Obama balances humor with seriousness

Posted March 27, 2009, at 10:51 p.m.

The sidewalks and closed-off streets outside of the White House’s North Lawn were alive with a throng of tourists snapping pictures and chatting excitedly as they strained to catch a glimpse of a familiar figure walking in or around the presidential mansion.

But just beyond the thick, black iron gates and well-fortified security buildings the atmosphere changed. Everything seemed calmer, quieter, greener — and more serious.

On Monday afternoon, I had a rare chance to step behind the gates for a little while and experience the White House that most people (even those of us in the media business) only see in news footage. The Obama administration had invited the Bangor Daily News and five other regional newspapers to Washington for an interview with the president about the economic crisis.

As a journalist, this was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And as a political junkie who’s inherited his father’s love of American history, it was an experience I won’t soon forget.

I made my way past the Marine sentry standing guard by the door of the West Wing where I joined five other media colleagues from around the country. Eventually, we were shown into the Roosevelt Room, a daily meeting space for the president and his staff not far from the Oval Office.

Portraits of Franklin D. and Theodore Roosevelt hung on the walls, including one of the latter on horseback as a Rough Rider. Teddy’s Nobel Peace Prize — the first ever awarded to a U.S. president — also hung there, as well as a Medal of Honor awarded to him posthumously.

Eight water glasses sat on the large, wooden table, each emblazoned with the presidential seal and resting atop a matching presidential coaster.

President Obama was running late, which gave us time to do what reporters do best: poke about the room, pester staff with oddball questions and probably laugh a bit too loudly in an attempt to ease the anticipation (and nerves) of waiting for his arrival.

“Hey guys, I hear you yukking it up in here,” the smiling president said as he breezed into the room through a side door. It seemed quintessential Obama, and helped put the suddenly alert room at ease.

All the “yukking” was our prodding of the president’s staff to explain the purpose of the mysterious wooden box with a bright-red button that sat directly in front of the commander in chief’s seat.

Obama was quick with a response.

“If you ask a question that I don’t like, that’s the … ejector seat,” he said, again with a large smile.

After that, however, the president was all business for the next 40-plus minutes as he discussed his plans for digging the country out of the deepest recession in generations.

It was serious, often somber stuff about job losses, financial struggles and the ever-present political gamesmanship that is so much a part of the national political scene.

He took a question from each of us, with most focusing on an issue important to our region.

As he did throughout his campaign and continues to do in his seemingly daily public appearances, the president wove talk about challenges and hardships with upbeat assessments about his plans to put the country on a firmer footing over the long term.

Those plans — including trillions of dollars in “rescue” money — certainly have their critics, both on Capitol Hill and on Main Street, U.S.A. Nor is the criticism exclusive to Republicans.

The president summed up his talk with what could be interpreted as anything from a call to action to a warning, addressed to all sides of the political spectrum.

“I think the general principle that I want all of us, including my White House, to focus on is the fact that we’ve got to make some choices,” he said, carefully choosing the words.

“If we say we care about health care, that we care about energy independence, that we care about education, that we care about long-term fiscal discipline, then we have got to figure out a way to pay for it. And we’ve got to take action that sometimes may be uncomfortable in the short term in order to deliver a platform for eco-nomic growth over the long term.”

He then wistfully added that maybe tomorrow everyone will suddenly agree. Everyone laughed.

The meeting over, the other reporters and I slowly made our way toward the gates, although not without first peeking inside the press briefing room. (It looks much bigger on TV).

On my way out, I passed a column of television reporters summarizing for their viewers what the president’s press secretary had just said. And I saw one of the legends of this business, and an icon for political reporters: Helen Thomas, who has logged nearly a half-century covering presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Obama.

I snapped a cell-phone picture of the White House from the grounds (who knows when, or if, I might be back).

Then I turned in my temporary pass and walked back through the security checkpoint to join the rest of the crowd peering at the White House from outside the heavy black gates.

Note: This is the first in what will be a regular feature on political matters by BDN State House reporter Kevin Miller.

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