November 27th, 2008
08:07 AM ET

Obama in the big leagues now: Time for fastballs instead of softballs

CNN White House Correspondent Ed Henry asking President-Elect Barack Obama questions at Wednesday's press conference.

Ed Henry
CNN White House Correspondent

As President-elect Barack Obama's third press conference in three days was about to come to a close, I was sitting in the front row getting and - like some of my colleagues - was getting a little steamed. Some reporters were throwing a few softballs, treating the President-elect as if he's the incoming Mayor of Springfield, Illinois, instead of the incoming Leader of the Free World.

If I get called upon, I kept saying to myself, I better make it good and tough. Unfortunately, I wasn't getting the nod - until I finally made eye contact with Obama and got him to call on me and had a good, old-fashioned sharp exchange with the President-elect that was revealing about the balancing act the "change" candidate faces as he puts together an administration full of insiders.

At these high-pressure televised press conferences, the President-elect has a list of names handed to him by his staff with suggestions about which reporters should be called upon. My CNN colleague Candy Crowley had gotten the call at Obama's very first post-election presser at the beginning of the month, so I realized that I might not get the nod at all this week. The transition team likes to rotate the questions, in part so that different news organizations get a fair chance to play.

Before Monday's event, a couple of my colleagues got a pre-game nod from incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, a tip-off to be ready to be called upon by the big guy. It's a nice gesture because there are legendary stories about a handful of White House reporters who were unprepared when their names called out by various Presidents. Those reporters have all panicked, blowing their big chance to grill the Commander-in-Chief (there's one story about a reporter who said "pass" and was quickly removed from the beat by her employer shortly thereafter).

So at Monday's press conference unveiling Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and Lawrence Summers as chair of the National Economic Council, the small number of reporters who got called upon didn't push too hard. I felt that, in the middle of an historic international financial crisis, Obama was not being pressed on the details of how he plans to follow through on his promise to create 2.5 million jobs.

Then on Tuesday, Obama had a second press conference revealing his budget team. He made some grand pronouncements about how in these lean times the nation needs to "sacrifice" by living with less federal spending. Yet he did not name a single major government program he would cut, and not a single reporter who got called upon pushed for more information.

Obama seemed to realize he was in control, joking at one point as he recognized a reporter that had covered him on the campaign trail. "Peter - where's Peter?" Obama asked. " I didn't recognize you because you don't have the floppy hat that you had during the campaign."

"I actually do," said the reporter, holding the funny hat in the air.

"There it is," Obama said to laughter. "Man, that's what I'm talking about."

It only went downhill during the third press conference, when Obama was asked if he planned to do some Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. This enabled the President-elect to wax poetic about his daughters and Santa Claus.

"Malia and Sasha have already put their list together - it's mostly for Santa," he said carefully, not wanting to let the cat out of the bag out of Santa, of course. "They send their letter every year. But we may do some extra shopping as well."

Believe me, I'm no Scrooge - I love the whole Santa thing with my kids too. But is this really what we should be asking the President-elect while Rome burns? It was just at that moment that Obama signaled he had time for one question so I made my move.

The President-elect's eyes starting darting across the room as if he wasn't sure who he was supposed to call upon, so I made eye contact with him and raised my hand abruptly. "Go ahead," he said.

I stood up and couldn't resist mentioning the holiday shopping. "In addition to the Santa Claus list, I want to get into specifics when you say 'help is on the way,'" I said. "First of all, do you support the Bush administration's latest $800 billion bailout? Are you worried about the continuation of printing money?"

He jumped in with a smile. "How many compound questions is this going to be?" Obama needled.

"It's three to be honest with you," I said, though admittedly the list started growing quickly. "You talked about sacrifices yesterday. What federal programs would you cut to actually pay for your stimulus plan?"

You never know when you will get another chance to ask the incoming President some questions, so on the fly I decided to press ahead with one last question that I know a lot of people want answered: With Obama adding a lot of Washington insiders to his nascent administration, doesn't that run counter to the central theme - change - of his campaign?

Obama had just named 81-year-old Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman in the Carter and Reagan years, to head up a newly-created Economic Recovery Board of advisers. Admittedly, he had also tapped aide Austan Goolsbee, a Washington outsider, to serve on the board. But if you look around at the emerging Obama team, it's pretty heavy on Washington insiders.

"We have Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, we hear anyway," I said, as Obama interrupted.

"Wait, wait, wait, you 'hear that,'" Obama said, not wanting to be taken off-message. "First of all, that's not the topic. We're not talking about my Cabinet because I haven't made those appointments yet."

I pressed ahead and mentioned again that Volcker is not exactly a fresh face: "What do you say to your supporters who are looking for change?"

