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Impressed Me Not

Through most of his inaugural primetime press conference, Barack Obama seemed like he was channeling a particularly loquacious combination of Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and the ghost of Hubert Humphrey. The president’s response to the first question from the Associated Press about the risks of sounding too apocalyptic about the economy ran (or, to be more accurate, crawled) for nearly 1,200 words--and ended with Obama saying “Okay” with an implicit question mark as if he were requesting permission to keep on talking. A national poll from the Pew Research Center released Monday afternoon found that 92 percent of Americans described Obama as a “good communicator.” There is a suspicion that those astronomic numbers had dipped by the time that Obama exited from the East Room of the White House at 9 p.m. on the dot.

In Obama’s defense, the press conference was the first extended glimpse that many Americans had of their new president since the Inaugural Address. No one can deny the complexity of the economic challenges facing the nation--and President Obama is uniquely equipped to play Explainer in Chief. But Obama radiated the sense of a leader who has digested too many economic briefings and memorized too many talking points in preparation for his primetime rendezvous with the public. He clearly came out in an over-caffeinated mood ready to do battle with his Republican congressional foes, whom he had already vanquished—and, as a result, he over-reacted to last week’s Fox News commentary instead of focusing on the exact shape of the stimulus. What shone through the entire press conference is how irked the president is with laissez-faire conservatives who believe, even now, “that the government has no business interfering in the marketplace” and that “FDR was wrong to intervene back in the New Deal.” (Presumably Amity Shlaes, the Roosevelt-ripping author, should not plan on any immediate Oval Office invitations).

It is inevitable that the Obama press conference will be reviewed as political theater, since it was light on ... well ... that amorphous thing called news. The president’s strongest answer was in response to the evening’s fluffiest question, about Alex Rodriguez’s confession that he had taken steroids. After an honest baseball fan’s lament (“it tarnishes an entire era”), Obama jumped to a larger point that transcends sports--the lesson in A-Rod’s downfall for the young: “There are no shortcuts; that when you try to take shortcuts you may end up tarnishing your whole career.” Obama also took advantage of the presidential prerogative to duck when he was asked a tricky question about ending the ban on media coverage of the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. “We are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Defense Department,” Obama said without revealing his hand. “So I don’t want to give you an answer now, before I’ve evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved.”

Obama’s maiden presidential press conference (complete with a question from Helen Thomas) was orchestrated to revolve around what the president called “the most profound economic emergency since the New Deal.” The president clearly wanted to mobilize his supporters who have been languidly following the congressional maneuvering over the stimulus package. But there was little in Obama’s remarks that spoke to issues that the congressional conference committee will soon be squabbling over. Having won on the Senate cloture vote, Obama might have risked a few tart remarks about, for instance, the addition to the legislation of $70 billion in middle-class subsidies to ward off the dread Alternative Minimum Tax. But Monday night, Obama, with his lengthy soliloquies, seemed content to simplify the choice as between those who support the stimulus and do-nothing Republicans. The new president may have made a far more powerful case if, in his first primetime appearance, he was behind the desk in the Oval Office, giving the kind of speech at which he excels.

What Obama was decidedly not Monday night was Kennedy-esque. When JFK unveiled the live presidential primetime press conference 48 years ago, he answered 37 questions in the space of 40 minutes; Obama only half-responded to 13 questions in the space of an hour. Admittedly, Kennedy, who had survived a narrow election, was trying to demonstrate with his competence that he was a worthy successor to Dwight Eisenhower. Obama--who romped home in November and certainly does not lie awake worrying about invidious comparisons with George W. Bush--was trying to sell a set of economic talking points. As a result, the reporters and their questions were little more than potted palms as President Obama declaimed from the East Room.

When a president is as popular as Obama, the atmospherics of his first primetime performance are apt to be forgotten in a week or two. And blessed with the good will of almost all Americans to the left of Sean Hannity (and that is a wide swath of political territory), Obama has the luxury of experimenting with different formats to reach the voters. My guess is the primetime press conference is a gambit that may not be repeated for quite a while. But the next time that Obama tries it, he might consider taking his stage cues from that White House master of brevity known as Silent Cal Coolidge.

Political reporter Walter Shapiro has covered the last eight presidential elections.

By Walter Shapiro