The Washington Post's adjectives in Thursday's coverage of the Obama press conference signaled their approval. "Obama takes tougher tone on economy, foreign policy" was the headline at the top of Page One. Post reporters Peter Wallsten and Zachary Goldfarb led off with how Obama "belittled" congressional Republicans for taking vacations during debt-limit talks and contrasted their work effort with his young daughters. But his mission was to "reassert a commanding presence" on the issues. He was not "petulant" or "whiny," he was "showing a combative side that Americans rarely see."
The front-page promo underneath hailed Dana Milbank's "Washington Sketch" full of praise. "The pugilist in chief: A press corps gathered to hear our regularly scheduled president meets a rather feisty gentleman instead."
Online, the headline was "Obama uses combative new tone to retake reins on economic, foreign policy issues". Inside, on A4, the headline was "Obama asserts himself on top issues." Wallsten and Goldfarb cooed:
Throughout the news conference, he spoke with more vigor and specificity than he has at any point before about the potential dangers Americans face if Republicans don't agree by a "hard deadline" of Aug. 2 to lift the debt ceiling. He suggested that the GOP would be blamed for damaging cuts to the National Weather Service, food inspections, veterans benefits and Social Security payments.
“I’ve said to some of the Republican leaders, ‘You go talk to your constituents, the Republican constituents, and ask them are they willing to compromise their kids’ safety so that some corporate-jet owner continues to get a tax break,’ ” the president said. “And I’m pretty sure what the answer would be.”
The Post reporters made no attempt to see if there was any accuracy in that "vigor and specificity," whether Republicans opposed spend for food-safety inspectors, or whether that was simply press-conference trash talk. No pundit lauding "civility" was asked if this new "combative" tone was going to help Obama strike a deal with House Republicans. He was simply allowed to paint himself as the hero and everyone else as knaves:
Obama turned the Libya question into a chance to portray himself as a good-faith actor operating in a sea of mal-intentioned politicians.
He accused critics of making a "cause celebre" out of protecting Gaddafi, who has killed Americans. Obama said that his administration has sent "reams of information" to Congress on the Libya effort, and that the United States has carried out its narrow mission there with success.
"So a lot of this fuss is politics," he added.
Obama was most animated on the deficit debate, again taking pains to present himself as the one willing to make politically costly decisions about spending cuts.
He described himself as the commander in chief who has "difficult conversations with the Pentagon, saying, `You know what, there's fat here [and] we're going to have to trim it out.' "
The president's stern new tone suggested that administration officials think the cordial outreach and behind-the-scenes negotiations they have been using in deficit-reduction talks with Republicans have not been working.
Under Wallsten and Goldfarb, columnist Dana Milbank was floating on a cloud of delight. The headline on his column: "Who's the pugnacious fellow on the podium?" Liberal Democrats wanted Obama to fight harder, and coincidentally, so did the staffers at The Washington Post. Milbank wanted trash talk:
This was Obama as he ought to be. He often seems passive in public, giving friend and foe alike the impression that his presidency is adrift on matters from Libya to gay marriage to the debt talks. But on Wednesday, in his first full news conference in three months, he was uncharacteristically assertive, shelving lawyerly rejoinders in favor of basketball trash talk.
“Promise made, promise kept,” Obama retorted when challenged by ABC News’s Jim Sciutto about the original claim that the attack on Libya would take “days, not weeks.”
“Asked and answered,” he replied when asked by the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler about his ambiguous position on same-sex marriage.
When Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman asked about business leaders’ complaints, Obama rejoined: “When unemployment’s at 3 percent and they’re making record profits, they’re going to still complain about regulations.”’
The session began with a less-than-promising sign: Teleprompters. But contained in the prepared text was a more spirited, populist theme than the nuanced president usually allows himself.
“The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners,” he said. “I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that, ‘The tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table.”
He mentioned the corporate jets six times before parking that bit of class warfare with a challenge to Republicans to ask their constituents “are they willing to compromise their kids’ safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break?”
Obama, his fingers sometimes curled over the front of the lectern, mostly managed to avoid the testiness he often flashes when challenged...
He did? "Testy" was certainly an adjective that fit like a glove -- if you're not an Obama voter. Milbank has tried to claim to conservatives that he's really an independent, a mugwump, a swing voter. Baloney. He loves it when Democrats suggest the Republicans favor cruel and unusual fiscal punishment:
The newly forceful Obama spoke of the “selfish” approach of Republicans, their need to “say a lot of things to satisfy their base” and the imperative that they “move off their maximalist position.” He charged that Republicans -- “these guys,” he called them -- would have us “paying interest to Chinese . . . and we’re not going to pay folks their Social Security checks...”
“Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead,” Obama admonished the opposition. He likened the Republicans to kids who procrastinate on their homework, and to deadbeats: “They took the vacation. They bought the car. And now they’re saying, ‘Maybe we don’t have to pay’ . . . We’re the greatest nation on Earth and we can’t act that way.”
Populism, pugilism and American exceptionalism: From a stoic president, this was a refreshing blend.