From time to time there comes a moment when a president is expected to say something meaningful about an event that has just occurred. President Obama faced such a moment last week after Republicans swept the midterm elections and captured the Senate. He had nothing interesting, much less meaningful, to say. But he did offer a few comments that were palpably untrue.
Obama fancies himself an eloquent speaker, a clever politician, and a world-class leader. You'd never know it from his performance at the press conference (or from earlier ones). Offering his interpretation of the election, Obama said the message from voters was "Get stuff done." Republican attacks on his policies, his presidency, and Obama himself were the centerpieces of the campaign. In siding with Republicans, what stuff did voters have in mind? Obama didn't say.
Indeed, he suggested the election didn't matter much ("two-thirds of the people who were eligible to vote just didn't vote"), though he had worked with party officials in an effort, unprecedented in a midterm election, to drive up Democratic turnout. He had said that, while his name wasn't on the ballot, his policies were. Yet that didn't matter much either.
Presidents aren't required to have press conferences. The Constitution doesn't mention the subject. But sessions with reporters are a longstanding tradition at the White House. FDR met daily with the press, but his comments were off the record. JFK overwhelmed reporters with his charm. George W. Bush held dozens of press conferences, but failed to win the press over.
Obama is unique. No president has uttered more words, yet said less of importance, at press conferences. No
president has been less specific.
No president has failed as often to seize an important moment to say something significant, or quotable. No president has filled the air during a presidential press conference with so much boilerplate, so many clichés, and such a multitude of evasions. A few examples:
Asked if there was anything his administration should change as a result of his party's losing the election, he said, "The point is it's time for us to take care of business."
Asked if he should have done more to build ties to congressional Republicans, he said, "I think that every day I'm asking myself, are there some things I can do better? And I am going to keep on asking that every single day."
Asked why it's taken nearly six years to decide the fate of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada: "There's an independent process. It's moving forward."
Asked if he'd agree to kill the medical devices tax enacted as part of Obamacare, which Republicans have noisily advocated for years: "Let's give them time to tell me."
Asked about being a "lame duck" with only two years left in his presidency: "The one thing I want the American people to be confident about is that every day I'm going to be filling up my time trying to figure out how can I make their lives better."
Obama has a rare ability to utter many words when a few would do. Here's how he noted that he and Republicans might occasionally disagree when they talk:
"There's not going to be perfect overlap. I mean, there are going to be some ideas that I've got that I think the evidence backs up would be good for the economy, and Republicans disagree. They're not going to support those ideas. But I'm going to keep on arguing for them because I think they're the right thing for the country to do. There are going to be some ideas that they've got that they believe will improve the economy or create jobs that, from my perspective, isn't going to help middle-class families improve their economic situation, so I probably won't support theirs."
Can you imagine listening to that bombast for 74 minutes, as reporters had to last week? And some of them have been covering such press conferences, taking notes, making recordings, and attempting to digest this wordloaf for nearly six years. Journalists not assigned to the White House can take the easy way: skip the Obama speech or press conference and read the transcript.
What untruths did Obama utter? He said, "I think it's fair to say that I've shown a lot of patience and have tried to work on a bipartisan basis as much as possible, and I'm going to keep on doing so." Substitute "indifference" for "patience" and "partisan" for "bipartisan," and the statement would have been true.
On immigration, Obama made a claim every pro-immigration Democrat knows is false. "This is an issue I actually wanted to get done in my first term, and we didn't see legislative action." He didn't see it because he delayed immigration reform to his second term so it wouldn't jeopardize his reelection.
If you watched the press conference, you can now understand why folks were leaving Obama's campaign speeches early. Pity the poor reporters who don't have that option.