November 7th, 2008
12:15 PM ET

President-elect Obama's first press conference: Balancing Idealism and Realism

John P. Avlon
Author, Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics

Today is President-elect Obama's first press conference. In some ways, it's the most consequential press conference of his administration, because as the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

President-elect Bill Clinton's first press conference proved disastrous enough to derail the first years of his presidency. A planted question by a conservative reporter about gays in the military was framed as a litmus test on Clinton's trustworthiness and willingness to fulfill campaign promises. Clinton couldn't resist taking the bait and talked about it at length, giving it the appearence of a new administration priority.

As one of Clinton's advisors later said, "It sent precisely the wrong message. I'm not saying he shouldn't have taken that position, but as the first thing he did? It was exactly the sort of 'liberal elitist' issue that we'd been trying to submerge throughout the campaign. It sent a signal that he was going to govern differently from the way he campaigned – as an old Democrat."

A similar risk exists for Barack Obama. He won largely because he inspired people to believe in a post-partisan approach to problem solving, as a rejection of the hyper-partisanship of the Bush era. Now is the time to add substance to that centrist style by reaffirming his pledge to appoint a bipartisan cabinet and prioritize policies that can unite the country around the administration like energy independence, rather than getting distracted by divisive liberal special interest issues like 'card-check" or the so‑called "fairness doctrine."

Obama's first appointment of Congressman Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff sends a message that he does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Emanuel was a veteran of Bill Clinton's transition and has learned the lessons that led to the 1994 Republican revolution. Announcing the reappointment of Secretary of Defense Gates would be a good way to build that bridge to the center on the basis of a responsible transition to a new administration led by a president who understands the need to balance idealism with realism.

Filed under: John P. Avlon • Raw Politics
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Aynes

    I think some of you are worried......the rose colored glasses are coming off and guess what??? Reality is setting in. Obama has had a picnic in the park the past 20 months...No one is allowed to question him and at his very first news conference, he has no straight answer to the question of the congratulatory letter from the president of Iran, and he made some crazy statement about Nancy Reagon!!! He spent MORE time on the pressing subject of the puppy for the girls...People are tired of waiting and yes there are things that he can help Bush with to get this economy going. Between now and Jan 20th thousands more will have lost their jobs. It's time for action Mr. President Elect...You do not have time for a honeymoon. You need to begin working on all the promises you have made to Americans and all over the world!!!

    November 8, 2008 at 9:04 pm |
  2. Rosie

    I wonder do we ever play back our words; it would do wonders for our image, both at home and abroad. How can people, so blessed, find nothing to do accept find fault and speak in negative tones?
    How can a Country, who continues to bask themselves in an attire of religious works, and Christian living, yet not understand the work of the God we claim to serve?
    What a sad day we live in, when all we can do is find fault, cast doubts, and show very little, if any, faith in ourselves, and in our fellow man. Also while we are putting Obama down, let us not forget that he is a part of two worlds, therefore to put him down is to put down these two worlds, which are made up of, both Black's and White's.
    The way we see him is the way we see ourselves, for he is a part of these two worlds. Is this how we see ourselves?
    Are we so small, that we can not give credit whare we know credit is due? Here we have an outstanding human-being, so must we continue deny both worlds, the credit due them, for producing such a honorable and gifted young man?
    Wake up America! is it not time we realize the greatness of it all, when Black and White stand together, as being one Nation under God?

    November 8, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  3. jim

    Realism should come soon when Obama doesn't keep his promises. I remember Jimmy Carter promised tax cuts and what happened. He raised taxes, mortgage rates were 21%, unemployment 14% and inflation 18% along wit a disastrous foreign policy. I predict Obama will be a re run of the Carter Administration

    November 8, 2008 at 11:44 am |
  4. Arthur

    Democrats have a mandate, have won the popular vote in 4 of the last 5 elections and people want a progressive movement to the left from the government to solve problems. remember mcCain and the republicans said a vote for Obama and the democrats is a vote for wealth re-distribution and socialism. The big wins show us that indeed that is what the people want. it is the only way to save our industry and the halth of our country.

    November 8, 2008 at 11:10 am |
  5. Jeffrie

    He's not even in office yet and the doubt is rising from those whose vote he is yet to earn. America has become so cynical which may be the reason we allowed our politicians to behave in such a dishonest manner while viewing honesty as political incorrectness. Hopes and dreams are what made this country great and Hopes and dreams will what will restore it.

    November 8, 2008 at 10:26 am |
  6. Bernie / Chicago

    I am pessimistic. I don't believe President-Elect Obama knows just how different campaigning is to actually having to do the job...Promises have always been broken upon election because you get there and realize you did not know how bad it was or how expensive. I have spoken to the electorate in this country for many years. They vote for popularity abd come to realize ALL these candiates are merely human..Let's hope...God Bless America.

