Reading President Obama's signals

Posted: Friday, February 13, 2009

In this ultra-orchestrated new administration, the Obama team has demonstrated a deft touch in the way it has rolled out its cool and articulate president. But Barack Obama himself could use some fine-tuning.

Every new American president in the all-seeing era of television has his every word and action examined as if under a microscope. This one is no exception, and by and large he has come through with flying colors.

But if President Obama has one apparent vulnerability so far, it is his penchant for overselling on one hand and undercutting on the other.

In his first televised White House news conference, he ducked questions about the details of the administration's new economic recovery plan on grounds they would all be laid out the next day by his treasury secretary, Tim Geithner.

"I don't want to preempt my secretary of the treasury," Obama said. "He's going to be laying out those principles in great detail tomorrow. But my instruction to him has been, let's get this right; let's create a template in which we're restoring market confidence."

Another questioner wasn't satisfied. She pressed him on how his administration was going to "require financial institutions to use the (stimulus) money to loosen up credit and new lending."

Obama replied: "Again . . . I'm trying to avoid preempting my secretary of the treasury. I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well. He's going to be terrific."

The presidential boost drew laughter, but the next day Geithner by a host of press accounts was anything but terrific. He was wooden in delivery and, more significant, unspecific in details of the administration response to the financial crisis. Beyond the critical comments from Congress and the financial community, Wall Street itself immediately gave Geithner resounding vote of no confidence, sending stocks plunging 281 points in the Dow Jones average that very afternoon.

Obama's cheerleading for Geithner may have been an attempt to put a shine on the plan or on the presenter, whose failure to pay certain income taxes had already cast a public cloud over him.

There was in Obama's premature praise of Geithner's presentation a trace of Jimmy Carter exuberance. Carter as president was noted for making silk purses out of sow's ears. My favorite was when he accompanied his health secretary, Joe Califano, to tobacco country and told the locals that Califano's tough anti-smoking campaign would make cigarette smoking "even safer than it is today."

In contrast to Obama's advance assurance that Geithner would deliver a "terrific" rollout of the economic recovery package, he applied in the same press conference a not-too-subtle needle to his hand-picked vice president, the famously garrulous Joe Biden.

He was asked about Biden's comment on the same plan that "if we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, if we stand up there and we really make the tough decisions, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong."

The reporter said that, according to Biden, the comment had come up in a conversation with Obama, and he asked if Obama could say "what you were talking about." Obama, laughing, replied: "You know, I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to," adding, "not surprisingly," to laughter from the reporters. "But let me try this out."

The president then said while he would not "ascribe any numerical percentage to any of this . . . that given the magnitude of the challenges that we have, any single thing that we do is going to be part of the solution, not all of the solution." After some more verbiage, he concluded: "So I don't know whether Joe was referring to that." As to Biden's reference to their private talk, he added: "I have no idea. I really don't."

The response came off dismissively as, "There goes Joe again," an offhand slap that doesn't enhance Biden's value to him or his administration. It also brought to mind how Obama nudged Biden at the inaugural lunch when the new vice president jokingly chided Chief Justice John Roberts for his mistake in administering the presidential oath. So much for the celebrated cool and discipline of the new man in the Oval Office.

• Jules Witcover's latest book, on the Nixon-Agnew relationship, "Very Strange Bedfellows," has just been published by Public Affairs Press. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@earthlink.net.



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