That led Obama to reveal some frustration with all of the stories suggesting he is bringing in too many Clintonites. "I know this has been sort of conventional wisdom floating around Washington, that, well, there's a recycling of people that were in the Clinton administration," said Obama, noting correctly that the Clinton administration was the last Democratic administration so it's only natural that a lot of veterans of that White House would wind up on his team.

"I suspect that you would be troubled and the American people would be troubled if I selected a Treasury Secretary or a chairman of the National Economic Council at one of the most critical economic times in our history who had no experience in government whatsoever," he added. "What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking. But understand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost. It comes from me."

He punched the word "me," and more than a few friends e-mailed me that it sounded like Obama's "I'm the decider" moment.

As for my series of questions about the specifics of his economic plan, Obama mostly stuck to script about how he's not going to get too specific until after he's sworn into office on Jan. 20th. But that's okay - sometimes a non-answer is an answer in and of itself.

An Obama aide later joked to me that I asked so many questions that it was funny to watch the "one-on-one interview" with Obama. "The looks on other reporters' faces was priceless," the aide added. "Kind of like, 'why didn't I think of that?'"

Filed under: Barack Obama • Ed Henry • Raw Politics
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Kim

    The pitcher is on the mound and the bases are loaded ! Not to left and not to right but a fast ball down the middle. We have a lot of issues in the world to resolve and worried about this homeland security after watching all this terrorism and India situation. The leadership line up is strong for the US and there are so many in support of changes and engaged. Just an observation from election 08 and the Clinton team is amazing with organization,proceedures,emergency response and team work, reacting fast ! Saw that with Hurricane Ike and they were set up in a matter of hours and on go. Millions fast unite for a cause to support and now the teams merge as one huge effort and this is going to be a strong leadership with grassroots support that's powerful and exciting.With homeland security in mind we need to make sure security is tight and kinda shocked there was a breech of security on Obama's cell phone and a breech on all of our elected officials passports, back during the primary they called attention to. How secure are our inner city subways and is there security ? CNN had a number to call supporting grassroots on the terrorism and thought that was great. There are numbers to call if you see something unusual on the water ways and who's docking ? "Lockdown" and this terrorism has got to stop and we want peace and fair interests respected. Change starts from the bottom up and not the top down . Obama,Biden,Clinton=that's strong leadership with a grassroots movement united and team spirited. "The lasors" in strategic planning and solutions ! That's what our new leadership reminds me of ! The good forces will stomp out the bad for peace and unity !

    November 29, 2008 at 3:17 pm |
  2. Bill, Wabah IN.

    I am very curious to find out what Obama's team is going to do about problems with immigration. My Wife and daughter both live in China currently and we have been trying to get the proper visas for them both to come here and live legally for the past 2 1/2 years. Each time they have gone to the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou Chine they have been denied the visas for unknown reasons. Not once has the embassy or the appropriate department of homeland security responded back to us in the prescribed time frame as to why my wife and daughter haven't got the visas awarded to them each time. How can we fix what the embassy feels is not acceptable if we don't know what is wrong?

    November 27, 2008 at 6:24 pm |
  3. Mike, Odenville, AL

    You did a good job there, Ed. I support the President-elect, and frankly trust him to name the people he feels are best suited for positions, regardless of what anyone thinks. At the same time, your questions are valid.

    It does seem to me though that its rather unfair to ask him to name programs he would cut to pay for legislation that isn't written yet. His economic team, which he just named, is tasked with working out the details of his stimulus plan. He said as much when he named them. Part of working out those details will be finding ways to fund the plan. They will then make their recommendations to President-elect Obama. Perhaps then would be the proper time to press him on this.

    November 27, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  4. earle,florida

    This is why I watch "CNN",because of guys like you, Mr. Henry! Bravo....

    November 27, 2008 at 12:26 pm |
  5. chuck

    Ed Henry looked like a total jerk yesterday asking questions to President Elect Obama.Barack Obama is not the Ruling President as yet therefore he was limited in every possibility to give logical answers.This is not the time to force answers to situations form Obama those questions should be directed at the IDIOT George Bush woh is incharge until January 20,2009.

    November 27, 2008 at 10:52 am |
  6. Patrick of Ohio

    Ok it's almost 11 AM the attacks on India are still raging, where is our Fearless Leader Obama to console us and tell us to step up troops in Afghanistan? Where is our lame duck Bush to tell us to keep up the War on Terror and point out the need to contain Iraq to help branch out to Afghanistan? Heck where are the Republican hopefuls to point out there ideas?

    Come on leaders, surely you are going to come out and say something by now.

    November 27, 2008 at 10:47 am |
  7. Gene Penszynski from Vermont

    It's about time that we will have a President once again who allows tough questions to be asked of him by the media unlike G W Bush who apparently threatened anyone asking a tough question with expulsion from the White House Press Corps.

    November 27, 2008 at 9:38 am |

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