Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama at a news conference, March 11, 2011.
President Obama at a news conference, March 11, 2011. Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama's Friday news conference, which reporters were informed of the day earlier, was initially intended to give him a chance to respond to increasing Republican attacks on his energy policy.
With rising gas prices in recent weeks as the backdrop, Republicans have charged that his administration's restrictions on domestic oil production were keeping gas prices higher than they'd be otherwise.
Meanwhile, the president knew he'd be questioned about the partisan fight over federal spending that finds him and the Democratic-controlled Senate on one side of the disagreement confronting on the other side House Republicans who want to make far deeper cuts in discretionary spending than Democrats want to accept.
A Friday news conference would normally give a president a chance to put his talking points out there in time to dominate much of the weekend news shows.
But Japan's earthquake overtook the news conference and will likely dominate the weekend news, too.
Still, the president did provide some fresh quotes for stories on gas prices and the spending battle.
For instance, a day after Speaker John Boehner accused his administration of placing a regulatory vise on domestic energy production, Obama sought to kick the legs out from under that GOP argument by saying they had their facts all wrong.
Not only did he want to increase domestic production but it had already increased during his presidency. Here's his lengthy defense:
First, we need to continue to boost domestic production of oil and gas. Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003. Let me repeat that.
Our oil production reached its highest level in seven years. Oil
production from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-
time high. For the first time in more than a decade, imports
accounted for less than half of what we consumed.
So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production
might make for a good political soundbite, but it doesn't match up
We are encouraging offshore exploration and production. We're
just doing it responsibly. I don't think anybody's forgotten that
we're only a few months removed from the worst oil spill in our
history. So what we've done is to put in place common-sense standards like proving that companies can actually contain an underwater spill.
And oil companies are stepping up. We've approved more than 35 new offshore drilling permits that meet these new safety and environmental standards.
There is more we can do, however. For example, right now, the
industry holds leases on tens of millions of acres, both offshore and
on land, where they aren't producing a thing. So I've directed the
Interior Department to determine just how many of these leases are
going undeveloped and report back to me within two weeks so that we can encourage companies to develop the leases they hold and produce American energy. People deserve to know that the energy they depend on is being developed in a timely manner.
We're also taking steps that will enable us to gather data on
potential gas and oil resources off the Mid and South Atlantic. And
we're working with industry to explore new frontiers of production,
safety measures and containment technology. We're looking at
potential new development in Alaska, both onshore and offshore.
And when it comes to imported oil, we're strengthening our key energy relationships with other producer nations, something that I will discuss with President Rousseff when I visit Brazil next week.
Others in the administration, like press secretary Jay Carney, have made some of the same points in recent days. But the president obviously elevates the message and helps it get more attention.
But the president was giving two, somewhat conflicting messages. On one hand, he sought to communicate a more deliberate version of "drill, baby, drill."
On the other hand, however, he tried to position himself with those who say drilling isn't enough, that renewable energy sources are needed as well.
To this end, he cited the famous energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens who has said that the nation can't drill its way out of its energy problem. Pickens has pitched a vast wind power project in the U.S. heartland as a potential solution, the kind of renewable energy the Obama Administration has been friendly to.
Of course, Pickens is also a big fan of recovering oil from shale which requires process of fracturing rock or fracking, which the administration is less friendly to.
Another political goal for the news conference was for the president to indicate that he could feel the pain, so to speak, of the average American struggling to pay higher gas costs out of an already stressed household budget.
Some of the steps that we've already taken are making a
difference, but obviously if you are in a house that requires you to
commute 50 miles every day to your job, you're not going to be able to sell your house immediately, particularly in this market, and move
closer. You may want to buy a fuel-efficient car, but you may not be
able to afford it, and so you're stuck with the old clunker that's
getting 8 or 10 miles a gallon.
And so — and in fact a lot of folks who are having the toughest
time, who are either unemployed or have low-wage jobs, they're the
ones that are most severely affected, because they're using a higher
portion of their income just to fill up the gas tank.
Acknowledging the calls of some fellow Democrats that he tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Obama left the impression that the administration wouldn't be doing that for the sake of trying to lower prices. He would use it if the "situation should demand it," he said.
But he sounded like he tilted more towards the oil industry and Republican view that the reserve was meant to counter disruptions in supply, not rising oil prices.
