Policy vs. Politics at Obama’s Press Conference

Like a streetlamp that blocks the stars, Obama's latest press conference shed light on the immediate- the politics of the debt ceiling- to the exclusion of more illuminating subjects. Here are three important policy questions that the media needs to ask, and the President needs to answer, in his second term.

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Yesterday’s press conference at the White House was a bust. Naturally, many are focusing on the urgent political story of the day: the approaching battle between Obama and the House Republicans over whether to raise the country’s debt ceiling.

There are real stakes in that fight and it is important to determine how and why the president is refusing to negotiate with the House Republicans, and what the consequences of that decision might be. Obama has a fairly strong hand in that debate and is eager to make his case, which is no doubt why he called the press conference to begin with. He made his argument in the opening statements:


But if you let that clip run for a while, you’ll see essentially the same question repeated over and over again: why are you refusing to negotiate, will you really not negotiate, would you negotiate under some other set of circumstances? The value of the answers, and the questions, diminishes rapidly.

What happened? Politics swamped policy. Even when a non-debt ceiling question emerged on gun control, Obama dispensed with the policy half of the question, saying he would look at Vice President Biden’s recommendations later in the day, and focused instead on the political half–why Americans think he wants to take their guns.

The futility of the exercise is particularly stark when you consider the other issues that Obama and the country face over the next four years. Here are three:


Should Americans be prepared for conflict with Iran in Obama’s second term? A recent report by the Institute for Science and International Security found that Iran will likely gain the irreversible ability to produce a nuclear weapon by mid-2014. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the U.N. last fall that point would come in late spring or early summer this year. Obama has committed himself to preventing Iran getting the bomb, and recently at a meeting of AIPAC said that the only option not on the table was Cold War-style containment.

Why has the president committed to prevention rather than containment? What confidence should the American people have that the U.S. intelligence community can accurately assess when and whether Iran is approaching nuclear weapons capability, given the CIA’s failure in assessing the threat posed by Iraq in the run up to the 2003 war?


What is the ultimate goal of immigration reform? Obama has committed to pushing comprehensive immigration reform, but has not laid out strategic goals. Is the goal of immigration reform simply to deal with the problem of millions of undocumented workers in the country? Or is it to set a policy that determines which foreigners should be granted citizenship? If it’s the latter, what is the basis for deciding who gets to become a citizen? Should we base the decision on the needs and interests of our economy? Or should we focus on geographic or demographic diversity? Or should immigration be primarily about asylum, political or economic, for those in greatest need?


Obama could even have weighed in on the debate generated by the popular movie Zero Dark Thirty over whether extreme interrogation techniques, including torture, produced intelligence that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. The policy question here is whether the U.S. should sanction interrogation techniques that go beyond the Army field manual, a position Obama rejects but former Bush administration officials and some Republicans in Congress advocate. Recently the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence adopted a 6,000-page report by its staff that addresses the issue of what intelligence was gained through Bush’s program of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” A copy of the report was delivered to Obama, but it remains classified. What has the president concluded about whether intelligence from extreme interrogation contributed to the apprehension and death of Osama Bin Laden and other known and suspected terrorists? What plans does he have to declassify part or all of the report?