    November 8, 2008 at 8:26 am |
  7. Brian

    Obama, despite his protestations, is one of the most able politicians of our generation. Able in that he can move crowds, knows what is a political hot potato and what isn't. Remember he defeated at least two great political machines: first Clinton's, and now the GOP's smear machine.

    So conservatives need not worry. Obama knows the difference between what he wants, what the country wants, and what is actually possible. Of course conservatives find it two-faced or lying to privately want one thing but publicly support another, but all politicians do that every day: the President represents Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, even Muslims. He can support Muslims without believing in them privately, and he can privately believe in gay marriage without supporting them publicly.

    Obama is not stupid; he knows Congress is made up of Blue Dog Democrats. Liberals will not get what they want except a pullout from Iraq, and that can be justified as conservatism (remember, interventionism was originally a liberal idea, being the world's policeman.)

    November 8, 2008 at 8:07 am |
  8. Brian J

    I can't wait until January 20th and Bush fades into the rear view mirror. Finally we have a president that will look out for the middle class! Obama will hit the ground running as President, and we should see a flurry of activity once he assumes office.

    November 8, 2008 at 4:39 am |
  9. MavTX

    President-elect Obama was near flawless in his first post election press conference. He has the superior ability to draw a 3rd party observer into the conversation as we watch him carefully craft a measured response that clearly demonstrates that he was listening to the question and wants to answer it as appropriately and truthfully as possible.

    President-elect Obama demonstrated his knowledge and love of the constitution by reminding reporters and doubters of the obvious, America only has one president at a time, thus he has no plans to usurp the sitting president's role.

    I am grateful that he is placing the economy and American as his number one priority when he assumes office on January 20th. I applaud him in not being drawn into a trap by refusing to answer the second part of the two-parter security question put to him by CNN's Candy Crowley. I saw a light-hearted, yet pragmatic, father and head of household in how he answered the due diligence in getting his girls a dog.

    The only hiccup was his attempt at humor in responding on the question on the question of his conversations with former presidents when he joked about Former First Lady Nancy Reagan maybe channeling advice from beyond. I don't believe he meant it to be offensive, but since people can be sensitive about amost everything, it might have offended some, and I hear he did offer an apology, so all should be forgiven.

    Based on first impressions, I think America will be proud in how, after Jan 20th, President Obama represent our new face and improved direction, and to the world.

    November 8, 2008 at 3:49 am |
  10. Kenneth Pont

    The middle class NEED a tax break, we are on life support after 8 years of the present idiot in office pandering to the rrich and corporations.

    November 8, 2008 at 3:08 am |
  11. J.V.Hodgson

    Read his speech and answers to questions, and as usual you guys concentrate on what was really intended as I do not know and cannot see the future yet. ( reagan seance comment) His full transition team is not in place but in the key area of economy, he has a good set of people to guide him while Bush is still in charge AND CIC!
    Lame ducks are responsible for thier injuries and Obama may have an advise and consent role for the next 10 Weeks, during which he and his team will hopefully learn many things they did not know especially on the economy, behind the scenes diplomatic efforts, war assessments and national security issues.
    His only tasks right now are to learn the facts, prioritise those matters he believes are necessary, and then appoint properly briefed capable qualified and vetted high ranking officials to Sec of State, Economy, Treasury, Defense, Pentagon chief ,Homeland and Intelligence Overlords, then Health Welfare and Education and Attorney general.
    Then let those people get on with assembling thier teams and ensure they are properly briefed, capable qualified and vetted.
    For the next 10 weeks if gridlock persists via Filibusters and Presidential vetoes that is a Bush and Republican problem. He can pressurise behind the scenes for an ambitious Economic stimulus plan of course and should do so with the sword of damocles of veto it now and I'll re-submit as soon as I have the power to do so.
    He can play the slow strategic and position winning plan but not outright attack and I'm in charge, which the media is pushing. Media do not waste your time on that he will not be bullied into precipitate actions. If you the media have not got that you completely misjudge the man and his character.
    After 3 days stop pre-judging or trying to out guess him, many of his first choices may turn him down.
    Patience , is a virtue!!

    November 8, 2008 at 1:57 am |

    just give the man a chance!!!! with the pressure from everyone wwanting him to be perfect and wanting him to do as they please , people have to lay of him and watch and wait ! I am sure he knows how to lighten the weight on his shoulders ,little by little ! HOPE IS THE LAST THING WE HAVE TO LOOSE !! give him a chance he is not even in the white house and people want him to explain what he is going to do !
    ps I could not believe Jessi jackson!! such bs! he said what he said about Pres. elect a while back and now he finds it important to mention that he has voted for him all along! boy talk about kissing butt!
    he is such a selfserving person!!!!!

