Baying for Tears

President's answers no neat lede

In a blog post following yesterday’s “sad sack press conference” at the White House, The Guardian’s Michael Tomasky wrote that the president shouldn’t bother fronting up to reporters if he “doesn’t have anything more original or compelling to say….” Tomasky complained that the president’s comments were too measured and too predictable; at times a near-verbatim run-through of remarks Clinton made following his own 1994 “shellacking.”

If you’re going to get out there in front of reporters, which he doesn’t do often, make it worth their while. It’s an old saying: if you don’t give ‘em a lede, as we spell it in j-school, they’ll go out and invent one.

The response was typical of a lot of reporters following Tuesday night’s Republican wave and the Wednesday press conference that followed: frustration with a president who didn’t give them what they wanted.

What did they want? An admission—or fiery outright refusal to admit—that the electorate had just voted “No” in a referendum on his administration’s policies. That was the j-school lede they had in mind coming in, and when the president didn’t provide the perfect quote to support it, they got grizzly.

It was clear from question one in yesterday’s press conference that the story was set. Ben Feller at the AP asked:

Are you willing to concede at all that what happened last night was not just an expression of frustration about the economy, but a fundamental rejection of your agenda?

When the president conceded no such thing, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie reworded the question in case he hadn’t understood.

Just following up on what Ben just talked about, you don’t seem to be reflecting or second-guessing any of the policy decisions you’ve made, instead saying the message the voters were sending was about frustration with the economy or maybe even chalking it up to a failure on your part to communicate effectively. If you’re not reflecting on your policy agenda, is it possible voters can conclude you’re still not getting it?

Obama responded that, in his view, policies that were emergencies like the stimulus were being misconstrued as an overreaching agenda. Guthrie pressed:

Would you still resist the notion that voters rejected the policy choices you made?

CNN’s Ed Henry tried again, putting the question in terms he had reason to believe the president would understand:

…you had a lot of fun on the campaign trail by saying that the Republicans were drinking a Slurpee and sitting on the sidelines while you were trying to pull the car out of the ditch. But the point of the story was that you said if you want to go forward, you put the car in “D”; if you want to go backwards, you put it in “R.” Now that there are least 60 House districts that seem to have rejected that message, is it possible that there are a majority of Americans who think your policies are taking us in reverse?

This led to a lot of metaphor-sustaining silliness in which the president conceded that “we’re stuck in neutral.”

Presumably, the impetus for these questions were the results of opinion and exit polls and the writings and musings of pundits, like George Will in today’s Washington Post, arguing that liberalism in the person of Obama had been rejected by the American people this week. The failure of the president to go along with those ideas or cry about them irked some.

The very prolific Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast wrote a whole column yesterday about the press’s frustration with being unable to penetrate “Obama’s armor.” Watching the presser, wrote Kurtz, “You almost wanted him to clench his teeth, slam his fist, kick the lectern—anything to show that he was teed off. Instead, we got nice-sounding verbiage: ‘Common ground…honest civil debate…eager to sit down.’” Nice-sounding verbiage? Pot, meet kettle, maybe you two could grab a Slurpee some time.

In the Post, Dan Balz wrote that aside from the “shellacking” sound bite towards the end of the press conference, the president “sounded little different that he had before the election, unwilling it seemed to consider whether he had moved too far to the left for many voters who thought he was a centrist when he ran in 2008.”

To me it seems the president has probably considered the very question Balz raised—I suspect many times for at least the past six months—but has just come up with a different answer than Balz and others may have wanted. As my colleague Clint Hendler neatly summarized yesterday, the exit polling from which this Obama meme is emerging does not show a “fundamental rejection” of the president’s agenda. His disapproval rating is high and climbing, true, but when grilled on why people voted the way they did, Obama and his policies were not at the forefront of the majority’s mind. Indeed, “frustration with the economy” came out on top.

According to CNN’s exit polling, thirty-seven percent of voters in House races said they were voting to oppose Obama; fifty-one percent said that they were voting in support of him or that he played no factor. Forty-eight percent of voters wanted the health care bill repealed; forty-seven percent wanted it to stay as is or be expanded. Only eighteen percent of voters said health care was a top priority; sixty-two percent voted for the economy on that one.

With those figures on hand, it’s unsurprising that the president isn’t willing to concede that voters rejected his agenda outright, or to cry about being misunderstood, or to say much beyond what he said in response to the questions posed at yesterday’s news conference. It’s neither in his nature—as many have pointed out today—nor in the numbers. The story isn’t there, and in his tempered performance, the president was telling us as much. No doubt a chest full of policies, decisions, mannerisms, and speeches contributed to the result. But none fit the “total rejection” headline with which some in the press had entered the room. And still the bait was laid. Three times.

A more direct, supported, and on-point first question might have been this: Mr. President, the results of yesterday show there is still an extraordinary level of frustration about the economy—how are you going to work with the Republican majority to fix it? It may not have served the press by giving everyone the lede they wanted, but if the polls from Tuesday are to be believed, it would have better served the public.

To be fair, variations on this were asked. Questions about cooperation, the Bush tax cuts, environmental policy. But their responses weren’t the kind of news-worthy nuggets we were looking for. What are people writing about today? Whether Obama feels our pain as much as the more emotional Boehner clearly does.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.