One of the first rules of being a journalist (we've just now looked them up) is: you don't have to ask the questions the person talking wants to answer. You can ask anything. And the White House press corps proved it on Wednesday.
After announcing a new panel on gun control to be headed by vice-president Joe Biden, the president, weariness writ on his face, the pain of Newtown still heavy in his voice, offered to take questions.
The first question was about … the fiscal cliff. So was the second one. So was the third one.
The press exercised its freedom. It was not an impressive display.
Given an opportunity to speak for a nation aching to hear that something real is being done about guns, the White House corps reverted to its Beltway worst, bypassing a needed conversation to stroke a personal fixation.
Perhaps worse, the president took them up on it, delivering long-winded, rambling, repetitive answers that were alarmingly reminiscent of a stump speech.
The fiscal cliff is important. It was appropriate for the president to take a question about it. And he did get one good punch in, accusing Republicans of being so caught up in defeating him personally that they had lost sight of the public good. That line should play well in the evening newscasts.
But to watch the exchange play out at the top of what most everyone else hoped would be a conversation on gun control was discouraging. The implication was that perhaps it is impossible after all for the USA to discuss the matter. You know what we can talk about? Congressional gridlock.
The gun control questions did eventually come. Then, at the end, ABC News' Jake Tapper nailed it, pointing out that the president hasn't done much on guns in the last four years and asking, "Where have you been?"
Obama showed his frustration. He said he was dealing with the worst economic crisis since the great depression, two wars and a bunch of other stuff. "I haven't been on vacation," he said.
The news conference mercifully ended there. Where the conversation goes remains to be seen.
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image: © Aaron Logan