Page last updated at 02:58 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The real persuader gets to work


President Obama shows irritation with a reporter

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

He is the multi-tasking president for a multi-channel age.

President Barack Obama's second live, primetime televised news conference rounded off an extraordinary week in which he had already joshed with Jay Leno, offered us his College Basketball championship picks on ESPN and shared with us his more contemplative side on CBS's 60 minutes.

You would hardly be surprised to turn on a cooking channel and find the president flambeing Crepes Suzettes or come across him warning of late winter storms in the Mississippi Delta on the weather networks.

The United States is the world's most vibrant and absorbing democracy but in one respect at least, living here this week has been rather like living in Eastern Europe before the Iron Curtain came down - every time you turn on the TV, there's the head of state.

Task at hand

This is the second time in the short life of this administration that the White House has asked for - and received - space on network television at a time which forces Fox to reschedule its wildly popular talent show American Idol.

As a presidential communications strategist you don't take a step like that unless you believe there is urgent business to be done.

President Barack Obama at White House press conference
I didn't feel the presidential performance itself was quite as smooth as usual

The urgent task at hand of course is the business of persuading the American people that the new government has a clear and convincing plan for ending the recession and fixing the holes in the financial system that caused it.

So far at least, the Obama administration only has one real persuader - and that's Obama himself, his own biggest asset.

He is lucid, articulate, reasonable and a master of the detail of government.

More importantly, he is more popular than some of his administration's own policies - like bailing out the banks.

And he is certainly more popular than his key appointees like the Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who may well be the brilliant policy wonk we were sold in private but who in public finds it difficult to deliver a line, convince a crowd or clinch an argument.

Spend to recover

Getting the public behind these policies quickly counts too - Mr Obama is selling the hugely-risky argument that the depths of recession offer America a kind of opportunity to borrow and spend vast amounts of money on education, healthcare and alternative energy.

Journalists at White House press conference
The press turned out in force for the occasion

The budget deficit this year may well reach an eye-watering $1.8 trillion and yet if we don't see signs of recovery soon, the president needs to ensure that he could rally public opinion behind another bailout plan if necessary.

There are Democrats as well as Republicans who doubt the wisdom of the political arithmetic that underlies these plans.

So while there were questions on Israel and the Palestinians, security on the Mexican border and the apparent desire of the Chinese to see the dollar replaced as a international reserve currency the main focus was the American economy and his budget.

Serious and calm

At the end of a week when the pitchfork-wielding instincts of the American public have been aroused by the bonus-grabbing antics of the discredited leadership at AIG the president's tone was serious and calm - the message was that the administration does have answers to America's problems, that its "moving in the right direction" and "beginning to see signs of progress".

It will be some years before we know if Mr Obama's strategy of spending big on health, education and energy in the depths of this crisis is going to pay off.

But he was forced to defend the idea under some pressure from questions about just what sort of legacy of debt he might be leaving behind for his daughters.

Teleprompter rush

In terms of mastery of detail it was impressive stuff as always - Mr Obama was able to enter into a detailed discussion about exactly how different economic forecasting models produce different projections for growth.

Who would have thought a year ago that we'd sit through a presidential news conference at which neither Iraq nor Osama Bin Laden got a single mention?

But I didn't feel the presidential performance itself was quite as smooth as usual. He seemed to rattle through the prepared opening remarks on the teleprompters and appeared in general a little tired.

And there was an uncharacteristic flash of irritation when a reporter pressed him on why he'd been slow to express outrage on the AIG bonus issue.

The president replied, rather snappily: "It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."

No more Iraq

In these early days there is still a degree of fascination in how these primetime events are planned and organized - and how they turn out.

We saw questions for example from Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, the African-American magazine Ebony, and Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the United States armed forces.

And who would have thought a year ago that we'd sit through a presidential news conference at which neither Iraq nor Osama Bin Laden got a single mention?

But the biggest question is whether or not Barack Obama is starting to seem a little over-exposed as he single-handedly does the heavy lifting on the presentation of his ambitious plans.

Key aides like Rahm Emmanuel and Robert Gibbs clearly think not - and argue that putting the great persuader front and centre in these troubled times is the right thing to do.

For now, the viewing figures appear to prove them right. The president gave Jay Leno and 60 Minutes strong ratings, his basketball picks were widely written about and his first news conference attracted an audience a shade under 50 million.

It will be interesting to see if the figures for this second session are up or down - and how often the president will be asking the networks for their time as the politics become more difficult, and the questions get sharper.

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