President Obama agrees that economic uncertainty is bad, but not the kind that conservatives are worried about. He showed surprisingly strong emotions when attacking the Florida pastor with plans to burn the Koran. And the president’s advisers really didn’t like the question from Fox News.
Here are the five most interesting things from Obama’s Friday White House press conference, the eighth of his presidency.
1. Watching Obama’s advisers was more interesting than watching the president.
Before taking questions, Obama named economist Austan Goolsbee chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Goolsbee, who is known for his expressive and able communication skills and his sense of humor, had to bite his lip to keep a big grin from breaking out over his face.
Senior adviser David Axelrod and Jen Psaki, the deputy communications adviser, were similarly pleased when Obama stressed that those making more than $250,000 a year would not be taxed for income below that benchmark if the cuts for the top bracket are allowed to expire. It was an indication that this was a point the communicators wanted the president to drill down on.
When Obama jabbed back at ABC’s Jake Tapper over the a question of whether it was appropriate to comment on the pastor in Florida and to have Secretary of Defense Robert Gates call him – “I hardly think we’re the ones who elevated this” – White House press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to Axelrod and smiled.
The most dramatic reaction came when Obama called on Fox News’ Wendell Goler. The president gave Goler the last question of the nearly 80-minute session, a decision which the Obama brain trust had no doubt debated, given their prickly relationship with the cable network. In addition, Fox’s permanent seat in the press briefing room – where Gibbs parries with reporters most days — was recently moved from the second row to the first, an elevation in status. But at the same time, their chief White House correspondent, Major Garrett, departed to take a job with National Journal.
When Goler stood and asked Obama to comment once again on whether he thinks it is proper for a mosque to be built near the Ground Zero site in New York, Axelrod shot a look of disgust to communications director Dan Pfeiffer, standing to his left. Pfeiffer’s mouth was agape in disbelief.
Lastly, while Gibbs, Axelrod, Pfeiffer, Psaki and Goolsbee all stood off to the right of the press, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who is considering running for mayor of Chicago, stood off to the left, and further back behind the press.
2. Obama showed uncharacteristically strong emotions when asked about the potential Florida Koran burning.
Obama was asked three questions that touched on some aspect of either the Koran kerfuffle or the ongoing argument over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. The president hit a few themes, but was particularly forceful when asked about Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose plans to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has inflamed debate in the U.S. and has been used as justification by Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan to riot.
“This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, who are sacrificing for us to keep us safe,” Obama said, his voice rising in an unusual show of emotion for the normally professorial president. “You don’t play games with that.”
Obama stressed several times, in answer to questions about American attitudes toward Muslims, that Muslim Americans should be affirmed as part of the same country as citizens of other faiths.
“We have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other,” said Obama. “We are one nation under God. We may call that god different names, but we remain one nation.”
“They are fighting along side us in our battles,” Obama said. “I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan, in the uniform of the United States armed services. They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes: They are Americans. And we honor their service.”
Next: Obama admits his mistakes (sort of)
3. Obama admitted his mistakes (sort of).
On the stimulus: “It worked. It just hasn’t done as much as we need it to do.”
On his promise to change the way Washington works: “If you’re asking why haven’t I been able to create a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington, I think that’s fair. I’m as frustrated as anybody by it … Are there things that I might have done during the course of 18 months that would, you know, at the margins have improved some of the tone in Washington? Probably.” Obama blamed Republican opposition and “deeply entrenched” special interests for the gridlock and partisanship, but then ended his answer to the question by blaming philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans.
On his promise to close Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba within a year of taking office: “We have succeeded on delivering a lot of campaign promises that we made. One where we’ve fallen short is closing Guantanamo. I wanted to close it sooner. We have missed that deadline. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s because the politics of it are difficult.”
4. Obama talked about economic certainty, but thinks the middle class rather than businesses needs help with the problem.
The president was not asked by any of the 13 journalists on whom he called about the argument from business leaders that his policies have made prospects for investment and expansion more uncertain, slowing job creation. But Obama was clearly aware of the uncertainty argument, using the word “certainty” a few times when asked about the fight over whether to extend all of the Bush tax cuts. Obama wants to let the cuts expire for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year, and families bringing in $250,000 annually. He argued that Republicans should work with him to extend cuts for all tax brackets except the top earners, indicating that would alleviate uncertainty.
“We could this month give every American certainty and tax relief up to $250,000 a year. Every single American would benefit from that,” Obama said. “Let’s give certainty to families out there that are having a tough time.”
It’s unlikely that the president does not understand the argument from business that it’s large, medium and small business that most badly say they need certainty to be able to plan budgets for the future. His argument that the top bracket debate should be go on after the lower bracket cuts are extended is both detached from likely legislative reality – the cuts expire at the end of the year – and would do nothing to resolve uncertainty for many businesses.
5. Obama continued the pattern of conventionality he has established for calling on journalists at press conferences, going with mostly establishment media.
The president sparked much buzz in his first ever White House press conference when he called on the liberal Huffington Post, hardly a fixture in the establishment media, especially at the time. But since then he has grown increasingly more conventional in choosing his interlocutors.
On Friday, Obama called on reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters, CBS News, Bloomberg, NBC News, the Washington Post, Haaretz, ABC News, American Urban Radio Network, the New York Times, ABC Radio, CNN and Fox News, in that order. The one surprise was Natasha Mozgovaya of Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper and website. But Obama has regularly called on one foreign press reporter at each press conference, guaranteeing himself a question on a foreign policy topic that he wants to talk about.