By Sam Youngman - 06/23/09 08:34 PM EDT
The president snapped at reporters who echoed his critics, particularly at those who questioned his response to unrest in Iran or asked about how his proposed public insurance plan might hurt the free market.
Obama, who became known for a cool nonchalance on the campaign trail, showed Tuesday that while his style is more suave than Bush’s, his sensitivity to criticism is just as acute.
During the press conference — his fourth one in the White House — Obama grew stern when one reporter suggested the president was only “hinting” that there were human-rights violations taking place in Iran.
“I’m not hinting. I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street, when she gets out of her car, that’s a problem,” Obama said.
Pressed about the possible consequences for the Iranian government if the violence continues, Obama grew visibly agitated.
“I think that we don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not. OK?” Obama said.
He went on: “I answered your question, which is that we don’t yet know how this is going to play out. OK?”
The president’s remark about the 24-hour news cycle was particularly telling, considering the media blitz the administration has planned following a week of setbacks on healthcare reform.
On Wednesday night, ABC will host a special on healthcare from the White House — an event that has been highly criticized by Republicans for its lack of bipartisanship. Plus first lady Michelle Obama appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday to discuss the issue. Also Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs made the morning-show rounds to preview what the president would say during his press conference.
But with major networks declaring over last week that “the honeymoon is over” for Obama and polls showing a growing divide between support for the president personally and concern about his spending plans, Obama’s press conference Tuesday was clearly designed to try and retake the upper hand.
Instead, Obama might have shown his critics exactly how to get under his skin.
Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have been extremely vocal in their criticism of how Obama has handled the violence in Iran following that country’s presidential elections.
When the president was asked about his GOP rivals’ attack lines, he laughed at first, dismissing the idea that either man’s criticism had led him to toughen his talk on the matter. Then he reminded everyone that he is the man in charge.
“I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues, and I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail,” Obama said. “But only I’m the president of the United States.”
On healthcare reform, Obama’s proposals have taken significant hits, and last week was the nadir for his ambitious plans, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scoring them as more costly and less effective than the administration would have liked.
Over the weekend, Graham called the CBO scores a “death blow” to Obama’s proposed public insurance option, and the number of skeptics of the administration’s pledge to pass an all-encompassing healthcare plan that is still deficit-neutral has grown.
The president was repeatedly asked Tuesday to explain the benefits of a public insurance option as compared to private plans.
“Why would it drive private insurance out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality healthcare; if they tell us that they’re offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can’t run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That’s not logical,” Obama said.
And then there’s the question of Obama’s cigarette addiction.
After the president and his aides danced around the matter following the president’s signing of an anti-tobacco bill on Monday, Obama deemed a question about his efforts to kick the habit no more than something “neat to ask me about.”
“Well, first of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me, it’s about the next generation of kids coming up,” Obama said. “So I think it’s fair ... 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. But that’s fine, I understand. It’s an interesting human-interest story.
“But I’ve said before that, as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don’t do it in front of my kids, I don’t do it in front of my family, and I would say that I am 95 percent cured, but there are times where I mess up.”