Matthews: Is Obama Avoiding Tough Questions From the Press?

I don't know what got into MSNBC's Chris Matthews Thursday, but the "Hardball" host seemed rather annoyed by his President's recent treatment of the news media.

First, he opened up a segment with guests Roger Simon of "Politico" and USA Today's Susan Page by accusing Barack Obama of behaving "like the campaign never ended" asking:

[W]hat`s the president up to? Is he doing what he does well? Is he simply sticking to his strengths? Or is he trying to bypass what he sees as a problem area, meaning the national press corps?

Later, he suggested that the folks at Thursday's Internet town hall were "self-selected" much like a "Potemkin village" (video embedded below the fold with full transcript):

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL. President Obama keeps barnstorming for his budget across the country. It`s like the campaign never ended. Today he did an event at the White House, but it was another one of those town meetings. Let`s watch.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, when I was running for president, I promised to open up the White House to the American people. And this event, which is being streamed live over the Internet, marks an important step towards achieving that goal. Now, I`m looking forward to taking your questions and hearing your thoughts and concerns because what matters to you and your families and what people here in Washington are focused on aren`t always one and the same thing.


MATTHEWS: Well, what`s the president up to? Is he doing what he does well? Is he simply sticking to his strengths? Or is he trying to bypass what he sees as a problem area, meaning the national press corps. Roger Simon`s chief political columnist for "Politico" and Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."

Well, being from "The Politico," you must be very proud, Roger, because you were the only news organization that writes as part of its work that got called on at the press conference the other night. He skipped "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," "The LA Times," "The Wall Street Journal." He didn`t call on any of those people, but he called on you guys.

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM: That`s as it should be. He called on Jessica Yellin...

MATTHEWS: As it should be?

SIMON: ... who asked a great question. But seriously, all the upset that has followed this...

MATTHEWS: It`s not an upset! I`m just asking.

SIMON: No, but it proves that the media does not have a thin skin, they have no skin whatsoever.


MATTHEWS: I`m a reporter here. I want to know what`s going on here.


MATTHEWS: I think something`s going on.

SIMON: It`s not about the reporters, it`s about the -- it`s about the answers. Do experienced reporters tend to elicit good answers? Yes. But by the time...

MATTHEWS: Do politicians like being grilled by real reporters or by easy, soft interview types?

SIMON: You wouldn`t call Mike Allen an easy, soft...


MATTHEWS: He was the one he called on.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": Well, you would call the people at today`s Internet forum pretty...

MATTHEWS: Do you have a sense...

PAGE: ... pretty soft questions.

MATTHEWS: ... that these people who show up are self-selected, to these town hall meetings? They`re not exactly hostile to this guy.


MATTHEWS: I mean, there`s a lot of -- it reminds me of Victoria Jackson in those make-up infomercials. You know, How do you put on this product? How do you like your product? You know. It`s a lipstick. They`re soft.

SIMON: It`s a way of delivering talking points, the town halls are.


MATTHEWS: I don`t say ringers. I think the whole room feels like that.

PAGE: But you know, it doesn`t work the way it -- when a president stands up before a news conference and asks -- answers tough questions, he looks good. He can make his points. It`s persuasive. When a president -- I`m not saying there`s anything wrong with the forum he did today, but when he stands up and gets softball questions and does his talking points, it`s much less persuasive. It doesn`t do the same thing that a real news conference...

MATTHEWS: Remember Nixon used to do these things, these town hall meetings?

SIMON: Yes, his famous (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: Bud Wilkinson (ph), the coach from Oklahoma, doing the moderating. Come on! They`d have, like -- his idea of diversity was to have Ed Brooke in the first row, you know, I mean -- African-American senator, Republican from Massachusetts. I mean...

SIMON: Like at school rallies, when you ask the principal...

MATTHEWS: Is that...


MATTHEWS: ... Potemkin village?

BUCHANAN: The town halls always are, but I don`t think the president is -- he`s not substituting them for the news conferences. He just did a news conference. The reporters were free to ask him whatever they wanted to ask. Look...

MATTHEWS: Can I ask a tough question?

SIMON: Sure.

MATTHEWS: Why was the presidents conference so dull the other night? Didn`t you wish, without knocking anybody, a Sam Donaldson had walked in the room or a Leslie Stahl or a Chris or Mike Wallace, just some tough -- that one guy from that one CNN question was a little bit snarky, just a little bit.

SIMON: I`ll tell you why it was dull.

MATTHEWS: And the president came back at him as if he had broken the rules.

SIMON: Yes. It was dull because the president refused to commit news. He knows how to answer a question. He knows -- he`s calm...

MATTHEWS: Deliberately boring.

SIMON: ... he`s collected. Yes. Boring these days is very good.


SIMON: He`ll take boring any day.



SIMON: ... pretty tense times, you know?

MATTHEWS: Are you saying he`s deliberately boring? Susan, get in here. Is this strategy, to be boring? I`ve never seen...


