POLITICAL THEATER COLUMN:
President Obama said his prime-time press conference on Day 100 of his presidency was intended as a “look forward to … all of the hundreds of days to follow,” but it turned into more of a look back in anger, complete with finger-pointing.
Throughout his hourlong session in the White House East Room on Wednesday, the candidate who vowed a new post-partisan Washington, free from the rancorous bickering that often grinds the city to gridlock, ripped Republicans as the members of a do-nothing party of no.
He began at the top, calling his predecessor, the former head of the Republican Party, a torturer.
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“Waterboarding was torture,” he said, making no exception for post-Sept. 11 circumstances and giving no credence to claims that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” authorized by George W. Bush saved Americans lives.
“We could have gotten this information in other ways,” Mr. Obama said, without adding that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was waterboarded 183 times before he divulged plans of a massive attack planned against Los Angeles.
The cerebral president, who most recently shook hands with America-hater Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and plans talks with nuke-happy Iranian leaders, was content to muse philosophically: “Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques?”
(Still, he did steal Mr. Bush’s daily mantra that his first obligation is to keep the American people safe: “That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with.)
But on the arbitrary day of presidential measurement, Mr. Obama often appeared to still be running for office. In one breath, he said: “I do think that, to my Republican friends, I want them to realize that me reaching out to them has been genuine.”
In another: “There is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we’re in the middle of really big crises,” with “political posturing” targeted at Republicans who apparently do not believe their jobs are to rubber-stamp each expensive Obama initiative.
Mr. Obama sought to portray the Republican definition of bipartisanship as “a situation in which basically, wherever there are philosophical differences, I have to simply go along with ideas that have been rejected by the American people in a historic election.”
He added: “We’re probably not going to make progress,” and in case the other party missed the message, he later said that “opposing our approach on every front is probably not a good political strategy.”
Casting blame on Mr. Bush for the economic woes, the president vowed that “even as we clear away the wreckage of this recession, I’ve also said that we can’t go back to an economy that’s built on a pile of sand.”
(He did not mention the loss of nearly 2 million jobs in his first 100 days, nor the $350 billion deficit the federal government incurred in the first financial quarter.)
For his part, Mr. Obama gave his administration an “A,” ticking off a host of initiatives and efforts he and his top aides have made since taking office Jan. 20.
“So I think we’re off to a good start,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” he added, and also “I’m pleased with our progress.”
The president opened with a seven-minute statement, and even though he read his speech from a large teleprompter, he was as measured and metered as a great Broadway actor (although it was his second performance of the same piece - he had already performed a matinee in Arnold, Mo., on Wednesday for a town hall full of supporters).
Like each of his other two prime-time press conferences, he had the White House press corps eating out of his hand, guffawing at his every joke, great or small. He put one reporter, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, through a painful pantomime that drew wild laughs from reporters.
“During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office? Enchanted you the most from serving in this office? Humbled you the most? And troubled you the most?” Mr. Zeleny asked.
“Now let me write this down,” the president said, pulling a presidential pen from his pocket.
“I’ve got - what was the first one?” Mr. Obama said.
“Surprised.” Mr. Zeleny said.
“Enchanted, nice.” Howls of laughter.
“And what was the last one, humbled?” Mr. Obama said.
“Humbled. Thank you, sir.”
So quick to giggle is the White House corps that they laughed heartily at a joke about the United States being in two wars.
Asked about the federal government taking over financial institutions and other private companies, Mr. Obama said, “I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already.” The room erupted in laughter.
While he spent much of the hour criticizing Republicans and his predecessor, he did laud Mr. Bush for preparing to face a pandemic such as swine flu. “We’ve got 50 million courses of anti-viral drugs in the event that they’re needed.” He also said he is working closely with Sen. John McCain, whom he defeated in the 2008 presidential campaign, on immigration and overhauling the federal procurement procedure.
But the candidate who encouraged Americans to inflate their tires as a way to offset $4-a-gallon gas prices had his own solution to the swine flu epidemic.
“Wash your hands when you shake hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference.”
• Joseph Curl can be reached at JCurl@washingtontimes.com