Walter Shapiro finds that Barack Obama’s customarily deft public performance deteriorates markedly when he encounters negative questioning.
(I)n response to the next question â€“ about the potential consequences if Iran continued to suppress demonstrations â€“ Obama said with a sharp edge in his voice, “We don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not. Okay?”
Now I am not going to claim that the First Amendment requires presidents always to wear smiley faces when taking questions from reporters. Nor am I going to deny that occasionally â€“ very occasionally â€“ the short-term mindset of the press pack can be irritating for presidents with a more transcendent view of global events.
Instead, I am bringing this up because I want to tentatively advance a larger theory about the president’s public moods. Obama tends to drop his cool veneer and sound exasperated when he knows that he is in the wrong.
When it comes to Iran, Obama has at times spoken in particularly mealy mouthed fashion because he is fearful (as he has repeatedly explained) that his words could be hijacked by the Iranian theocrats. Even during Tuesday’s press conference, Obama ducked condemning the Iranian election as totally fraudulent by carefully saying, “We didn’t have international observers on the ground. We can’t say definitely what happened at polling places throughout the country.” Obama â€“ who more than most leaders understands the power of inspirational rhetoric â€“ has been forced to keep his most potent weapon (his moral outrage) sheathed through most of the Iranian crisis.
But it was on a far smaller matter (and not one that often comes up during his morning national security briefings) that Obama really put his ire on the fire. What set the president off was a question trying to link Obama’s own smoking history with new legislation giving the FDA the power to regulate nicotine. In response, Obama claimed that the reporter just thought that it was “neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law. But that’s fine. I understand. It’s a interesting human — it’s a interesting human-interest story.” (Words alone cannot convey Obama’s mocking tone and his obvious disdain for this “human-interest story.”)
Smoking, of course, is the secret vice that humanizes Obama. He cannot be that perfect â€“ that in control of himself â€“ if he cannot kick his yen to inhale carcinogenic smoke. Obama, in fact, likened himself (maybe a bit melodramatically) to “folks who go to AA.” Small wonder Obama becomes annoyed when he is asked for a monthly update on his cigarette consumption.
The truth is that the Obama White House certainly does not resist human-interest stories when they portray the president in a favorable glow. Obama’s grumpiness about the smoking question was not about an intrusive boxers-or-briefs press corps, but about the president’s own frailties.
Which probably explains why the President preferred, with respect to the sensitive topic of Iran, to answer a previously-arranged softball question from an editor of the Huffington Post.
In what appeared to be a coordinated exchange, President Obama called on the Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney near the start of his press conference and requested a question directly about Iran.
â€œNico, I know you and all across the Internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran,â€ Obama said, addressing Pitney. â€œI know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?â€
Pitney, as if ignoring what Obama had just said, said: â€œI wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian.â€
He then noted that the site had solicited questions from people in the country â€œwho were still courageous enough to be communicating online.â€
â€œUnder which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad, and if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn’t that a betrayal of the â€” of what the demonstrators there are working towards?â€
Reporters typically donâ€™t coordinate their questions for the president before press conferences, so it seemed odd that Obama might have an idea what the question would be. Also, it was a departure from White House protocol by calling on The Huffington Post second, in between the AP and Reuter. …
The Huffington Post reporter was brought out of lower press by deputy press secretary Josh Earnest and placed just inside the barricade for reporters a few minutes before the start of the press conference.