Obama tries to balance his calls for patience and urgency.

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March 25 2009 12:05 AM

Hard Times

Obama tries to balance his calls for patience and urgency.

Barack Obama answers a question during Tuesday's press conference. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama answers a question during Tuesday's press conference

How does Barack Obama persuade people to be patient about their outrage over the ongoing bailout of Wall Street—while also persuading them to get impatient about long-term fiscal reforms that may not affect them for years?

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This was the task of the president's second press conference, and it wasn't easy. Nothing is, as he reiterated. "By the time an issue reaches my desk, it's a hard issue," he said, echoing a sentiment his predecessor often voiced. "This is hard," Obama said of reducing the deficit, a point he returned to later: "I'm not going to lie to you. It's tough."

The president's other job at the press conference was to manage anger, so he continued his role as national therapist. He sympathized with people who wanted to vent their outrage at Wall Street excesses but also asked Americans not to "demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit." (You imagine that he'd like to hand out one of these to everyone in America, since he is essentially asking Americans to bail out some people who behaved badly in order to avoid an even greater catastrophe.)

The president needs the nation to be on an even keel, because addressing the economic collapse is going to take time. The nation must get through the stress test of cleaning up the current economic mess with enough emotional energy left to embrace his argument for an ambitious budget. To help everyone calm down, Obama argued that slow and steady progress was being made. "That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I'm going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come, as long as I am in this office," he said. "I'm a big believer in persistence."

Obama returned to the theme of togetherness to buy time. We will "travel that road as one people," he said in his opening remarks. "We are all in this together." Lovely sentiment, but the times seem to call for a stronger pitch. Why should people join together when bailouts are rewarding people who didn't act in the common interest? Among those being rescued are Wall Street bankers, AIG financial engineers, and even homeowners who didn't behave responsibly—and now the responsible citizens are bailing them out.

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Obama may be popular enough to make the case. But to bring about collective action in this environment, Obama may have to return to a lesson he wrote about in Dreams From My Father: the power of self-interest in helping to create community. People often join together because it is obvious there is something in it for them. Rather than the "we're all in this together" pitch he gave at the press conference, he wrote that an appeal to self-interest "bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment."

On Tuesday, Obama didn't try to appeal to people's self-interest in supporting his budget policies, except to create a general sense of emergency. "This budget is inseparable from the recovery," he said before reiterating his argument that only through long-term investments in education, clean energy, and health care could the country build the foundation for a sustainable future.

Earlier in the day, it was obvious that Obama wouldn't get his full wish list: Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate budget committee, laid out the pared-back version of Obama's budget—the working document Congress will have to agree on. It was $600 billion smaller than Obama's budget over five years, and Conrad made it harder for Obama to achieve his goals on everything from health care reform to cutting taxes for the middle class to increasing funding for Pell Grants. Anticipating the difficulty he'll have with the White House and his colleagues, Conrad started his briefing with reporters by showing a blown-up picture of a dog he's adopting Saturday. "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," said Conrad.

There was little mention of foreign affairs, and there were no questions about the bank bailout plan announced the day before, which suggests the plan was either a success or that reporters found it too complicated. There were also no questions about Obama's "embattled" treasury secretary, which would seem to affirm the White House's posture that the Geithner squall will blow over.

The president tires of people who want quick and easy answers, a point that became abundantly clear when he snapped ever so slightly at CNN's Ed Henry, who pressed him on why he hadn't shown outrage about the AIG bonuses more quickly. "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," he said before calling on the next reporter. It was a flash of the kind of immediate outrage Henry had said was missing.

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