The Obama Press Conference, Still

Almost two weeks after the fact, it’s clearer than ever that Barack Obama and his White House team erred in holding a prime-time press conference on July 22.

The basic idea may have been sensible. Voter support for the Democratic-led health care reform effort was slipping and momentum in Congress was stalling, so it was clearly the right time to appeal to the general public. But doing so through an unfocused and unpredictable 45-minute nationally televised press conference was the wrong choice—one for which Obama continues to pay a price.

Sunday’s Meet the Press, broadcast 11 days after the press conference, illustrated the problem perfectly. With public resolve to pursue meaningful health care reform headed the wrong way, the show devoted a good chunk of its roundtable segment to a discussion of the Henry Louis Gates controversy that has swirled since Obama offered his take on the subject at the press conference.

And Meet the Press is hardly alone; the political media has been utterly transfixed by the racial themes of the Gates story. Had Obama not weighed in, the attention of the press corps—and the general public—would now be focused squarely on the health care drama, which instead has been reduced to a supporting role in most newscasts.

The press conference was conceived as the perfect tool to rekindle the sense of urgency that once accompanied health reform, but in hindsight, just about every aspect of it worked against Obama’s purposes.

For instance, the format—an opening statement followed by questions from a handful of journalists—was only too conducive to the kind of pontification that Obama often falls back on. This inhibited Obama’s ability to deliver a sharp and focused message on health care, one that would refocus the debate and rally the public to his side.

Plus, the slightly informal nature of give-and-take from reporters sapped Obama’s delivery of the forcefulness and urgency he badly needed to communicate. He often spoke the right words (particularly in his pre-scripted opening statement), but in a mechanical and lethargic tone that undercut his message. And the sheer length of the event—nearly an hour—guaranteed that many viewers would lose sight of his main themes, with so many other tangential issues being broached along the way.

And then, of course, was the unpredictability that comes with opening the floor to reporters. Obama may have wanted to talk about health care, but this didn’t mean that every reporter he called on had to have the same interest. And, sure enough, in the last question of the evening, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet asked the president to respond to the then-fresh news of Gates’ arrest in his Cambridge home.

Obama began by making a joke about how he’d be shot if he tried to force his way into the White House, then offered that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.”

By the next afternoon, the remark was the top story in the country and the Gates incident, which otherwise would have slowly faded from prominence, was being dissected on every radio and cable television show in the country. Obama had devoted approximately 99 percent of his press conference to health care, but he might as well have not said a single word on the subject. His entire message was lost to the Gates controversy and, subsequently, to the silly “beer summit.”

This has real implications for Obama’s health care push. The press conference did nothing to halt the erosion of momentum in Congress for reform, let alone reverse it. Worse, it handed Obama’s opponents a weapon (his Gates comment) that they used to inflict real political damage—all while the White House’s efforts to re-focus the health care debate at a critical time were drowned out.

Obama’s overall standing with the public has dropped to the lowest point of his presidency, voter opinion of his handling of health care is in decline, and his original goal of having health care legislation clear both houses before the August recess has been obliterated. At the same time, virtually everyone is aware of Obama’s Gates comment—with a strong plurality (41 percent) expressing disapproval at how he’s handled the matter.

Instead of a press conference, Obama could have opted to address the nation from the Oval Office. This would have allowed him to deliver a clear message that, thanks to the brevity of the format (five or ten minutes), would have been more memorable to viewers. And the broadcast networks, which reluctantly handed over an hour of their prime-time schedules to televise the press conference, would still have aired it.

Why Obama didn’t go this route is anyone’s guess. It may have something to do with his particular comfort zone as a speaker. He’s at his most compelling when delivering formal addresses to large and lively crowds; he’s much weaker when it comes to reading a script in an empty television studio. Since a campaign-style address was out of the question, perhaps the thinking was that a press conference would at least showcase some of Obama’s more likable personal attributes—his calm demeanor, sense of humor, and natural intelligence.

Not all is lost for Obama, of course. Health care reform, in some form, will still probably be passed this fall, and a drop in his popularity was inevitable; it happens to every president. But if you’re going to take a hit, it should at least be for a good reason. The Obama Press Conference, Still