Is Obama getting tougher on Iran?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 23 2009 6:59 PM

"Appalled and Outraged"

Is Obama getting tougher on Iran?

Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House.
Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House

I will not begin a piece with a pretentious literary quote. Meanwhile, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. By this measure, President Obama was first-rate at his press conference Tuesday afternoon. He escalated his rhetoric about the violence in Iran but insisted he hadn't changed his posture. He claimed to be outside the 24-hour news cycle while simultaneously manipulating it.

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.

Obama's supporters will call this performance evidence of an admirably supple mind. His detractors will call it slipperiness.

The president started the press conference with his strongest denunciation of the violence in Iran to date. In his opening remarks, he said the United States was "appalled and outraged" and that "we deplore the violence against innocent civilians." Switching to the first person, he continued, "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

This is the strong stuff the president's critics have been calling for. In the nine days since the government of Iran started cracking down on its people, Obama has been reluctant, arguing that if he meddled, he would become a foil for the authoritarian regime. In response to the beatings and shootings in the street, he said he was "deeply troubled" and "concerned," but no more. This weekend he called on the Iranian authorities to stop the violence, but his language contained no new admonition.

Today, he not only upped his rhetoric, he reacted personally, talking about the "searing image of a woman bleeding to death in the streets," a reference to the so-called Neda video. He called the loss "extraordinarily painful" and "heartbreaking."

In recent days, Obama has quoted the expression Martin Luther King Jr. made popular: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." When he cited this quote during his presidential campaign, he asked voters to put their hand on the arc to help it bend. Until now he has said the United States stood "witness" to the events in Iran. Now he has put his hand on the arc.

Why the change? The president bristled at the mere suggestion that it was a change. Yet his press secretary had gone on the morning news shows to preview Obama's new "stern words," the White House had them translated into Persian, and still the president maintained that he'd said nothing new. "I've been consistent all along," he said. It's true that he reiterated his previous noninterventionist position—he did not challenge the legitimacy of the election or withdraw his offer to engage with Iranian leaders. But the language was new.

Obama laughed at the notion that his critics like John McCain had pushed him into a stronger position. "I just made a statement on Saturday in which we said we deplore the violence," he said. But the president's statement on Saturday contains no such tough language.

The president also answered several health care questions. He made it very clear, as he always has, that he wants Congress to present him with a plan that doesn't increase the deficit. "This is legislation that must and will be paid for," he said. He repeatedly returned to this point, perhaps an acknowledgement of the public's fears about growing deficits.

Obama has long said that if people are happy with their current health insurance, nothing will change—thus making the profound reform he advocates seem less threatening. He clarified this during the press conference: What he meant, he said, was that the government would not actively change your plan. Your plan may well change under his reforms, he suggested, but he argued that this would happen anyway—even if nothing was done. This led into his larger health care pitch, that the current system is unsustainable: "Unless we fix what's broken in our current system, everyone's health care will be in jeopardy.

For fans of a public insurance option, the president offered partial hope. He said he wants a public plan and made the case for it on the merits, arguing that such an option would provide competition that would lower costs and expand coverage. It was a legitimate defense, but he refused to say he would veto any bill that lacked a public option. (That may well turn out to be smart tactical flexibility, not a sign of a weakened position.)

At one point in the back-and-forth with reporters over Iran, the president said, "I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?" It was a good line. He has used a version of it in a previous press conference. But while the president doesn't like the demands of the news cycle, he knows just how to feed it. When outrage over AIG bonuses gripped the news cycle, he appeared before cameras to channel it. When Sonia Sotomayor's remarks about being a "wise Latina" caused controversy, Obama and his team knew it was better to say she misspoke than to keep arguing that she'd been taken out of context. During his campaign, Obama scrapped his opposition to wearing a flag pin for the same reasons. By modifying his position or habits a little, Obama feeds the news beast and the overheated controversy goes away.

In some ways the president is the 24-hour news cycle. He's everywhere—cable, sports channels, and late-night talk shows. He'll be on ABC tomorrow talking about health care. At the press conference he showed just how attuned he is to the rapacious news environment. He called on the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who has been following the Iran story closely, and asked him to relay one of the questions he'd gotten from one of the Iranian protesters. * The White House had called Pitney that morning to invite him over to ask the question, an act of stagecraft for which the previous president would have been excoriated by his critics.

Obama sparred and joked with the press in a commanding performance that should once and for all quiet the oddly persistent jibes about his use of a teleprompter. He grew irritated at times with the constant Iran questioning, but he was particularly bothered in response to a question about his smoking habits. He appeared beleaguered at having to answer a "human interest" question but then did so rather completely, admitting that he's 95 percent cured but has occasional lapses. He sparred with ABC's Jake Tapper over health care but made it clear he was listening carefully and even enjoying the back-and-forth. "You're pitching, and I'm catching," said the president. He did not, in this case, claim that he could do both.

Watch video of President Obama's June 23 news conference.

Correction, June 24, 2009: This article orginally misspelled Nico Pitney's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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