President Obama Doesn’t Get to Enjoy Good News

The press, and a swirl of events, wouldn’t let it happen Friday.

President Obama answers a question after making a statement in the briefing room of the White House on August 1, 2014 in Washington.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 1, 2014, 12:43 p.m.

There has been so little good news lately that Pres­id­ent Obama shouldn’t be faul­ted for want­ing to cel­eb­rate the latest jobs re­port Fri­day morn­ing, which showed an­oth­er month of im­press­ive jobs growth. But he quickly learned that the White House Brief­ing Room is not a good place to try to take a little vic­tory lap. It turns out that neither the re­port­ers nor world events would let that hap­pen.

The pres­id­ent began his press con­fer­ence with the jaunty de­clar­a­tion that this was a “happy Fri­day.” He then rattled off the day’s em­ploy­ment stat­ist­ics, boast­ing of what he called “a six-month streak with at least 200,000 new jobs each month.” He then felt se­cure enough to use words he pre­vi­ously could not to de­scribe the eco­nomy. Words like “stronger” and “bet­ter” and “re­covered.” He even went so far as to use the ul­ti­mate word in de­scrib­ing an eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery — “boom­ing.” With great sat­is­fac­tion, he de­clared: “Our en­gines are rev­ving a little bit louder.”

Doub­ling down on his joy, he then went for the easy jab at a par­tis­an tar­get just beg­ging to be poked — the em­bar­rass­ing fail­ure of House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to rally the GOP troops Thursday be­hind Speak­er John Boehner’s pre­ferred meas­ure to deal with the crisis on the na­tion’s south­ern bor­der. With his own com­pet­ence very much be­ing ques­tioned by crit­ics in re­cent weeks, the pres­id­ent turned the tables, mix­ing sar­casm and mock­ery to note that House Re­pub­lic­ans were fight­ing among them­selves and were show­ing them­selves less than ad­ept at run­ning a le­gis­lat­ive cham­ber. He also noted the dis­son­ance in mes­saging when the House GOP is su­ing him for ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions they dis­like but now they are “sug­gest­ing I should act on my own be­cause they couldn’t pass a bill.”

Boehner’s of­fice was quick to is­sue a state­ment in­sist­ing “that there is no con­tra­dic­tion at all in our po­s­i­tion on ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion.” But that is not how it ap­pears even to some con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­ors.

Had Obama left the Brief­ing Room at that point, he might even have done a little jig. He was clearly pleased. But he didn’t leave. And the ques­tions from re­port­ers were im­me­di­ate re­mind­ers of all the things that aren’t go­ing well in the world. The ques­tions were about fail­ures — the failed cease-fire in Ga­za, the failed at­tempts to af­fect Rus­si­an be­ha­vi­or in Ukraine, the fail­ure to work with Re­pub­lic­ans. It came to a head when Bill Plante of CBS News bluntly put the fail­ures at his feet.

“Has the United States of Amer­ica lost its in­flu­ence in the world? Have you lost yours?”

Obama, look­ing pained, lamen­ted that this “is a com­mon theme that folks bring up.” Al­most pro­fess­or­i­ally, he tried to ex­plain to Plante the his­tory of Amer­ic­an dip­lomacy and the real­ity that even the most power­ful coun­try on earth “still does not con­trol everything around the world.” What is hap­pen­ing today, he said, “may seem … an ab­er­ra­tion…. But the truth of the mat­ter is … that this is a big world out there” and con­flicts are in­ev­it­able. Plante, seem­ingly un­per­suaded, re­spon­ded with a sev­en-word fol­low: “Do you think you could’ve done more?”

Clearly, this was not much of a cel­eb­ra­tion of the good news on jobs and not much of a dance over the GOP con­fu­sion. So there was a hint of pres­id­en­tial frus­tra­tion as Obama pre­pared to exit. He sug­ges­ted it might be “use­ful for me to end by just re­mind­ing folks” of the good eco­nom­ic num­bers. “You know, in my first term, if I had a press con­fer­ence like this, typ­ic­ally every­body would want to ask about the eco­nomy and how come jobs wer­en’t be­ing cre­ated and how come the hous­ing mar­ket’s still bad and, you know, why isn’t it work­ing?”

Left un­said was the sug­ges­tion that re­port­ers only ask about bad news. And if re­port­ers were not go­ing to ask about the jobs num­bers, he made a point of re­peat­ing them be­fore he left. They demon­strate, he in­sisted, “that if you stay at it, even­tu­ally we make some pro­gress.”

With that, he sadly noted that no one had wished him a happy birth­day. That eli­cited a chor­us of ques­tions about CIA mis­be­ha­vi­or and deadly dis­eases, prompt­ing a some­what plaint­ive pres­id­en­tial lament: “What happened to the happy birth­day thing?”

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