PAGE: I think reporters are somewhat responsible for not asking tougher questions, following up in a tougher way. I mean, I thought it was...

MATTHEWS: There wasn`t an edge to it.

PAGE: I thought it was OK, but yes. And it`s better for us and for him when there`s a little bit -- when there`s a little bit sharp -- little bit sharper tone.

MATTHEWS: I felt like they were all saying, like Tavis Smiley used to say in the old days, With all due respect. I mean, do you have to say, With all due -- let me ask you about this president. Somebody one said to me you always turn your job, whatever your new job is, into what you like to do. Like, some people turn every job into a PR job. It`s all communications.

Other people, like Jimmy Carter, the former president, turns his job into an engineering job: How many information boxes can I fill out? How complicated can I make it?

This president seems to have turned the presidency into a presidential campaign.


MATTHEWS: It looks like he`s still campaigning.

SIMON: Oh, also, I think is the aspect of, he`s turned into a -- in some respects, a college professorship, which...


MATTHEWS: OK. Explain.

SIMON: He likes to explain things. He likes to take complex problems, the economy, the war, education, health care, believe they are explainable and reasonable, have reasonable solutions, and explain it to the American people, because that`s where the source of his power is.


MATTHEWS: Will that work?

PAGE: You know, and it`s -- it`s -- it is working in terms of the economic. We have seen in the Gallup daily tracking poll a big rise...

MATTHEWS: We have got a new number, though, of people coming up.


PAGE: You know, we have been asking -- Gallup has been asking people every day, do you think the economy`s getting better or worse? And that number down to 7 percent...

MATTHEWS: It`s up to the 20s now.

PAGE: ... in July of -- last July, who said it was...


MATTHEWS: What, is it 29 now?

PAGE: It`s up to 29. Now, that`s not a huge number, but it`s the highest number since July of 2007.

And the last two weeks have been a time where we have seen every day an increase in the number of people who feel good about the economy and a decline in the number of people who say...


MATTHEWS: Who do you credit that with, the market, the stock market, the Dow, or is it the president?

PAGE: I think the rising stock market is the -- I think the rising stock market is the biggest thing. But I think that reassuring rhetoric from President Obama is probably...


MATTHEWS: OK. What happens when this -- I think he does great in front of a crowd. I mean, I have -- I have -- some of these people, even President Bush, at times, I would at him and say, I don`t think I could do it as fast as he can think, with the pressure on these guys, and as hard as we all think we`re smart. We all think we`re smart.


MATTHEWS: Let`s be honest. But we don`t think we could do that, what they do, stand in a group of 200 people who are out there to make them look stupid, sometimes.

But I wonder if that works when you get in the room with these senators, who all have to run for reelection, who all know their states better than he knows them. You`re from Montana, you`re from North Dakota, somewhere, right? You`re from a state that is not liberal. You are not here from the netroots. You are not here from the Daily Kos.

But you have to deal with these people. Can he convince them they have to go along with him on the toughest questions of this year? Are we going to get a real health care reform bill? Are we really going to deal with these issues or just muddle through?


MATTHEWS: Will they listen to him because he`s good at town meetings?

SIMON: Well, no. They will listen because he`s what the Democratic Party has right now. He`s the most -- by far, the most popular person in the Democratic Party, the most popular person in the country.

MATTHEWS: Can he use that? Can he exploit that?

SIMON: Of course. It is leverage. And he`s using it.

And he goes to senators and says, look, this is the plan. This is what the American people voted for.

MATTHEWS: Oh, I`m with you.

SIMON: They voted for change. And, you know, come along with me, and we will get there together.

MATTHEWS: Can he take that into a room on Capitol Hill? You have been up there. You have been in the hallway, at least.


MATTHEWS: But, in that room -- I was in those rooms years ago. But when you get in that room, can he talk turkey to a senator and say, look, Mr. and Mrs. Senator, I know your state; you`re right to vote with me; don`t make the mistake of being cautious; this is the big opportunity?

Can he convince them?

PAGE: Well, he can try to make that case, but I think, on something like health care, where of timetable is so short this year...


PAGE: ... I think it`s a hard sell to do major health care reform in a space of a few months, which is what he talking about.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think it is hard, but I think he has to do it.

SIMON: He will never be more popular than he is now.

MATTHEWS: I don`t think he can miss this chance.

As somebody once said -- I keep going -- I feel like I`m really getting really old, because I always use these phrasings now. A friend who is a congressman says, sometime in your life, the galloping horse of history rides by. Are you going to get on it?


MATTHEWS: Right? Are you going to get on it? And that`s the question that this president has to answer.

Did you like that one?

PAGE: Yes.


MATTHEWS: You can use it. It`s for your column.

PAGE: It`s very poetic.

SIMON: It`s better than the train leaving the station.


MATTHEWS: Train leaving the station has left the station.


MATTHEWS: Thank you, Roger Simon, who got called on at least by his institution.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, Susan Page, front-page writer for "USA Today."

MSNBC USA Today Hardball Politico Roger Simon Susan Page
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