Wash Hands Before Leaving Oval Office

Obama has talked about real estate, the market, and new cars. Now he’s giving health advice.

President Obama has had to play many different roles in his first 100 days: lawyer, market adviser, commander in chief, real estate broker, and CEO. Now he’s playing doctor. “Wash your hands when you shake hands, cover your mouth when you cough,” he said at his third prime-time press conference, reiterating the steps people should take to protect themselves from swine flu. “If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, keep them out of school.”

The many roles reflect the many challenges Obama faces. “The typical president, I think, has two or three big problems,” he said. “We’ve got seven or eight.” His response has been a heavy dose of government intervention, but Obama insisted several times during the evening that he was not an interventionist. “I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. … I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector. If you could tell me that when I walked into this office, that the banks were humming; the autos were selling; and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran and a pandemic flu—I would take that deal. That’s why I’m always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, ‘Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government.’ “

The point of this protestation is to blunt Republican attacks, of course, particularly on the issue of the budget deficit, which will grow as a result of all of this activity. But it’s also to make everything he’s doing to expand government—including the reorientation of priorities in his budget—seem like a necessary reaction to an emergency situation. If it’s an emergency, it’s harder to argue against.

With the president facing so much, it wasn’t a surprise that the subjects at the press conference jumped from Pakistan to Iraq to abortion to immigration. After addressing the flu outbreak, the president worked his way gingerly through a straightforward question about whether he though the previous administration had “sanctioned torture.” He never answered the question, though he was asked it twice, and though he did reiterate his position that he believes water-boarding is torture. He leaves it up to us to connect the dots: Water-boarding is torture; Bush officials authorized water-boarding; ergo, Bush administration officials authorized torture.

Obama did wade into the torture debate, however, saying he would not authorize “enhanced interrogation techniques” even if there were an “imminent threat” to the nation. He argued that the question of whether the interrogation methods had yielded useful information was besides the point. The crucial point, he argued, was that the information could have been obtained in other ways.

In a piece of political jujitsu, he also marshaled Churchill, a conservative icon (and a particular favorite of Dick Cheney’s) against those who would defend enhanced interrogation techniques. Describing the British prime minister’s decision not to torture prisoners while England was being bombed, Obama said, “Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what’s—what’s best in a people.” He also argued against torture on the grounds of American exceptionalism, a concept that he’s been criticized for insufficiently defending: “What makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals, even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”

The president made tiny bits of news addressing other questions. “I’m feeling more optimistic than I was,” he said about Chrysler, suggesting it might not have to go into bankruptcy. He said he is certain that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will not fall into the wrong hands but that he is “gravely concerned” that the government is so weak it can’t administer to its people, giving the Taliban an opportunity. He downplayed attacks in Iraq, saying that while they were concerning, “the political system is holding and functioning in Iraq.” He also said that enacting the Freedom of Choice Act on abortion “is not my highest legislative priority.”

The evening turned when Obama was asked what had humbled, surprised, enchanted, and troubled him the most about the presidency. Once he transcribed the various parts of the question, he said he’d been surprised by the sheer number of issues he had to face, which gave him a chance to reiterate that he wasn’t expanding government for its own sake but to deal with contingencies.

He said the partisan bickering had not troubled but sobered him. He thought people would behave like adults in the current crisis mode. (He might want to talk to his own party, too.) He was humbled, he said, by the slow pace of change.

His best answer of the bunch was when he addressed the issue of enchantment. He launched into a paean to those in the armed services: “I am so profoundly impressed and grateful to them for what they do. They’re really good at their job. They are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices on our behalf. They do so without complaint. They are fiercely loyal to this country.”

The press conference capped a day that included a photo-op with his newest Democratic colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter, sometimes-hourly updates on swine flu, and a town hall in Missouri. He indulged in a little campaign nostalgia reflecting on his 100-day milestone and prepared people for the difficult road ahead in the next 100 days and beyond, saying that while he saw progress,  much work remained. “Progress comes from hard choices and hard work, not miracles,” he told the crowd. “I’m not a miracle worker.” True. He’s got enough jobs already.

Slate V: The Worst 100 Days