Where There's Smoke...
Everything you need to know about President Obama’s press conference.
School’s out—but President Barack Obama had to keep a hot, unruly group of reporters after class. The president, addressing a packed Brady Briefing Room for the sixth domestic news conference of his presidency, began the conversation by speaking at length about health care reform and energy action—but before long was diverted into queries about his smoking habits, as well as the possibility of a second economic stimulus package just for black folks. He took the volleys in stride, providing answers—like a grumpy professor—on a need-to-know basis.
Of course, political unrest in Iran continues to be the story of the moment. The president fielded seven separate questions about Iranian sovereignty and the desirable outcome of what appears to be a full-scale populist uprising in that country.
The White House stance? It’s not our business. Obama said the world community has been “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days,” adding that he “strongly condemn[ed]” these developments. But he also spoke about the need for intranational resolution of the conflict. “This is an issue that is led by and given voice to the frustrations of the Iranian people,” he said. “The most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States.”
In the days since the disputed vote in Iran, Obama’s statements, or lack thereof, have been subject to scrutiny—and as David Swerdlick points out, for good reason. If Obama were seen as being too critical of the incumbent Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, this might allow the clerical regime to demagogue U.S. involvement in the conflict. (In fact, state-run media outlets have already charged the CIA with creating spontaneous, astroturf “riots” on the streets of Iranian cities.) On the other hand, election watchers of all political persuasions have been concerned that Obama's approach was insufficient and would leave thousands of brave Iranian dissidents out to dry.
The president seemed well-aware of the tightrope he was asked to walk, and therefore ramped up the moral attacks on the Iranian government. “There are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with peaceful dissent, that spans cultures, spans borders,” he said, “and what we've been seeing over the Internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles.”
And in response to a controversial, pre-planned exchange with reporter Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, Obama would not lay out any conditions for accepting Ahmadinejad’s “victory,” though he added that it is “not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people.”
The president seemed irritated at some of the persistent, implicit criticisms of his handling of the Iran situation, the economy and the health care debate—and at least three times voiced his displeasure with “the hothouse of Washington” and “24-hour news cycles.” When Margaret Talev of McClatchy Newspapers asked him “how many cigarettes a day” he still smokes, he cut her off: “I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law.”
The president's testiness continued as he addressed the health care reform legislation that is currently marching through various congressional committees. He swatted aside “this idea that if we stand pat we’ll be OK.” Citing nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports, Obama insisted that even inaction will create a situation in which “premiums will climb higher, benefits will erode further, and the rolls of the uninsured will swell to include millions more Americans … one out of every five dollars that we earn will be spent on health care within a decade.”