Saturday, May 29, 2010

The C Word

The "C" in "C word" doesn't stand for "color" — although I have no doubt that there are those among the Obama apologists who wish it did because that would be something their hero could blame that is beyond his control.

The "C" doesn't even stand for "conference" — as in "press conference," which is something Obama can control, and it's a good thing he held one on Thursday.

I say that not only because it is essential for a president to keep the country informed when the greatest disaster of its kind is happening in the Gulf of Mexico — which it is — but also because, as Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway reminded readers on Tuesday, the president's last press conference was nearly a year ago.

On that memorable occasion, Obama criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for responding to a citizen's complaint and arresting a black man, who turned out to be a noted Harvard professor, for breaking into his own home.

It was also held during prime time, whereas Thursday's soiree was in the afternoon (and, presumably, drew a smaller audience). So, like Roger Maris' single–season home run record, I guess an asterisk is needed — because the clock is still running on Obama's streak between prime time press conferences.

Will the streak live for a year? Less than eight weeks to go. Does anyone know the Vegas odds?

The president pledged an open and accessible presidency, and, in fairness, he has been accessible for one–on–one interviews with some members of the press, usually the ones whose employers already have shown themselves to be editorially sympathetic to Obama's agenda.

A president has many ways of communicating with the people — and, since the Kennedy presidency, the televised press conference has been one of the most effective ways of explaining policy. Not all presidents have excelled at the give and take with the press (JFK did set that bar pretty high), but the nine men who succeeded Kennedy (including Obama — because, after all, no matter how many one–on–one interviews a president does, there's nothing more American, more democratic than an open press conference in which a dozen or more people get the chance to ask the president a question in front of a national TV audience) have utilized it.

In spite of his much–publicized oratorical skills, Obama has been reluctant to hold press conferences. He got off to a rather fast start, holding monthly press conferences in the first couple of months, but the pace of his press conferences seemed to taper off after his faux pas about his bowling skills and the Special Olympics — and was nonexistent after the Sotomayor confirmation hearings last summer.

No, the "C" in "C word" clearly doesn't stand for "press conference" — although maybe it does qualify as a word for which this White House has little fondness. After all, Obama could have used the occasion of Labor Day to hold a press conference and reassure unemployed Americans, who saw their ranks swell by nearly 250,000 the month before, but he did not.

Perhaps he didn't hold a press conference on Labor Day because he was too busy putting the finishing touches on the speech he was scheduled to give to America's schoolchildren the next day.

Or maybe he was too tired after traveling to Cincinnati to give a speech on health care reform on Labor Day.

Well, that's ancient history now, I suppose.

I guess the "C" in "C word" could stand for "crude," as in crude oil. Alphabetically, of course, it could — and perhaps that would be appropriate, given that, during Thursday's press conference, Obama told America that "[rapid response] has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred" more than a month ago.

Perhaps it was just coincidental that, as Obama was saying that, in my mind's eye, I saw the mayor from "Jaws" telling the sheriff "it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

No, actually, the "C word" is "competence." Sometimes it is expressed directly. Sometimes it is implied.

But that is the buzzword I have been reading and hearing lately. And, upon reflection, it does seem to me that, if it was fair to use that as the standard by which to judge George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina or Jimmy Carter's handling of Three–Mile Island, it's fair in this case as well.

At first, I guess I tended to brush off criticism as more from the sour grapes crowd. In fact, I think the first article I saw was a double whammy — a column from former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan in the Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal.

"He was supposed to be competent," moaned the headline on Noonan's column, and I almost didn't bother to read what she had written. But then I did, and I couldn't help admitting there were times when I felt she might be on to something. Like:
  • when she started with the observation that "[t]his is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president's political judgment and instincts."

  • or when she wrote that Obama "continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. ... [H]e has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They're in one reality, he's in another."

    Kind of like that Labor Day thing I mentioned earlier. Seems like an obvious time for a president who is presiding over a nation reeling from an economic crisis to hold a press conference on job creation. And maybe, I mused at the time, that is precisely why he did not hold a press conference. Too obvious. Style would be critiqued with no attention given to substance. The spin would be all about politics.

    Well, I mused that at the time. But I never really believed it.

    Anyway, the days after Labor Day turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. At some point, it became obvious that the press conference on joblessness — which, for months, has been getting the top spot in polls about Americans' No. 1 concern — wasn't coming, that Obama hadn't merely been playing pre–emptive politics by not addressing the issue on Labor Day.

  • or when Noonan complained that Obama "repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae," observing that his professorial demeanor "made him seem like someone who won't see the big picture."

    His tendency to lecture isn't too appealing, either.

  • or the thing that seems so incredible to so many people — "the way both BP and the government, 40 days in, continue to act shocked, shocked that an accident like this could have happened. If you're drilling for oil in the deep sea, of course something terrible can happen, so you have a plan on what to do when it does.

    "How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing? We're plugging it now with tires, mud and golf balls?"
Peter Wehner also has ties to previous Republican administrations, so you've got to consider the source, but I am compelled to admit that he puts his finger on a problem I have seen in not only Obama but also his most strident supporters.

"Obama is among the most thin–skinned presidents we have had," Wehner writes for Politics Daily. "In Obama's eyes, he is always the aggrieved, always the violated, always the victim of some injustice. He is America's virtuous and valorous hero, a man of unusually pure motives and uncommon wisdom, under assault by the forces of darkness."

It all has a Nixonian feel to it, doesn't it? And, in a telling observation, Wehner writes, "When arrogant men lose control of events it can easily lead to feelings of isolation, to striking out at critics, to bullying opponents, and to straying across lines that should not be crossed."

Shades of Watergate, for sure.

Then Wehner makes another point: "With Obama there is also the compulsive need to admonish others, to point fingers, to say that the problems he faces are not of his doing." He's been president for 16 months now, and he continues to blame his predecessor for everything. I gather, from what I see in the polls and in the primaries that have been held so far, that it's wearing thin, even with those who bent over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Last week, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden of the "cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill." Wasn't 16 months enough time to do something — or at least get started on something — about that cozy relationship?

Wehner concludes that Obama "was as unprepared to be president as any man in our lifetime" and he is "overmatched by events."

As I said, you can make a case for disregarding such thoughts from Noonan and Wehner. They have reputations as being among Obama's loyal opposition.

It isn't so easy to overlook what Charles Blow of the New York Times writes.

"People needed to be assured that Obama possessed three basic presidential traits: being informed, engaged and empathetic," says Blow.
  • "As for the first trait, he was superb as always. I think amassing facts is his idea of being warm and fuzzy."

  • "On the second, he was a bit wobbly."

  • "On the third point, empathy, Obama came up short."
And empathy is one of those things Americans want to see in their presidents. Even if there isn't a damn thing the president can do — and there often isn't — people like to know that a president, in Bill Clinton's famous words, feels their pain.

Obama often seems to be above their pain.

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