Presidential “Outburst” Much Ado About Nothing

But Obama could have offered alternative critique

The magical algorithms that rank the importance and popularity of the day’s political stories at the website Memeorandum had this morning placed at the top of the heap a story about President Obama’s “outburst” during an interview with a Texas TV network. It is apparently, so far, the most distracting story on a day of many political distractions—Memeorandum also ranks highly a story about a Muslim model in Playboy and another about Michele Bachmann’s son’s refusal to do Playgirl. (A story about James O’Keefe’s music video, which I found distracting yesterday—much to the chagrin of regular CJR commenters—is nowhere to be seen.)

The “outburst” story was written by Abby Phillip of Politico and is a solid roundup of what happened when President Obama sat down for a seven-minute interview with Texas’s WFAA’s Brad Watson—a story which was big on Drudge. And then of the implications, Twitter back-and-forths that followed, White House responses, and such.

Essentially, Watson mostly did what good reporters should do and didn’t let the president off the hook on some of his more pat answers, and the president got a little testy. For instance, when Watson asked why Obama was so unpopular in Texas and the president suggested he had only lost the state by a few percentage points, Watson pointed out that it was indeed twelve. Score.

It was a somewhat heated exchange by American standards—for testy political exchanges by Australian standards, see this—and Watson pushed back on a number of points.

At the end, the president, taking off his mic, offered a bit of media advice to his Texan visitor: “Let me finish my answers next time we’re doing an interview, alright?”

A little unpresidential, but really: storm in a teacup, mountain out of a molehill.

To the extent that we should pay this any attention, we should note that as much as Obama’s irritation was a touch over-the-top—he was interrupted a total of once by my count—Watson hardly showed himself to be a smartly aggressive interlocutor. While some conservatives are holding him up for his toughness on Obama, note that the moment he was toughest was the moment at which he should have swiftly moved on.

Watson asked about suspicions in Texas that the Obama administration had bypassed Houston to award space shuttle orbiters to states that would be more helpful in 2012. Obama answered, “That’s wrong.” Watson then asked, “Was the shuttle not awarded to Houston because of politics?” Obama responded, “I just said that was wrong. We had nothing to do with it, the White House had nothing to do with it.” Watson persisted: You weren’t personally involved in the decision? Obama: “I just said that wasn’t true.” It’s right to press, but it wasn’t as if Watson hadn’t received a direct answer in the first place. Or the second. And with just seven minutes of face-time, it seemed like grandstanding. There were no doubt other questions to be asked.

It’s always good to see a pressman ruffle a president—and it would be great if it happened often enough that it wasn’t news when it did—but in this case, Obama’s tip to Watson should have addressed the questions he was asking and not his interruption of the answers.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,