President Barack Obama held a rare press conference on Friday afternoon in the East Room of the White House, and was treated to all-too-common deference by the White House Press Corps. Only Ed Henry of Fox News asked a question that challenged the president in any way. The rest asked soft questions that often invited him to take shots at the Republican opposition and revisit talking points he has made repeatedly in recent speeches.
President Obama began the press conference with a recapitulation of his efforts to grapple with the task of balancing national security with privacy rights in the wake of leaks about the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency (NSA). The effort seemed a response to criticism–starting with conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh–that he took to the late-night comedy circuit to explain his actions before addressing the media.
The president outlined four steps he would take: 1. urging reform of section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which the NSA has been collecting telephone records; 2 working with Congress to improve public confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; 3. providing additional public information about NSA programs; 4. forming a group of outside experts to evaluate government counter-terrorism policies, including the monitoring of communications.
Obama then took a swipe at Russia, where NSA leaker Edward Snowden has found temporary asylum, suggesting that the U.S. was far more open about its intelligence programs than other nations, and claimed that the U.S. did not, unlike some other countries, jail people for statements made on the Internet. He said that both sides of the debate over security and privacy were “patriots,” and that open debate would ultimately resolve the issue.
The first question then went to Julie Pace of the Associated Press, who asked President Obama how much of the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations he blamed on Russian President Vladimir Putin and how much he blamed on… not his own administration, but that of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev–as if it were unthinkable that President Obama and his administration could bear any of the blame for a disastrous and failed “reset” policy.
Obama added that while the U.S. would not boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, his decision to cancel a summit with President Putin was due to “a whole range of issues,” not just to the issue of Snowden’s temporary asylum. (Earlier this week, Breitbart News–virtually alone among media outlets–concluded that differences over gay rights were likely more important to President Obama than the issue of Snowden’s shelter in Russia’s embrace.)
Chuck Todd of NBC then asked a follow-up question about whether the U.S. could still work with Russia. It was a compound, two-part question–drawing an immediate rebuke from President Obama, who has scolded Todd–and others–before for asking more than one question in a single opportunity. Todd responded that he had needed to ask a second question because Obama had failed to answer Pace’s question fully in his previous answer.
Next up was Major Garrett of CBS News (formerly of Fox News), who asked President Obama whether he was “annoyed” by the “unseemly” debate over whether he should appoint a woman as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. President Obama is thought to be considering former economic adviser Larry Summers as well as Janet Yellin of the Fed’s San Francisco branch.
The question was a softball, at which Obama swung hard, repeating his irritation that Republicans had questioned the qualifications of National Security Advisor Susan Rice to be Secretary of State, as if her gender (and race) were the source of their objections, rather than her dishonesty in the Benghazi affair.
Obama concluded by noting that both candidates were highly qualified. “Major, I’d defend you if somebody was saying something that wasn’t true about you,” Obama added in response to a follow-up, eliciting laughter and mirth in the press gallery.
Next up was Carol Lee of the Wall Street Journal, and before she could ask her question, the president congratulated her the recent birth of her son Hudson. “I appreciate you making it a slow news week,” she said gratefully, before asking another question about the NSA, to which Obama responded with the now-customary filibuster, answering for several minutes without providing any new information, burning through the clock.
Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked a question about Obama’s previous statements that Al Qaeda “has been decimated” and is “on the run”–a question anticipated by Jonathan Allen and Carrie Budoff Brown of Politico, which posed it as one of six key questions they would hope to see asked. In his answer, Obama tried to distinguish between the diminished “core” of the Al Qaeda group that attacked the U.S. in 2001, and its more disparate local affiliates.
Ed Henry of Fox News surprised by asking a question that had seemed unlikely, asking the president whether he felt he could “pick and choose” laws to enforce, based on his delay of the October 1 deadline for the employer mandate of Obamacare; and also asking why the perpetrators of Benghazi had not been apprehended. The president responded brusquely that he had not found Osama bin Laden in eleven months, either.
On health care, Obama said: “I simply didn’t choose to delay this on my own; this was in consultation with businesses across the country,” he said, ignoring the fact that Congress, not private business, has the power to make and amend laws. As for Congress, “We’re not in a normal atmosphere,” he said, implying that he could not approach Congress to work together–ignoring the fact that he had just done so on exempting Congress itself from Obamacare.
“We had the executive authority” to delay the implementation of Obamacare, he told Henry, using the royal “we”–a departure from the usual “I” that peppers Obama’s public statements. President Obama did not say, however, whence he derived that executive authority. He then ran through a list of benefits that, he said, the public was already seeing–a staple of his stump speeches in the past several weeks–and attacked Republicans again.
He added a word for conservatives who are insisting on defunding Obamacare, saying it was a “bad idea” to say “you would shut down the government unless you prevent thirty million people from getting health care.” Obamacare, of course, does not provide care, but insurance; people in desperate need still receive care at public–and sometime private–hospitals. He also exaggerated the number of uninsured who would join the Obamacare exchanges.
Next, Jessica Yellin of CNN asked another one of Politico’s six questions, asking whether Obama would risk a government shutdown over Obamacare. He merely reiterated many of the points he had just made to Henry.
Scott Horsley of NPR–a noted Obama sycophant–then asked Obama to explain what political leverage he would apply to House Republicans who didn’t seem to care about immigration reform, even though Republicans had done poorly among Latino voters in the 2012 election, because they represented “white districts.” Obama, arguing that the Senate bill provided adequate border security, urged that the GOP House leaders to put it to a vote.
And with that, the press conference ended, with only eight journalists asking questions, and Obama providing rambling answers that averaged about 6 minutes each, providing little of news value–for which, undoubtedly, the journalists were thankful.