The Answerer in Chief

Not only does Obama hold press conferences, he actually pays attention to the questions.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama held three press conferences on three consecutive days this week and sat for an interview with Barbara Walters. “We don’t intend to stumble into the next administration,” he said Tuesday, and it was clear from his regular, brisk, and commanding performances that he’s not going to. But what else have we learned about our next president?

He wants to pop the bubble. Obama is smart enough to know that just having a BlackBerry isn’t going to do much to battle against the insularity of the White House, nor will it remove the psychological need for consensus among White House staffers, which snuffs out alternative views. So, on Wednesday he appointed an economic advisory board to give him candid advice from outside Washington. In announcing that Paul Volcker will head it and longtime economic adviser Austan Goolsbee  will coordinate with the administration, Obama repeatedly referred to the need for candor and outside-the-bubble thinking: “Sometimes policymaking in Washington can become a little bit too ingrown, a little bit too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking. You start engaging in groupthink.”

Obama wants to know what he doesn’t know. “He understands that, more than anything, this was a problem with the current White House, and he’s determined to stay in touch with people,” says incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs. One note of caution: When I interviewed his predecessor before he took office, he, too, was passionate about insularity and lack of candor in the White House.

He listens to the question. Perhaps it’s the former professor coming out, but unlike other candidates and presidents, who recite talking points or ramble on to other topics, Obama seems to really listen. A local reporter referred to Obama’s “friends” in local government in what sounded like a throwaway line to set up his question about budget pressure on states and cities. After a long answer on the main point, Obama circled back and noted that the reporter had mentioned his “friends.” “I want to be clear,” he said. “Friendship doesn’t come into this. That’s part of the old way of doing business.” This isn’t to say that he gave full answers. He didn’t provide a list of budget items he’d cut, and he didn’t say exactly how large he thinks the economic stimulus package should be.

He’s efficient and workmanlike. Because news organizations cover the president-elect’s every move, we know that Obama arrived home after his Tuesday morning workout at 9:11 a.m. He was showered and changed and back in the car by 9:28. His press conferences were nearly as brisk, averaging a little more than 20 minutes. He’ll need to be this snappy if he’s going to make sharp decisions from the mountains of economic advice he’s going to be getting from his hordes of new advisers.

He’s not afraid to use the ruler: Presidents like to talk about using the bully pulpit to create a greater sense of responsibility in the culture. Obama’s already doing it. He criticized the Big Three automakers for having no plan for the money they wanted from Congress and for flying corporate jets. He also suggested wealthy CEOs shouldn’t take bonuses this year. (It’s not clear yet what his personal views are about the press. At times, he seemed irritated. At others, he complimented the questioners.)

Baseball causes mistakes. When those who are about to be president want to admit mistakes, they talk about baseball. Perhaps it’s just a safe topic. In one of the Chicago press conferences, reporters were divided by baseball team. One was placed in the wrong section. Calling on him Tuesday, Obama said, “I understand that as a lifelong White Sox fan, you were placed in the Cubs section yesterday, and I want to apologize for that. … This is also part of the new way of doing business. When we make mistakes, we admit them.” During the 2000 campaign, George Bush was asked what he considered his greatest mistake. He said it was trading Sammy Sosa. (He subsequently had problems with this question.)

He doesn’t like lapdogs: Barbara Walters concluded her interview with the Obamas on the subject of the family dog. (This has become the official closing question of all president-elect interviews.) Apparently unconcerned that the incoming first lady might be too busy to look at pictures of her dog, Walters had sent Michelle Obama a picture of her dog, a Havanese. The president-elect was skeptical. “It’s like a little yappy dog,” he said. “It, like, sits in your lap and things?” His wife tried to keep him from criticizing, but the president-elect was undeterred. “It sounds kind of like a … a girly dog. … We’re gonna have a big, rambunctious dog.” Girly dog, huh? That’s something the women (and men) over at Emily’s List will love. Fortunately, Obama’s new communications director just came from there.