Leonard Doyle: Obama rejects swagger of Bush for a sober analysis of economic crisis

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The Independent Online

There were no revelations at the first formal press conference of Barack Obama's presidency. But it was striking nonetheless to Americans who realised that at a time of unprecedented crisis they have put a grown-up in the White House. Here is a president who speaks in complete sentences and answers questions thoughtfully.

In the fancy East Room, where gold curtains swoop down and vast crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, Mr Obama gave a command performance on Monday night while taking his case to the American people for his $800bn economic recovery package.

There were no nerves or fluffed lines or malapropisms – indeed one of his answers went on for eight minutes. As soon as the teleprompters disappeared, he began taking questions from the media and, for the 49 million prime-time viewers across the nation, it was time to listen up.

More professor than president, Mr Obama walked his audience through the shocking state of the US economy and the need for rapid and unprecedented measures to fix it. This was no pep talk aimed at ginning up the swooning stock market. This was a masterclass rather than a press conference and Mr Obama gave what amounted to a seminar on the perilous economic mess he has inherited.

The faux cowboy swagger and mangled prose of his predecessor, George W Bush, was a distant memory and there was none of the mesmerising dazzle of Bill Clinton.

Instead Mr Obama used his time to deliver a frightening message to politicians and the public that any more fiddling would create a bonfire of the US economy and "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". He even turned a question about baseball and the shocking news that the country's best-known player, Alexander Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, had used performance-enhancing drugs into a parable for these times.

This was "depressing news on top of what has been a flurry of depressing items", the President said of the revelations, adding that it was a lesson that "when you try to take shortcuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career".

Ever since Ronald Reagan's day, presidents' diaries have been cleared to prepare for the press conferences. Mr Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, had his staff impersonate journalists during his rehearsals at the White House. Always nervous about the media, George Bush avoided press conferences where possible. When he did meet the press, he used frat boy humour to deflect difficult questions, or just equivocated.

Mr Obama seems to embrace risk and he went to Indiana first thing on Monday to hold a live "town hall meeting" in a place where unemployment has jumped from 4 per cent to 15.3 per cent in the space of a year. The audience was unscreened and some of the questions were hostile. Yesterday he was in Florida, which has one of the worst home repossession rates in of the country.

The President's message was stark. Without quick actions "our nation will sink into a crisis that at some point we may not be able to reverse," he said. Then came the dash back to Washington for his press conference and the high stakes game of using the White House as a bully pulpit to get Congress to do his bidding. For this high-pressure job, Americans have chosen a low-blood-pressure President.

The first question he faced was about his gloomy assessment. "Do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?" he was asked.

"No, no, no, no," he replied, "I think what I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of."