Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meeting the press

Political capital is a perishable thing. The toothsome political opportunities of a young White House can dissipate quickly, becoming as moldy and unusable as any of the science projects lurking somewhere in your refrigerator right now.

George Bush, who practically crowed about his political capital after the 2004 election, turned into a victim of his own deficit spending. Well before the end of his second term in office, it was clear President Bush was spending political capital he didn’t have. The Republican Party paid that bill in November.

Barack Obama doesn’t intend to make the same mistake. Tonight, on his 64th day in office, the 44th president and overachiever-in-chief met the press in a prime-time news conference, firing on all hybrid-powered cylinders in making his case to the media and the American public.

With a telling shot at his Republican critics, a call for more authority over some failing non-banking concerns, a thorough breakdown of his first-term priorities, and an appeal to the American people for patience, President Obama clearly recognized that the most valuable political capital is time — and the nation’s forbearance.

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There may be no more electric visual image surrounding the presidency than to see the president walking down the ornate, carpeted hallway leading to the East Room of the White House, on the way to meet the press. It’s stagecraft personified. And it’s a sign that Obama is growing into the office that both on the way in and all throughout the 58-minute session with the media, the president looks relaxed, animated and completely on point.

He began with prepared, TelePrompTered remarks directed not at the press in the room but the millions watching on TV.

”Now, it's important to remember that this crisis didn't happen overnight and it didn't result from any one action or decision. It took many years and many failures to lead us here. And it will take many months and many different solutions to lead us out. There are no quick fixes, and there are no silver bullets. …

“The budget I submitted to Congress will build our economic recovery on a stronger foundation, so that we do not face another crisis like this ten or twenty years from now. We invest in the renewable sources of energy that will lead to new jobs, new businesses, and less dependence on foreign oil. We invest in our schools and our teachers so that our children have the skills they need to compete with any workers in the world. We invest in reform that will bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses, and our government. And in this budget, we have made the tough choices necessary to cut our deficit in half by the end of my first term - even under the most pessimistic estimates. …

“At the end of the day, the best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led to a narrow prosperity and massive debt. It's with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest. …

“We will recover from this recession. But it will take time, it will take patience, and it will take an understanding that when we all work together; when each of us looks beyond our own short-term interests to the wider set of obligations we have to each other - that's when we succeed. That's when we prosper. And that's what is needed right now. So let us look toward the future with a renewed sense of common purpose, a renewed determination, and most importantly, a renewed confidence that a better day will come.”

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Obama echoed the request of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, made to Congress earlier Tuesday, for unprecedented authority to take over outfits like AIG, performing the same rescue function that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) now performs for troubled banks.

“Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers' dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over,” he said.

“At the same time, the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more.”

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If Obama’s gotten good at anything since he was sworn in, it’s in his dealings with the mainstream media. With recent appearances on “The Tonight Show,” a weekend interview with “60 Minutes” and an evolving relationship with the maverick media that helped him win the presidency, he’s shown no fear in dealing with the White House press corps.

That came across tonight. In the Q&A period, Ed Henry of CNN apparently forgot he was dealing with a brother from Chicago. Henry, trying to look tough and aggressive, kept pursuing a marginal point about how Obama didn’t respond immediately, emotionally, reflexively about the AIG bailout bonuses.

“… [O]n AIG, why did you wait — why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” Henry asked for the second or third time. “It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, ‘look, we're outraged.’ Why did it take so long?”

With a single sentence, Obama went all street on Henry: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.” End of discussion, and maybe the beginning of a new respect from traditional media for Obama’s steeliness under fire. Clearly, he won’t seek a fight but he won’t run from one (especially one he can win hands down).

We're 64 percent of the way through that 100-day expiration date of the earlier manifestation of Obama’s political capital, but the president and his team has been making the most of it. Considering that he’s had to do as much to undo some of the actions and policies of his predecessor as he has put his own policies in place, the Obama administration has already achieved a great deal in record time.

With his repeated calls for patience — both from a 24/7 media with the appetite and metabolism of a shrew, and from the American people eager for the change he promised — President Obama is calling on the country and the media to awaken to the possibility that our obsession with small ball —the day-to-day, the knee-jerk response, the minuscule and the incremental — can give way to something bigger, more powerful from a leader determined to swing for the fences when it’s necessary. And it’s necessary now.

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