The best answer President Barack Obama gave at his news conference last week was to a question nobody asked.
An hour into his unusually feisty performance in the East Room, the president was responding to CNN’s Jessica Yellin, who had pressed him on the deadline for raising the debt limit, when he decided to make a larger point.
“I’ve got to say, I’m very amused when I start hearing comments about, ‘Well, the president needs to show more leadership on this,’” Obama said, referring to the complaint made by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., when he walked out of budget talks. “Well, hey, lemme tell you something,” he said with a smile, chopping the lectern with an open hand.
“This thing,” he said after reciting the instances of his involvement in the talks, “is just not on the level.” To the Republicans, he said, “they need to do their job. … You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis.”
Obama gave a case-closed shrug. “All right,” he said. “I think you know my feelings about that.”
This was Obama as he ought to be. He often seems passive in public, giving friend and foe alike the impression that his presidency is adrift on matters from Libya to gay marriage to the debt talks. But on Wednesday, in his first full news conference in three months, he was uncharacteristically assertive, shelving lawyerly rejoinders in favor of basketball trash talk.
“Promise made, promise kept,” Obama retorted when challenged by ABC News’ Jim Sciutto about the original claim that the attack on Libya would take “days, not weeks.”
“Asked and answered,” he replied when asked by the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler about his ambiguous position on same-sex marriage.
When Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman asked about business leaders’ complaints, Obama rejoined: “When unemployment’s at 3 percent and they’re making record profits, they’re going to still complain about regulations.”
The session began with a less-than-promising sign: teleprompters. But contained in the prepared text was a more spirited, populist theme than the nuanced president usually allows himself.
“The tax cuts I’m proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners,” he said. “I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that, ‘The tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table.’”
He mentioned the corporate jets six times before parking that bit of class warfare with a challenge to Republicans to ask their constituents “are they willing to compromise their kids’ safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break?”
Obama, his fingers sometimes curled over the front of the lectern, mostly managed to avoid the testiness he often flashes when challenged.
“You keep saying that there needs to be this balanced approach of spending cuts and taxes,” the Associated Press’ Ben Feller said, “but Republicans say flatly they …”
Obama, smiling, finished the sentence. “They don’t want a balanced approach.”
He dismissed the complaints that he violated the War Powers Resolution as “all kinds of noise” and said “a lot of this fuss is politics” — ignoring the fact that a lot of Democrats complained, too. “The noose is tightening” around Libya’s Gaddafi, “and this suddenly becomes the cause celebre for some folks in Congress? C’mon.” He gave another case-closed shrug.
The newly forceful Obama spoke of the “selfish” approach of Republicans, their need to “say a lot of things to satisfy their base” and the imperative that they “move off their maximalist position.” He charged that Republicans — “these guys,” he called them — would have us “paying interest to Chinese … and we’re not going to pay folks their Social Security checks.”
“Call me naive, but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead,” Obama admonished the opposition. He likened the Republicans to kids who procrastinate on their homework, and to deadbeats: “They took the vacation. They bought the car. And now they’re saying, ‘Maybe we don’t have to pay.’ … We’re the greatest nation on Earth and we can’t act that way.”
Populism, pugilism and American exceptionalism: From a stoic president, this was a refreshing blend.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.