President Obama had the perfect opportunity for the Bulworth moment he reportedly craves--of unleashing his true thoughts, as Warren Beatty did playing a senator in the 1998 movie--when a reporter asked him how he felt about being compared to Richard Nixon. You could tell Obama wanted to say something cutting, but he settled for the understated approach: "You can read the history and draw your own conclusions." He managed to make his point (i.e., you'd be nuts to draw that comparison) and there will be no "Have you no shame!" or "I am not a Nixon!" video clip for YouTube or the evening news.
The exchange was emblematic of Obama's highly intentional and disciplined performance at a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. It was the second time in a week that a foreign leader stood by as Obama addressed domestic scandals and controversies (the first was Monday's press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron). The odd juxtaposition worked for Obama, particularly on Thursday when he talked about expanding trade with Turkey, helping Turkey cope with Syrian refugees, and most of all, working with Turkey to keep putting pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We both agree that Assad needs to go. He needs to transfer power to a transitional body. That is the only way that we're going to resolve this crisis," Obama said, sounding resolute and engaged--in other words, not the man pundits have been panning of late as a passive bystander to the history he is supposed to be shaping.
It's going to take more than a few days and a couple of forced departures at the Internal Revenue Service for Obama to demonstrate he's an engaged chief executive, of course, and months for the GOP to work its way through investigations on multiple fronts. But if Republicans were counting on a chastened or humbled president, they would be wrong, in the same way they would have been wrong to expect the muted, nonresponsive Obama of the first presidential debate last year to make a repeat performance at the second.
In fact, Obama used the joint press conference to open a new political offensive on Benghazi. He challenged lawmakers--read: Republicans--to put their money where their mouths are on Benghazi and protect Americans at risk overseas. "I'm calling on Congress to work with us to support and fully fund our budget request to improve the security of our embassies around the world," he said. That tack was more passive-aggressive than passive, setting up a way to blame Republicans for a future tragedy if they don't approve more money for security.
The other striking aspect of Obama's press conference, as illustrated by the Bulworth moment that came and went, was his care in answering questions. He kept a balance as delicate as the one he described between the public's right to know and his responsibility to keep spies and soldiers safe.