President Obama's first prime-time news conference was widely judged a success. His encounter with the media in the ceremonial East Room of the White House worked well on both the policy and the political levels. Most important, the news conference provided valuable insights into the new chief executive's character and approach to leadership, and it's likely that most of the estimated 50 million viewers were impressed.
Obama argued that the nation's financial calamity is so dire that only the federal government has the resources to "jolt" the economy back to life. He made what amounted to an argument for the return of big government to a central role in national life and made it clear that he is attempting to roll back the less-government approach that has dominated policymaking since Ronald Reagan ushered in a conservative era a generation ago.
And Obama demonstrated a new toughness, something the country hadn't seen from him since Inauguration Day. He warned his Republican adversaries that his search for bipartisanship will go only so far if they continue to present an almost united front against him. If he is forced to govern with only Democratic votes in Congress despite his effort to reach out to Republicans, he said, so be it, because success in passing the stimulus package is more important than his search for comity in Washington.
But the news conference February 9 was also a window into Obama himself—which is what news conferences, at their best, are supposed to be. Under George W. Bush, the form lost its luster because he rarely revealed anything except the minimalist talking points that he and his staff had devised in advance. As a result, Bush's infrequent sessions with the media were rarely illuminating, aside from providing an opportunity for him to mangle the English language and give late-night comedians more material for their monologues.
It was different with Obama. He remained on message in pushing for his stimulus plan, but his answers were both substantial and instructive. "It was a smart move," says a prominent Democratic strategist. "It was clear he knew what he wanted to say, and he kept coming back to his key points with every answer." In fact, Obama's explanations were so extensive that some reporters thought he was filibustering at times. White House aides, however, say he relishes the educator's function of his job and enjoyed playing professor. In any case, he managed to call on only 13 journalists, including eight TV and wire-service reporters, during his hourlong session, which many correspondents thought was too narrow a group.
In the process, Obama showed himself to be a thoughtful policymaker, a master of detail, a calm deliberator, earnest, and confident. He was in no way the policy lightweight of his 2008 campaign opponents' caricatures. He called himself an "eternal optimist," even though he issued extremely gloomy warnings about the collapsing economy. If there was a flaw in his performance, it was that he showed no sense of humor. He lacked the kind of light touch that John F. Kennedy demonstrated in his famous news conferences of the early 1960s—flashes of humor that can ingratiate a president to the public.
But Obama had a larger mission. The following day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama likes "the give-and-take but, more importantly, I think he believes that the American people get a great deal out of them because I think people are able to watch and understand a little bit better what's going on in the to-and-fro in Washington." Because of that, Gibbs anticipates that Obama will " do news conferences often."
Many presidents and press secretaries have promised regular news conferences, only to back off when they ran into trouble and the media started to get hostile. So, it remains to be seen whether Obama will keep up the news-conference habit.
But judging from his first outing, it does benefit everyone. Obama got a chance to make his case on the most important issues of the day. The media got a chance to quiz him at length and explore his mind. And the public got a chance to see how their new leader thinks on his feet. The entire process proved that the news conference remains a valuable bully pulpit for the president and a valuable way for the media and the country to see whether he measures up.