i watched most of barack obama's speech and press conference the other night, more by accident than by design, and i couldn't help but notice something that made me angry. (in general, i try to avoid watching a lot of television, since there's almost always something in there that causes my blood pressure to rise.)
the questions that were directed at the new president were generally very well-thought out, intelligent, challenging ones. this was one of the first opportunities that the washington press gallery had to directly question obama, so maybe they were like kids on the first day of school, energised and eager, but their input could hardly have been in greater contrast to that displayed during the seemingly interminable bush years. i routinely remember, during the few press conferences i watched during that time, that i was often given to wonder if the members of the press had had a contest where they decided chiefly to ask questions submitted by preschool children (and even then, the questions were of pretty poor caliber), since they avoided asking anything of the president that might have seemed even slightly tough, that had any whiff of digression from his line of, um, logic.
obama handled most of the questions pretty well, which is to be expected, since we all know he's an articulate man, accustomed to presenting his ideas to groups of people who may or may not agree with him. but his answers, whatever you may think of them, aren't the main issue. what galls me is the implicit message in the behaviour of the press corps. they can ask obama tougher questions precisely because they know he can handle them without looking bad. so the press is apparently allowing itself to interrogate the president only to the extent that he can handle. they stop themselves at the point where they might embarrass him.
of course, in that kind of situation, it's a given that no president will ever have to answer for anything that might have implications that beyond what they can comfortably explain. in the previous administration, this was painfully obvious, but nothing has really changed. in team sport, the threshold for determining individual ability shifts, depending on the skill level of the players involved. what happens in washington seems to follow the same rules. when you have a skilled political player, like an obama, you can increase the difficulty level in order to take advantage of his superior abilities.
the problem with this model is that what is not addressed can be more important than anything. the press can and should ask very tough questions about the preconceptions that form the basis of government policy, even when those questions run the risk of embarrassing the government and the president.
veteran journalist helen thomas offered the only moment of possible awkwardness in the entire press conference (although she had to know that the president would refuse to give the answer we all know anyway) when she asked if there were any middle eastern states in possession of nuclear weapons. beyond this anemic effort, it was very much business as usual. the players have changed, but the game remains the same.