"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
He answered only for himself, for instance, when asked if he could
assure Americans that nobody in the White House knew about the IRS
unfairly targeting tea-party groups before his counsel found out April
22. "I promise you this--that the minute I found out about it, then my
main focus is making sure we get the thing fixed," he said. As for the
rest, he referred reporters to White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Thus, no statements from Obama on the order of "nobody at the White
House knew" (which could be proved wrong later) or "I don't know" (which
would feed the disengagement narrative).
Obama was similarly cautious when
asked if he would oppose a special counsel to look into the IRS mess. He
said a criminal probe at the Justice Department along with the many
investigations launched by congressional committees would be sufficient
"to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went
wrong." He never used the words "special counsel" or "special
prosecutor." So, no clip of Obama saying he didn't want one (followed no
doubt by questions like "what's he got to hide?").
As for whether the Justice Department
overreached in getting hold of Associated Press reporters' phone
records, Obama said the public's right to know is important, but not
more important than his responsibility to protect Americans. "I've still
got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I've still got a whole bunch
of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations,
in outposts that, in some cases, are as dangerous as the outpost in
Benghazi," he said.