The press corps asked no questions during Monday’s White House press conference about the meltdown of President Barack Obama‘s high-profile Muslim outreach policy.
Instead, they spent time asking low-impact questions, such as whether officials timed today’s announcement of a new lawsuit against Chinese auto part makers to aid the president’s two campaign stops in Ohio.
They used up the bulk of their limited time throwing softball questions.
“It was a beautiful weekend for golf and he wasn’t out on the course,” asked one reporter, according to a transcript. “Is it safe to assume maybe he was doing some preparation [for the presidential debates] at the White House?”
“Can you give us any guidance or insight into how the President is monitoring the situation in Afghanistan?” asked another reporter. The journalists’ names are not included in the transcript.
Obama’s Arab-outreach policy — dubbed “A New Beginning” in 2009 — is being shredded as Islamist governments, angry populations and jihadi groups compete to demonstrate their hostility to, or distance from, Obama’s U.S. government.
United States Marines are being sent to protect embassies, U.S. diplomats have been withdrawn from the region and the Beirut embassy has begun burning classified documents, according to the Associated Press.
Even friendly Libyan officials publicly dismiss the White House’s claim that the deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi was the result of an uproar over a low-budget YouTube video.
Moreover, the end of that “New Beginning” is having an impact on the 2012 race: Republicans are stepping up their criticism of the president’s outreach strategy, his preparations against possible jihadi attacks and his reaction to the events during the last six days.
Only two questions referred to the administration’s reaction to the Islamist protests and attacks in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and several other countries.
No reporter asked about the White House’s Sept. 14 request to Google, asking the company to remove from YouTube’s servers a video that the president does not like. And no reporter asked about the president’s silence while Islamist governments in Egypt, Turkey and Iran demand curbs on Americans’ free speech.
No journalist asked White House officials about the Sept. 11, 2012 jihadi strike on the Benghazi consulate that killed four officials including the ambassador, despite startling news from Libya suggesting that the embassy was almost defenseless.
The president got no questions about the Benghazi attack even though his administration’s explanation for that assault — that protesters angered by the video had gone berserk — was contradicted over the weekend by Libyan government officials and by local witnesses, as well as by video showing an attacker carrying a rocket launcher.
The press conference, dubbed a “gaggle,” was held on board Air Force One en route to two campaign events in Ohio.
The agenda was steered by Obama’s deputies Josh Earnest, Obama’s “principal deputy press secretary,” and Jennifer Psaki, the traveling press secretary for Obama’s re-election campaign.
Earnest and Psaki focused the media’s attention on the president’s visit to Ohio by announcing a trade lawsuit against Chinese auto parts manufacturers.
Reporters devoted nearly half the gaggle to whether the administration’s announcement was timed to help the president’s same-day speeches in Ohio, a swing state that includes a significant auto industry.
“Of course not,” Earnest said earnestly. “These are decisions that are made that have been months in the making, that are the result of investments that the president has made in ITEC, the Interagency Trade Enforcement Task Force.”
Reporters questioned the timing and purpose eight times, but Earnest swatted away every question.
“The president, 50 days out from an election, has to balance his responsibilities, both as a candidate and as the President of the United States … and today, we’re doing both,” he said.
“As I’ve pointed out a couple of times here, these cases are months in the making, and the president doesn’t believe that we should delay these kinds of important actions merely because we’re in the middle of a campaign,” he said in answer to another question.
Only two questions alluded at all to the now-apparent damage to Obama’s “New Beginning” policy, but both were softballs about Obama’s campaign tactics.
“How will he continue to balance, sort of, his tone on the campaign trail with what’s going on across the world?”
“Will he continue to talk about [Arab-region events] in his stump speech as he did last week? And is there a point at which things become so complicated overseas where he might want to scale back his campaigning?”
Earnest and Psaki easily fended off both questions.
“The President will continue to stay in touch with his national security team throughout this week, as he always done … [and] he called the chiefs of mission in Sudan, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Yemen to let those diplomats know that he was thinking about them, that their safety remains a top priority of his,” Earnest said in response to the first question.
“The President’s top priority is clear,” Psaki replied to the second. “But right now he’s out here in Ohio today; he’s able to receive updates, receive briefings — that’s a lot of what he’s doing on the plane.”
Reporters then asked five questions about Israel’s reaction to Iran’s nuclear development program and two questions about Afghanistan, none of which generated any news.
The transcribed event then included a series of additional softball questions.
“Do you see [the Chicago teachers’ strike] as a distraction at all just in terms of the ground game — not in terms of the policy, but in terms of getting people out, to be working, knocking on doors right now?”
“Do you have any update on his debate prep going forward? … Can you give us sort of any kind of sense of how that’s going to work going forward?”
“Did the president see the new SNL [Saturday Night Live] impression of him? And does he have any reaction to it?”
That question brought laughter from the press corps, according to the White House transcript.
Earnest responded jokingly, saying, “I don’t believe that he watched that Saturday Night Live this weekend. He spent a lot of time watching football, actually.”
No reporter asked why Obama was watching so much football instead of trying to understand the changing balance of power in the Middle East.
At the end of the event, Psaki offered cookies to the attending journalists.