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Who'll answer tonight's questions -- Pres. Obama or Sen. Obama?

March 24, 2009 |  2:46 am

Democratic President Barack Obama and his ubiquitous teleprompter

When President Barack Obama walks before the cameras on national TV this evening for his second formal White House news conference (5 p.m. Pacific), we'll all get the latest retweaked version of his main economic message: a little more hope than gloom, more push for his (overly?) ambitious budget plan and a repetition of Treasury's toxic asset plan from Monday.

Which the administration is trying to rename "legacy assets," because who advertises their home: "Used House 4 Sale"? And, let's be honest here, who wants to buy financial Superfund sites?

Obama and his political advisor, David Axelrod, are clearly trying to maintain or regain control of the political debate, depending on your view of last week's road show. The message of the president's warm reception at his two California town halls was in the end overshadowed by his clumsy Special Olympics crack on Jay Leno.

Americans clearly are ready to like the president. They're still drawing first impressions. His poll numbers have slid a little more, still close to 60% but no longer closer to 70%.

By itself that gaffe, minimized by quick overnight damage control by phone from Air Force One, matters little in the long run. But coming as it did in a spontaneous moment on national TV, it played....

Democratic President Barack Obama greeting the audience after a town hall meeting in Los Angeles March 19, 2009 Los Angeles Times photo by Luis Sinco

... right into critics' efforts to portray the smooth Obama as too dependent on words fed to him via teleprompter. They've even created a competing mocking website and Twitter accounts for Obama's teleprompter and over here.

All modern presidents have used teleprompters, but none as thoroughly as Obama, who employs them for even the most routine occasions. In the White House they're usually out of sight of tight TV shots and, when he's done, they collapse down low out of sight.

Remember, Obama's crack about Nancy Reagan seances, which also required a telephoned apology, came during an un-telepromptered moment at his first news conference as president-elect? It's all part of an unfolding debate, even among his Democratic supporters.

With the economy in dire straits and until Monday  no firm financial plan, with Treasury especially apparently experiencing such executive recruiting difficulties, should the president be out in the countryside still or again campaigning, which he usually does very well? On TV joking with Jay. Drawing up his own NCAA basketball brackets on ESPN (Jay joked last night that Obama did better picking basketball winners, getting 14 of the final 16 tournament teams, than he did picking his own Cabinet. Ouch!)

Or should the president be seen  being president, governing, with the campaigning over, addressing the nation's serious difficulties, even if he does have an Oval Office TV tuned to one of the games. Americans like their presidents to be human, But they also like them carrying a bit of elegant distance.

To that end, Obama's laughter and offhand mention of a possible seriously deep depression on his "60 Minutes" interview Sunday struck some as dissonance. As did his verbal assault on former Vice President Cheney's recent criticisms.

Yes, he was asked about them. And Obama's certainly entitled to defend himself. But in that much detail? Let's be brutally honest here: Except for Sunday TV shows' desperate search for Sabbath conflict and the ex-VP's own family, who caDemocratic president Barack Obama uses teleprompters again at a White House event with Vice President Joe Bidenres what Dick Cheney has to say now? He's history.

The reason Obama went on about Cheney, of course, is that as long as Obama can keep the public and especially his own Democratic supporters on the left focused on the aging, albeit unifying, sins of the devil Bush years, the less anyone thinks to start comparing Obama promises to Obama actions in the present day.

The galactic deficits growing daily. The unfilled jobs. The growing entanglement in Afghanistan.

Remember a few weeks ago Obama brought Rush Limbaugh into the public debate, much to the conservative broadcaster's promotional delight? It made Democrats happy, but cost the Republicans absolutely nothing. What have they got to lose, having already lost everything in Washington? Why would a president, and then his spokesmen, fight down with a radio broadcaster?

And then for President Obama to "honor" Cheney with such a rebuttal, as correct as Obama may be within his debating points, reveals a startling defensiveness within the president, once thought of as supremely confident. More importantly and much more dangerously, such a tactic elevates Cheney and Cheney's dire warnings about national security under an Obama administration lax on national defense.

Sure, talking tough about Cheney makes Democrats feel good for the moment. If Cheney's wrong, no one will remember in a few months. But the victorious president still arguing with the departed vice president when he could have dismissed him with one or two sentences?

This strikes many as a short-sighted political strategy for Obama/Axelrod -- and a dangerous one. First, it elevates Cheney at no cost to the Republican.

But what happens if, heaven forbid, there is another successful terrorist attack on the homeland? Who'd look more politically prescient then -- the departed vice president or the rookie incumbent who defensively and unnecessarily called so much attention to those dire predictions way back now?

What Obama says -- or doesn't say -- about that tonight will be most revealing. (As usual, we'll have the complete news conference transcript overnight.)

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Of possible interest:

Obama's well-oiled road show; Obama apologizes for Special Olympics crack; Text of Obama's town hall meeting.

Photo credits: Associated Press (Obama with his ubiquitous teleprompter); Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times (Obama greets audience members after a Los Angeles town hall); Chip Somodeville / Getty Images (Obama with Vice President Biden uses telepropmpters again at a White House event).

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