On federal spending, Obama tried to strengthen public support for his position that Republican cuts go too far by citing the damage that would be done by the GOP proposal to popular programs like Pell grant assistance to college students and Head Start funding for young children.
The support of the public will be essential if Obama has to eventually make good on a threat to veto any legislation that he considers harmful to the kind of "investments", as he calls them, that will help make the U.S. more competitive in the global economy.
He accused Republicans of going after certain programs partly funded with federal dollars with "riders," not for budget reasons but ideological reasons.
A spending bill Republicans recently passed to fund the government for the rest of the year that contained $61 billion in cuts had riders that would prevent funding for the Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of greenhouse-gas regulations.
Other riders would stop funding to Planned Parenthood because it offers abortion services.
Obama said if Republicans wanted to enact social issue legislation, those issues should be taken up separately and not tacked onto must-pass legislation.
The president tried to cast doubts on the GOP approach by repeating what many experts have, that many of the proposed Republican spending cuts don't really get to the heart nation's deficit and debt problem by coming to grips with spending on entitlements and defense.
I think it's very important when we think about the budget to
understand that our long-term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom. Our long-term debt and deficit are caused primarily by escalating health care costs that we see in Medicare and Medicaid, that's putting huge pressure on the overall budget. And that's why I think it's going to be important for us to have a conversation, after we get the short-term budget done, about how do we really tackle the problem in a comprehensive way.
And that means not just going after Head Start or Corporation for
Public Broadcasting. That's not where the money is. What it means
is, is that we've got to make sure that we're tackling defense
spending, we're tackling tax expenditures and tax loopholes, that
we're tackling entitlements, and that we're thinking about how do we, you know, really get our arms around those things that are driving the debt and deficit in a serious way and in a bipartisan way.
The president's defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was of particular interest, coming as it did the same week as a conservative activist's sting of NPR fundraising officials led to renewed calls from Republicans for defunding public broadcasting.
The CPB receives taxpayer dollars which it then distributes to the TV and radio networks and their affiliate stations. NPR received two percent of its funding from CPB while its affiliate stations get an average of 10 percent of their funding from taxpayers though some rural stations rely on federal dollars to a far higher degree.
On the foreign policy front, the news conference gave Obama the chance to try to clarify his administration's position on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Where the administration stood exactly was somewhat muddied by comments made on Capitol Hill Thursday by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the top U.S. intelligence official.
Clapper told senators he believed Gadhafi would likely survive in power, even though the administration's official position is that it would like nothing better than to see Gadhafi gone.
Asked if he agreed with Clapper or if the intelligence director needed to be "taken to the woodshed," Obama said:
He was making a hardheaded assessment about military capability. And I don't think anybody disputes that Gadhafi has more firepower than the opposition. He wasn't stating policy.
So let me be clear, again, about what our policy as determined by me, the President of the United States, is towards the situation there. I believe that Gadhafi is on the wrong side of history. I believe that the Libyan people are anxious for freedom and the removal of somebody who has suppressed them for decades now. And we are going to be in contact with the opposition, as well as in consultation with the international community, to try to achieve the goal of Mr. Gadhafi being removed from power.
The news conference started and ended, as one might expect, with the topic of Japan. At the beginning of the press conference, the president expressed condolences and outlined the series of actions he had taken to respond to the tragedy, including his conversation with the Japanese Prime Minister Kan and his ordering of U.S. military assistance to the stricken area to help in rescue operations.
At the end of the 47-minute session, a Japanese reporter asked Obama to expand more personally than he already had to the people of the earthquake- damaged Asian nation.
It was yet another example of how the plan of the president and his aides to hammer home their message on gas prices and the spending battle with congressional Republicans was disrupted by the massive earthquake, too.
He obliged the Japanese reporter:
I'm heartbroken by this tragedy. I think when you see what's happening in Japan you are reminded that for all our differences in culture or language or religion, that ultimately humanity is one. And when we face these kinds of natural disasters, whether it's in New Zealand or Haiti or Japan, then you think about your own family and you think how would you feel if you lost a loved one, or if your entire lifesavings were gone because of the devastation.
And the Japanese people are such close friends of ours, and I have such a close personal friendship and connection to the Japanese people — in part because I grew up in Hawaii where I was very familiar with Japanese culture — that that just makes our concerns that much more acute.