In hostage situations, the negotiator is usually hunkered down in a van somewhere, talking into the wireless. But President Obama conducted his negotiations in the ornate East Room of the White House, using his eighth news conference as his forum. He pleaded with Republicans to free tax cut legislation, to drop their blockade of a bill that would help small businesses, and to release his nominees from confirmation limbo. He tried to save America's tradition of religious tolerance from the zealots and political hacks that have seized it. Most of all, the president engaged in his ongoing mission to rescue his administration and party from the looming election disaster that hangs over them like the mammoth chandelier beneath which he spoke.
It was Obama's longest news conference, and he started by talking about the economy. The most definitive thing he could say was that he had named Austan Goolsbee, a former Slate contributor, to be the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. Unlike his economic agenda, this is a decision that doesn't require congressional approval (though the delayed announcement mirrored a critique of his latest round of economic medicine—obvious moves that seemed to take longer to announce than required).
In his opening statement, the president reminded the country of the difficult economic situation he inherited. His focus wasn't just on how bad things were, but on the party that caused those things. He singled out Republican "policies of the previous decade had left our economy weaker and our middle class struggling. … There were policies that cut taxes, especially for millionaires and billionaires, and cut regulations for corporations and for special interests, and left everyone else pretty much fending for themselves."
The president's main message is that those kinds of policies will come back if Republicans gain control of one or both houses of Congress. The key policy fight illustrating this idea, says Obama, is the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of this year. Obama wants Republicans to extend the tax breaks only for those making less than $250,000. "What I've got," he said, "is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires."
This isn't quite right. Sens, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, and Evan Bayh of Indiana—Democrats all—have said the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should also be extended. Various House Democrats hold the same position. In the main, however, Democrats are anxious to get into a fight with Republicans over cutting taxes for the well-off because there's no good news to talk about. As the president said, "The hole the recession left was huge, and progress has been painfully slow." The best thing the president could say was, "We're not there yet." Realistic. Sober. Adult. Hardly rousing.
Republicans don't mind being seen as hostage takers—or perhaps they'd rephrase their role as brakemen. In their view, the country wants a governor on Obama and the Democrats. There seemed to be some support for this in a recent Wall Street Journal poll. Sixty-two percent of those who participated said they favored "different political parties controlling the Congress and the presidency to prevent either one from going too far." Polls show voters don't particularly like Republicans, but they don't have to if all they want is for them to slow down the Democrats.
House Minority Leader John Boehner issued a press release responding to the president's remarks about an hour before they were over, which gives you some indication of the state of political dialogue these days. (When rebuttals are issued to statements or news events that are just starting, or haven't started at all, we are getting dangerously close to making those statements or events entirely unnecessary. In a tight economy, this might save money.)
The president talked the most about the economy but was most impassioned about the dual Islamic controversies of the moment. When he talked about the pastor who has been threatening to burn the Quran tomorrow, Terry Jones (who he referred to as "the individual down in Florida"), Obama was as ardent as he gets. "This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, who are sacrificing for us to keep us safe. And you don't play games with that."
Slate V: Obama addresses Quran controversy
Twice Obama was asked about the mosque in downtown New York City. "This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that they have certain inalienable rights," he said. "And what it means is that if you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site, if you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site."
On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he praised his predecessor for promoting tolerance. "One of the things that I most admired about President Bush was, after 9/11, him being crystal clear about the fact that we were not at war with Islam." In his first defense of religious tolerance he referred to his Christian faith (for any who might still be confused) and warned, "We have to make sure that we don't start turning on each other." In the second he talked about Muslims in America. "I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear, for our sakes and their sakes—they are Americans, and we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us."
This was the president's first news conference since May, and there probably won't be another until after the election. Between now and then, he promised, he would push the economic message about returning to Republican policies. Whether he can do anything to change his party's fate when the country's economic mood is so dark is a mystery. In the end, the president, who is sometimes called the most powerful person in the world, may be the hostage.