of it, no friend of the outgoing Bush administration.
While it is too early to judge just how this will work out, the early signs are troubling. And interviews with a dozen Washington reporters indicate that the Obama press operation tends to embrace friendly questions, while treating skeptical questions as not worth their time or, worse, as coming from an enemy.
I have called 202-456-2580, the main number for the White House press office, going back to the Nixon administration. Never has anyone in the press office declined to spell his name, give his job title, or hung up, even after the kind of aggressive exchanges that used to be common between journalists and flacks—and between journalists and high government officials, for that matter.
Perhaps all this is nothing important - just some innocent mistakes of a new staff, trying to hit the ground running. But if so, it would behoove the President to correct matters quickly; this is not the way to make friends and influence people.
UPDATE: Orson Scott Card isn't quite as gentle in his assessment.