Before Barack Obama arrived at his first press conference as president-elect, it looked like it was going to be a dour sequel to his somber acceptance speech. Seventeen economic advisers lined up before an official-looking blue curtain. Rahm Emanuel, his new chief of staff, stood with arms akimbo, already looking like the administration's bad cop. If anyone had any fun, he'd punch them out.
But then the president-elect showed up, and he was smiling. He nodded approvingly to a few members of the press. Obama was grave during his opening statement about the dismal economic situation, but during the interaction with reporters, he let a few jokes flash through. When asked which presidents he'd consulted since winning, Obama said he'd talked to the living ones. He immediately realized the unnecessary distinction but said he "didn't want to get into any Nancy Reagan thing with the séances." When asked about the puppy he'd promised his daughters, he said the decision was complex. "With respect to the dog, there are two issues that have to be reconciled," he said, almost mocking his penchant for nuanced answers. The dog had to be hypoallergenic and therefore specially bred, but the family also wanted to get a shelter dog, and "a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me."
Maybe Barack Obama enjoyed winning the presidency after all. As he approached Election Day, Obama had grown more constricted. Perhaps, despite the challenges that face him, he's bouncing back into his earlier, looser shape.
Obama is a mutt, but not just because he has parents of two different races. At the moment, he is neither president nor candidate. The country is turning to him expectantly, but he can't do much right now. He said he intended to have a big and immediate impact as president ("That's why I ran") but pointed out that "we only have one president at a time."
So, if Obama would risk a joke, that was about all he would risk. He's doing the crossword in pen now. His words carry a lot more weight than they did three days ago, not just because they teach us about the policies he would push but also because they send messages about his governing style. During the campaign, Friday's dismal unemployment report would have been an opportunity to attack John McCain and George Bush. Now it's a problem he has to deal with.
So, he took no bait, and he went out on no limbs. He said he would not pressure the president on policy matters, and he would ponder how to respond to Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who had just congratulated him on his victory. "How we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something we should do in a knee-jerk fashion, but it's something we should think through," he said.
In the end, it was a short, news-free press conference and therefore a success for Obama. Even in calm times, a president is successful when he makes only the news he wants to at a press conference. The message Obama is trying to send the country right now, as it faces what he called "the greatest economic challenges of our lifetime," is that he's not rash. The change he offers is thorough, deliberate change, which means he wanted no big news, just the appearance of confidence and command.
The only substantive mistake Obama seems to have made was his crack about Nancy Reagan. It's a little unseemly to joke about the widow of an ex-president—especially when you're reaching out to the GOP—but he was also factually off-base. Nancy Reagan consulted the astrologer. It was Hillary who tried to commune with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was Mary Todd Lincoln who held séances. All of this makes me wonder about Michelle's spiritual proclivities. The matter was not discussed, but given the difficulty of selecting the right first dog, intervention from the spirit world might be the only solution.
Slate V: Watch highlights from President-elect Obama's first press conference