Even within the White House complex, the opposing teams each have their own turfs. In the halls of power the Oval Office, the East Room and the Rose Garden the President oversees his domain. But just a few steps away sits the White House briefing room, a hotbox of cameras and television lights, where the President holds no real dominion. Here the press corps a ragtag assortment of denim-clad cameramen, unkempt writers and preening television talkers makes its home. When government officials come to visit, they enter a different space and are generally asked to prove themselves. Questions fly fast.
Barack Obama scheduled his Tuesday press conference, like the three that came before, on home turf, in the Rose Garden, just outside his office. But owing to the heat, the event was moved inside at the last minute to the foreign soil of the briefing room. And the press corps, which has been deferential through repeated prime-time pressers in the East Room, began to assert itself as never before in his tenure.
Ten of the 13 correspondents who asked the President a question quickly barked follow-ups, repeatedly insisting that the President respond to their queries. Two veterans of the briefing room, Politico's Mike Allen and Hearst's Helen Thomas, shouted questions to the President out of order, which he did not answer (and did not appear to appreciate). And ABC News' Jake Tapper compared the President to the Star Trek character Spock.
At several points, Obama found himself jousting with the newly feisty crowd. He tried twice, without any success, to limit a reporter to only a single question. He criticized McClatchy's Margaret Talev for prefacing a personal question about his smoking habit with a discussion of its policy implications. "I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," Obama chided. The President accused Tapper of playing "ombudsman" for pointing out that the President had declined to answer the third question of another reporter, USA Today's David Jackson, about health care.
Jackson was not the only reporter the President cut off. When NBC's Chuck Todd asked for the second and third time what consequences Iran would face for violating the human rights of election demonstrators, Obama protested. "I answered. I answered," the President said, giving no concrete answer at all. "I answered your question, which is that we don't know how this is going to play out. O.K.?" Obama queried rhetorically, clearly not caring what Todd thought.
The tone of the exchanges never became hostile, but it did have a sporting feeling to it, as if the press had suddenly found itself on a basketball court, exchanging teasing taunts with the President. "You're pitching. I'm catching," Obama said to Tapper after he compared Obama's thinking to that of a Vulcan. "The reference to Spock is that a crack on my ears?" Tapper assured him it was not. When Bloomberg's Hans Nichols asked the President to predict the peak of the unemployment rate, the President smiled again, as if he was dodging a bad pass. "Since you just threw back at us our last prognosis, let's not engage in another one," he said.
At the end of the event, Obama was asked to respond to the images of a young woman named Neda dying in a Tehran street after being shot in the chest. "Heartbreaking," he said. Thomas, who has asked questions of every President since John F. Kennedy, then interrupted him, asking him why he would not release disturbing images of U.S. military abuse of detainees. "Hold on a second, Helen. That's a different question," the President responded, though he never took the time to answer it.
It was hard to imagine any of these cheeky exchanges occurring in the Rose Garden or the East Room, where acoustic requirements require reporters to use microphones to speak with the President. But it was the President's choice to cross over to the other side of the White House complex Thursday, and he got a glimpse of what his press secretary and friend Robert Gibbs has to deal with almost every day. Chances are, he won't be back in that enemy territory for a long time to come.