    November 8, 2008 at 1:00 am |
  13. dieselis

    president elect barry has his work cut out or him.he just became the pilot of a heavy cargo jet with two out of four engines working and overloaded with debt.barry needs everybody's support he has mine.does he have yours?if you won't support him try not to laden him down.were heading for a territory i have not seen in my fifty plus years here.my parents called it the deppression.it was an ugly thing to here them tell it.i think president elect barry is hand picked by GOD.sometime the party of the publican goes home blessed.democrats seem to know their sinners republicans so busy pointing out the dems sins they think GOD does'nt see theirs.now if someone could convince both parties they need the LORD we could make some serious progress.about prop8 being homosexual is a decision.i did not decide to be black.i get so tired of them comparing it to civil rights.if you decide to be gay thats between you and GOD.its your free will.don't try to make it not sinful.civil unions are fine.to be married as in what GOD put together let no man put asunder it mocks GOD thats what your after.you never here the very basic argument it goes against all nature.i don't agree with mistreatment of gays which is really what has spawned the problem.sin is wrong adultry,lying,stealing,fornication,pride, coveting etc...lets stop trying to justify sin we all have some.repentance is the cleanser of the heart.

    November 8, 2008 at 12:04 am |
  14. carolyn

    I think Obama may have learned a valuable lesson in promising the American people change when he can't deliver. By the way I think what would be good to is to cut out all the taxes for everyone for maybe a year, then reassess. Sounds good but how would the Government function?

    November 7, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  15. victor gerson

    president-elect obama my family can agree on one thing,your election to office was the most exciting day that any of us can remember.We supported you because you made us believe in you,and you earned our respect.My father has been a plasterer in arizona over 50 years.He has had to let all his workers go and our small family business has completely ran out of work for the first time since the depression.We're be lucky to make our mortgage payments throught january.There will be only eachother this christmas.No matter what happens we will continue to believe in you and support you.

    November 7, 2008 at 8:09 pm |
  16. Ann

    If America will give President Elect Obama, a fair chance I think that they will be pleasantly surprised.

    November 7, 2008 at 8:07 pm |
  17. Annie Kate

    Clinton was impulsive, Obama is not. I think Obama will weigh each question before he answers and avoid the pitfalls others have fallen prey to. The only thing I regret about this election is that Obama can't be sworn in now rather than in January – the delay gives Bush time to do one more major screw-up and Bush has really done too much already.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    November 7, 2008 at 6:59 pm |
  18. Larry

    Sounds like he's still campaigning.

    Where was the delightful Helen Thomas today?

    November 7, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  19. GP

    He should not raise taxes. For anybody. Individuals. Corporations. Anybody. Period.

    November 7, 2008 at 5:01 pm |
  20. penny

    "What other presidential choice did we have? A 200 yr old man. Look who we voted for before, GW Bush. He had his brain between his but cheeks for 8 years. At least he is balancing some ideas for America."

    November 7, 2008 at 3:57 pm |
  21. Max

    I love it WHEN people GET to the POINT.

    I am just too tired to listen to BLA, BLA, BLA.

    November 7, 2008 at 3:46 pm |
  22. Virginian

    We'll see how long it takes this Zebra to change his strips... I HOPE he is the centrist he tried to portray and the radical leftist was the act.

    November 7, 2008 at 2:54 pm |
  23. Jackie in Dallas

    I think that we will see that the 22 months of campaigning and press relations will give him a good base on which to work. I don't think he can be "drawn in" as Clinton was. He's thoughtful, deliberate, and articulate...three things we haven't seen in the White House in eight years!

    November 7, 2008 at 2:45 pm |
  24. jt

    Let us see if in fact he will change how the game is palyed in Washington.

    Let us see whether Washington wants to play his CHANGE rule.

    Let us begin, we want to see Obama play.

    For now, forget about the $60 million foreing contribution and the names for the donor of $300 million. We heard about Micky Mouse contribution.

    Let him settle down in the white house first and I hope the media will start asking some hard questions.

    November 7, 2008 at 2:15 pm |
  25. Coreen Nickerson

    I am not surprised to hear all the talk about realism come after November 4th. I was, however, surprised to hear David Gergen say on Cooper's 360 (yesterday) that he thought it had been wise that Obama "did not make too many promises ." Where is this koolaid and how can I get some? How about the promise of reducing taxes for 95% of the Americas, creating thousands of "green jobs", doubling the Peace Corps, raising capital gains taxes, raising teachers' salaries, increasing charter schools, and the list goes on. Honestly, how can Mr. Gergen claim Obama did not make a lot of promises? Please do not let President Elect Obama off the hook before he even takes his oath.

    November 7, 2008 at 1:05 pm |
  26. Vegas

    I guess we will see...

    November 7, 2008 at 1:00 pm |
  27. S Callahan

    Deep breath...you said it all...

    November 7, 2008 at 12:39 pm |