President Barack Obama’s first prime time press conference was a case study in effective political communication. Not only did he get all three major networks to cover the press conference live, guaranteeing a huge audience, he filled the full hour with thoughtful and thorough answers to the questions posed: When he was done, the networks had no time to devote to analysis of the event so the only voice most Americans heard was Obama’s.
His most significant achievement was to change the narrative about bi-partisanship. Having made unprecedented efforts to reach out to the GOP, and realizing such meager agreement with them, Obama risked having his expected legislative victory on the stimulus bill turn into a defeat because it was not "bi-partisan." Obama insisted last night that he would continue to reach out to Republicans but that it was up to them to come to terms with him. "That’s what the election was all about," he insisted.
No one can admit that we don’t know how well the stimulus will work. Indeed, one of the questions, from Chuck Todd, pointed to the inherent contradiction of the current situation. We got into this mess because people borrowed and spent beyond their means. It is a good thing for people to be more careful in the future. But, if they don’t start spending soon, the economy will go into a tailspin. So, what makes sense for any given individual, curtailing spending and paying down debt, is disastrous for the country as a whole. Obama denied the premise of Todd’s question, and used it to talk about the systemic problems the country faces. It was artfully done.
Throughout the hour, Obama displayed a mastery of the facts of every question. His replies were lucid and exhaustive. The first two questions and answers consumed a full thirteen minutes. The president is not given to short, pithy answers.
President Obama had two audiences yesterday, the public and the Congress. By warning of the gravity of the situation, he hopes to garner enough votes to pass the stimulus bill even though he did not seem stressed about the particulars. He wants the public to see that their government will not leave them to fate nor to the impersonal laws of the market, still less to a continuation of the policies that led us into the crisis. Republican obstructionists must be careful. Even if their objections to the stimulus are correct on the merits and popular with swing voters, they are only getting airtime on cable news. The President last night commanded all the airwaves. The bully pulpit is back, even though the current bully is more professor than playground tyrant.