Gently, Gently

At Obama’s press conference, he was measured, careful, and hesitant.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

After President Obama’s Friday news conference, this much is clear: He is only going to go so far, and he’s going to take his time getting there. He spoke about gas prices, Libya, and the federal budget, and in each case, whatever flashes of action he might have been offering were wrapped a grandmother’s vase of description, explanation, and other verbal care. At times it was hard to discern whether he was proposing any action at all.

On Libya, for example, the president said, “We are tightening the noose on Qaddafi.” Strong language—except that when he outlined the steps being taken—a NATO meeting slated for next Tuesday, for example—it didn’t quite match the language. Even when talking about horrific violence he was almost elliptical. “The idea that when Qaddafi said that they’d be going door to door hunting for people who are participating in protests—you know, that implied a, sort of, lack of restraint and ruthlessness that I think raises our antenna,” he said.

This is the Obama way to which we’ve become accustomed. It will not satisfy critics who call for action to show that the president is engaged in current affairs. He doesn’t play that game much. He opened the press conference to announce that military ships were headed to Japan to help in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, but when talking about the ongoing issues he faces, there were few sharp declarations. Each answer had a formula: Step back to explain the measures that were taken before, outline the steps taken since, and present the options available in the future for possible decision making.

Obama repeatedly stressed that he weighs sending forces into battle very carefully. The message of the entire news conference was about balance. He said he had pushed for oil exploration, as Republicans want, but he’d done it “responsibly.” He wants “prudent spending cuts.” That’s a message the White House thinks independent voters want to hear: not partisan but thoughtful.

The deliberate approach—some answers went to 10 minutes—was at odds with the signals being sent from the president’s aides before the press conference, which was that there would be some clear lines drawn. Obama had called the gathering to show, in part, that he was on the case.

If you’re worried about prices at the pump, the president’s answer was, “There are no quick fixes.” He didn’t use those actual words, but that was the upshot. He explained that the payroll tax cut he worked out with Republicans last year put $80 a month (or 23 gallons at current prices) into people’s paychecks, which should cushion the blow of higher prices. He described efforts his administration is taking to increase domestic energy production and called for comprehensive energy legislation. He is prepared to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to cushion any price spikes that might come from an interruption in oil flows, but he’s not going to do that just yet. “It’s teed up,” he said.

On the budget, Democrats in Congress have been asking the president to pressure Republicans in negotiations over funding the government for the remainder of the fiscal year. He went gently, much as he did in the negotiations over extending the Bush tax cuts last year. He called on both sides to work together. Instead of saying “get it done,” the president builds the case and then concludes, “We should be able to get it done.” It’s not an order as much as it is an indirect application of pressure from the weight of evidence.

Obama said House Republicans shouldn’t expect to get 100 percent of their demands. That’s a pretty low bar for most Democrats. Obama did defend Pell grants and the Head Start program, adding specifics to his general remarks earlier in the week . He also gave a general direction to Republicans. The president has accused Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin of trying to use emergency action to address budget shortfalls to pass ideological legislation. Obama warned Republicans in Washington about doing the same thing. “Let’s not try to sneak political agendas into a budget debate,” he said. In Washington this is like saying let’s not sneak meat into a steakhouse. Making the suggestion isn’t going to do much. You’ve got to block the door. The president isn’t ready to go that far yet.

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