Professor Obama’s First Seminar

The president ran his prime-time press conference like a grad-school class.

Barack Obama

The East Room of the White House has to be the fanciest room in which Professor Obama has ever held class. But for an hour Monday night, he didn’t seem to notice as he held a graduate seminar on the first 20 days of his administration with all of the methodical procedure and pizzazz he might have applied to teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

The performance was systematic, commanding, at times belabored, and a test of a new kind of political communication. Obama hoped to use the press conference to keep the pressure on Congress to enact his stimulus bill. He talked of urgency, but there was nothing urgent about the evening. That’s wonderful, in a way. We want people with low blood pressure in high-pressure jobs. But as a political act of theater—and that’s what a press conference is, in part—the questions coming out of Obama’s colloquium are whether he created the sense of urgency he was aiming for and whether he characterized his opponents as powerfully and acutely as necessary to reframe the debate on his terms. If the president’s job is to persuade, can it be done through patient instruction with only a few hints of harangue?

It was Barack Obama’s first big press conference as president, so you might have expected a little flap in his unflappability. We know he can do the big speeches, but he had only one mildly high-pressure press conference during the campaign, so he hadn’t had much practice. And the East Room is the kind of room that can make a person nervous, or at least jittery. It’s the White House’s biggest room, and the décor seeks to achieve the same effect as the playing of “Hail to the Chief.” Yellow curtains swoop on for nearly 20 feet, the walls are interrupted every few inches with molding, and from the ceiling hang gold-and-crystal chandeliers the size of Mini Coopers. As if that weren’t enough to make Obama take a few short breaths, every person, camera, chair, and boom mike was aimed at him. Even Ronald Reagan, who knew a thing or two about performing in front of an audience, confused the Mediterranean and Caribbean in his first press conference (just as one member of the press confused Iran and Vietnam).

But from the moment Obama took a quick hop up to his place behind the lectern, his hands never shook and never fidgeted. A piece of paper got stuck to his sleeve during his prepared remarks, but he carried on, acting as if it were just a big cufflink. When foreign journalists yelled and tried to get his attention, he paid no mind. (Quaint that they thought serendipity might be involved in an East Room press conference. Obama had a prepared map before him with the names of journalists he was going to call on and their seat numbers, so he knew where to look.) As the first question was asked, the teleprompter screens the president had used for his opening remarks descended into their housing. This was not normal and certainly hasn’t happened in an East Room press conference before, but Obama’s face took no note of the event as he fielded the question.

Obama reacted to the high-pressure environment by spinning answers that were thorough and bullet-pointed (if not quite bulletproof) to questions related to his stimulus package, the second round of bank bailouts, Afghanistan, and Iran. At times his answers were like geometric shapes in which he touched all sides of the hexagon. Answering a question about Iran, he complimented its people, chided Iran for being “unhelpful,” warned about a nuclear weapon, and offered the possibility of diplomatic overtures. But Obama reminded us that lots of mistrust had built up over the years, so no one should expect anything to happen quickly, then he reiterated his “deep concerns” but offered the possibility of mutual respect and called on Iran to send the right signals.

After Obama’s first answer about the stimulus bill went on for nearly eight minutes, a journalist to my right joked that the president would conclude by saying, “and good night.”

Obama is not excessively didactic—though he did correct one reporter’s characterization of the role of excessive consumer spending in the economic collapse. He’s orderly. This is in great contrast to his predecessor, who sometimes spoke in small colloquial bursts. Those who found that to be George W. Bush’s most irritating quality have probably already watched Obama again on TiVo for the delight of hearing a string of complete sentences. There may also be another group of people who tuned in or will see the sound bites from the press conference on Tuesday and will be reminded that they like Obama’s moderate, careful tone and find that reason enough to give him more support for his big new program. But if Obama wanted to create urgency to get Congress to act or to spur people to call their representatives and demand action to avoid economic catastrophe, he didn’t really do it. The only time he appeared to show emotion was in answering a question about flag-draped coffins. He said signing letters to the families of “slain heroes” had brought the weight of his job most powerfully home to him. *

Another of Obama’s goals for the evening was to frame his opponents, which he did frequently. They are “playing politics instead of solving problems,” he said.

He was probably more effective in this gambit, if for no other reason than some of these quotes will be replayed over the next 24 hours. The attacks are still disingenuous, though. Obama suggests that the bulk of his opponents don’t want to do anything at all. This makes them look absurd. It’s true that some people hold this view. But the bulk of his opponents believe in some stimulus bill, just not the one he proposed. This is a perfectly standard political trick, but it’s hard to pull off if you’re a president promising a new kind of politics.

Obama and his aides also flirted with another old-style trick. Republicans during the last administration used to frame principled opposition to policy as ignorance of the problem the policy was supposed to solve. If you didn’t like the Patriot Act, then you were soft on terrorism. In the argument over the stimulus bill, Obama and his aides often characterize those who oppose it as narrow Washington thinkers who don’t know what’s really happening in the country. As Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs put it Monday: “There’s a myopic viewpoint in Washington. And I think Washington needs to understand what happens in Florida, and Indiana, and Michigan, and Ohio, and Pennsylvania.” It could also be true that lawmakers get it but just think there’s a different answer.

As the president answered the last question of the night, he finally shifted his weight off his two feet, which had been planted for nearly an hour. He crossed one behind the other—relaxing a little, perhaps, because he knew he had helped his case for the stimulus bill without flubbing or because he had covered all of the material on time. He waved and turned to walk down the red carpet at 9 p.m., exactly an hour after he’d begun.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2009: The article originally and incorrectly said that Barack Obama said the hardest part of his job was writing letters to the families of fallen servicemembers. That was not the case. Obama talked about signing such letters and said they had brought the weight of his office home to him. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)