President Obama had the perfect opportunity for the Bulworth moment he reportedly craves—of unleashing his true thoughts, as Warren Beatty did playing a senator in the 1998 movie—when a reporter asked him how he felt about being compared to Richard Nixon. You could tell Obama wanted to say something cutting, but he settled for the understated approach: "You can read the history and draw your own conclusions." He managed to make his point (i.e., you'd be nuts to draw that comparison) and there will be no "Have you no shame!" or "I am not a Nixon!" video clip for YouTube or the evening news.
The exchange was emblematic of Obama's highly intentional and disciplined performance at a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. It was the second time in a week that a foreign leader stood by as Obama addressed domestic scandals and controversies (the first was Monday's press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron). The odd juxtaposition worked for Obama, particularly on Thursday when he talked about expanding trade with Turkey, helping Turkey cope with Syrian refugees, and most of all, working with Turkey to keep putting pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We both agree that Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we're going to resolve this crisis," Obama said, sounding resolute and engaged—in other words, not the man pundits have been panning of late as a passive bystander to the history he is supposed to be shaping.
It's going to take more than a few days and a couple of forced departures at the Internal Revenue Service for Obama to demonstrate he's an engaged chief executive, of course, and months for the GOP to work its way through investigations on multiple fronts. But if Republicans were counting on a chastened or humbled president, they would be wrong, in the same way they would have been wrong to expect the muted, nonresponsive Obama of the first presidential debate last year to make a repeat performance at the second.
In fact, Obama used the joint press conference to open a new political offensive on Benghazi. He challenged lawmakers—read: Republicans—to put their money where their mouths are on Benghazi and protect Americans at risk overseas. "I'm calling on Congress to work with us to support and fully fund our budget request to improve the security of our embassies around the world," he said. That tack was more passive-aggressive than passive, setting up a way to blame Republicans for a future tragedy if they don't approve more money for security.
The other striking aspect of Obama's press conference, as illustrated by the Bulworth moment that came and went, was his care in answering questions. He kept a balance as delicate as the one he described between the public's right to know and his responsibility to keep spies and soldiers safe.
He answered only for himself, for instance, when asked if he could assure Americans that nobody in the White House knew about the IRS unfairly targeting tea-party groups before his counsel found out April 22. "I promise you this—that the minute I found out about it, then my main focus is making sure we get the thing fixed," he said. As for the rest, he referred reporters to White House press secretary Jay Carney. Thus, no statements from Obama on the order of "nobody at the White House knew" (which could be proved wrong later) or "I don't know" (which would feed the disengagement narrative).
Obama was similarly cautious when asked if he would oppose a special counsel to look into the IRS mess. He said a criminal probe at the Justice Department along with the many investigations launched by congressional committees would be sufficient "to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong." He never used the words "special counsel" or "special prosecutor." So, no clip of Obama saying he didn't want one (followed no doubt by questions like "what's he got to hide?").
As for whether the Justice Department overreached in getting hold of Associated Press reporters' phone records, Obama said the public's right to know is important, but not more important than his responsibility to protect Americans. "I've still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I've still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations, in outposts that, in some cases, are as dangerous as the outpost in Benghazi," he said.
Justice was reportedly investigating a leak about a foiled terror plot, one which Attorney General Eric Holder said had put people's lives in danger. And who is going to argue with the need to keep Americans safe?
There was another question Obama answered in a clear-as-water, made-for-media sound bite, the question of whether he still had full confidence in Holder. "I have complete confidence in Eric Holder," he said. He added that Holder is doing an "outstanding" job and "I expect he will continue to do so."
In light of that endorsement, Holder's statements this week to Republican lawmakers—accusing them of treating him with disrespect and calling the behavior of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "shameful"—come off less like a man on the way out than one who is secure in his relationship with the president. And Obama's unconditional support, regardless of its expiration date, is another sign of a president who is hardly in retreat.