It's too soon to say that Barack Obama is measuring the White House drapes, but he did size up an East Room press conference today. In a hotel ballroom here he met the press with great formality and all the trappings:
Formal podium (minus the faux-presidential seal he test-drove last week), gleaming American flags, reporters seated in tidy rows marked off by velvet ropes.
Opened with a formal statement on the need for economic opportunity and the virtues of his energy policy.
Covered topics ranging from the Supreme Court to the Zimbabwean political crisis.
The only thing missing was Helen Thomas ending things with the ritual "Thank you, Mr. President."
In this way, Obama tackled the news of the day. He denounced the Court's decision to limit the death penalty to crimes involving homicide. He straddled the gun control issue that is expected to dominate high court news on Thursday. He brushed off Ralph Nader's charge that his political rhetoric is too "white," saying sadly that, "Nader is trying to get attention. It's a shame." He endeavored to sail above an intra-party battle on electronic surveillance, called on the United Nations to intervene in Zimbabwe and welcomed a debate this fall on whether the Republicans have the right strategy to fight terrorism.
Whether he will ever get past this dress-rehearsal stage is a question for the autumn, but if he does, Americans may find themselves watching someone who wisecracks less than George W. Bush and rambles less than Bill Clinton. The Obama style occupies the zone where gravitas meets somnambulance.
Newsy answers like the one in which he embraced the death penalty as a possible punishment for child rape arrived in the same methodical, yet laconic tone he uses for boilerplate like his explanation yet again why his about-face on public financing is not really a change at all.
Chesty answers like his warning to Republicans not to "run the same playbook they ran in 2004" because the American people won't buy it landed almost as pillowy as his deliberately vague replies (Bill Clinton is "a brilliant politician" and was "an outstanding President." In short, if the goal of any presidential news conference is to get out unscathed, Obama may have what it takes. Can he use the forum to inspire, to engage, to delight? "Thanks guys!" he called as he walked off, leaving the question unanswered.