Obama at the BP Press Conference

Obama at the 5/27 press conference. Credit: US White HouseCompetence. Obama oozes it. He always seems at ease during these press conferences, calmly slapping away questions like so many flies (yes, I’ll admit it, the only reason I’m employing this simile is so I can link to this really cool video of the President killing a fly just as it lands on his hand. You’ve seen it before but watch it again! It’s cool! He’s cool!).

And there was much substance too; just about everyone knew going in that this press conference would be all about BP and the oil spill in the Gulf, and the president was prepared. He defended his administration’s response to the spill, he accepted the blame when necessary, and at the end, he even deployed what has become a trademark Obama tactic: He utilized a seemingly innocent question from one of his girls — this one from Malia — as an opportunity to reinforce how deeply he feels about a particular issue and to place everything into warm and fuzzy context.

Somehow, Malia’s innocent Daddy, have you plugged the hole provided a segue way to a brief monologue about his love for the environment, his concern for the future, and his feelings about Simon Cowell’s departure from American ldol (ok, everything except for the American Idol bit, but one can never be sure), which caused me to wonder, for a brief moment, if Malia had actually uttered those words. No matter. It was great television.

There were a few awkward moments however, and all came towards the end. The first came when Chip Reid of CBS News asked the president whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, former director of the U.S. Minerals Management Service — the agency within the Interior Department responsible for regulating offshore drilling — had been fired or if she had resigned. The president said he didn’t know, and when Jackie Calmes of the New York Times followed up with the same question, the president eventually replied: “Come on Jackie, I don’t know.”

To the untrained ear (my ear, I suppose), this response almost sounded like an admission from the president that he wasn’t completely in control of the situation. After all, the employment status of the top official in his administration responsible for regulating offshore drilling seems to be precisely the type of personnel decision the president would ‘know’ something about unless, of course, he was attempting to signal that, yes, he didn’t fire her because she had resigned, in which case why not just say it? And if he did fire her, why not just say that? So confusing.

The second awkward moment came when the inimitable Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House corps, asked President Obama the following:

When are you going to get out of Afghanistan? Why are we continuing to kill and die there? What is the real excuse and don’t give us this Bushism “if we don’t go there they’ll all come here.”

Her question was incredibly important for two reasons. First for President Obama’s seemingly exasperated response. The President outlined the Bush administration’s reasoning for entering the war in the first place as if he was explaining the utility of Facebook to his dotty grandmother. Second, because his reasoning was accepted wholesale by the press. Most of the press conference related news coverage on Thursday evening focused on President Obama’s oil spill responses.

This is especially troubling because it seems to be an indication that, for now, the press has moved on from Afghanistan. The BP spill is quite important, and could have long-lasting implications for the gulf and the rest of the country, but more members of the press should be asking about Afghanistan, if only because the 1,000th US soldier has just died there. And, oh yes, the Senate has just approved a $58.8 billion war spending bill that is likely to be approved by the House.

So, Ms. Thomas, for your continuing courage: Bravo!