At White House Press Conference, Obama Flexes the Political Muscles of Incumbency

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Susan Walsh / AP

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, March 6, 2012.

During George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, his staff would often rent out minor league baseball fields. Bush would land in Marine One in the outfield and come strolling out to the soundtrack of the Harrison Ford movie, Air Force One, to deliver his stump speech from home plate. It was an impressive spectacle, one that wowed crowds and flaunted the power of the presidency. On Tuesday, Barack Obama’s performed his own wonky version of the home-team strut.

“I understand there are some political contests going on tonight,” Obama said at the opening of a White House press conference, his first of the year that just coincidentally fell on the same day as the largest batch of Republican primaries in 2012: 10 states, 437 delegates and potentially nothing less than the nomination itself at stake. “But I’d thought I’d start the day off by taking a few questions which I’m sure will not be political in nature.” Sure, no politics here. Obama explicitly spoke of Mitt Romney, the man most likely to lead the delegate tally at the conclusion of the day’s contests, only once. The President wished him good luck.

But a large section of Obama’s exchange with reporters was heavily political and served to upstage Romney’s big day. The questions largely split between Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, a women’s rights activist who drew national attention after Rush Limbaugh attacked her sex life (he later apologized), and the Mideast.

With the former, his message was clear. “I believe that Democrats have a better story to tell to women about how we’re going to solidify the middle class and grow this economy, make sure everybody has a fair shot, everybody is doing their fair share, and we got a fair set of rules of the road that everybody has to follow,” he said in response to a question about whether the Fluke incident was indicative of a “war on women.”

With the latter, Obama was more opaque. Asked to address Romney’s criticisms of his Administration’s foreign policy, in the news this week with Netanyahu in town, AIPAC ongoing and Republican chest-pounding on Iran more primal than ever, Obama had some tough words for unnamed “folks.”

“What’s said on the campaign trail — those people don’t have a lot of responsibilities; they are not the commander in chief. When I see the casualness in which those folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs of war,” he said after defending his record on sanctions. “And when I see these folks that have a lot of bluster, and a lot of big talk but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things we’ve been doing over the last three years.”

“It indicates to me that that’s more about politics than trying to solve a problem,” Obama continued. “Now one thing we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think it’s time to launch a war then they should say so and explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”

“Folks” is a common enough Obama colloquialism. But in this context, it’s a fairly transparent pseudonym for Romney, the subject of the Iran question to begin with, that simultaneously preserves a level of pre-general election decorum and lumps Romney in with his fellow primary candidates (some of whom, it’s worth noting, are decidedly more bellicose than the former Massachusetts governor). And why not? His rivals spent the morning accusing him of “weakness” on Iran at AIPAC. Obama’s presidential pulpit affords him a degree of political separation to play the same game without getting into the muck. He may not be helicoptering into any minor league outfields just yet, but this was the power of incumbency on display.