Grade-A Boring

Press yawns over Obama’s 100-day presser are childish

Last night, President Barack Obama held a press conference marking his first 100 days in office. After hyperventilating for weeks over the day’s significance (or lack thereof), the press now seems surprised that it was bored by the whole thing.

The Los Angeles Times Top of the Ticket blog wrote, “In his third White House news conference, President Obama did not break news, did not say anything (that we detected) that he has not said many times before,” and seemed disappointed that the president “did not get testy.” Politico said, “Far from electric, this was a tranquilizing performance.”, meanwhile, called it “another boring press conference,” and looked back nostalgically on Obama’s first few primetime press appearances for being “refreshing in their novelty” (though the press, if memory serves me correctly, complained even then about his boring, professorial demeanor). Mid-presser, Andrew Sullivan wrote: “I’m beginning to regret watching this terribly dull and unnecessary pseudo-event.”

Bloggers and reporters can’t be blamed for the occasional yawn. Jeff Zeleny’s inquiry about what has so far surprised, humbled, enchanted and troubled the president—what Sullivan called a “JFK moment”—was the only moment that really excited the media.

There are more than a couple irksome things about this chorus of boredom. For one, what kind of excitement did the press want? Sure, Obama was elected in no small part on the strength of his stirring rhetoric; it may be fair, then, for the press to hold Obama to a higher speaking standard than it would other people—for it to expect the intonations and syntactic spinning of a modern day Cicero. But the flip side of that argument is that boring speak, particularly for a skilled rhetorician, serves a purpose too.

Among other things, we’re dealing with a level 5 pandemic alert regarding the swine flu outbreak (Obama sounded, the LAT childishly pointed out, “more like school nurse in chief than commander in chief”), closely following a major counter-attack by Pakistani military this week against the Taliban, and continuing to discuss the ramifications of the recent release of Bush-era secret memos establishing the legal justification for interrogation techniques like waterboarding.

Obama, sandwiched between a nominal celebration of his accomplishments and a public wondering whether it should start wearing masks on the subway, chose simple over stirring. It seems unreasonable to so vigorously call that boring. The accompanying no-new-news accusations—which seems to stem from the same what, no thrills? impulse—just come across as peevish; as we’ve discussed here before, pressers may be about gaffes, gotchas, and maybe even about encouraging civic participation, but they’ve never been about breaking news.

Two, the “this is boring” verdicts don’t account for the fact that that Obama’s boringness was in itself a performance too. Politico gets this assessment right, writing, if a bit didactically, that Obama had much to gain by portraying himself as “a leader reluctantly playing a difficult hand rather than one eagerly grasping at the opportunity for bold action presented by a crisis.” James Fallows, too, wrote that last night’s performance was “consistent with the Administration’s long-term operational, governing, and communications strategy.”

It may seem like a pretty obvious observation to make, but the yawns of “boooring!” seem to bypass this nuance, like schoolchildren impatient at not being given a new toy. Presidents aren’t meant to be shiny objects, but they do perform, and Obama has shown himself to be an adept performer on all counts. A boring (or professorial, for that matter) presser is just as performative as the one where he grins or cracks a joke. So if reporters want to analyze performance, and not content, then gravity can be just as interesting as liveliness.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.