Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Crafty Press Conference

President Obama was at his most conciliatory at his press conference. To listen to him, you might think that the budget differences between Democrats and Republicans are about as divisive as figuring out which brand of yoghurt to purchase. Obama is a master of sanding down differences, at least rhetorically, emitting a blur of words to disguise conflict. He returned to his familiar evocation of "folks" several times. What "folks," specifically? He never said.

Obama was similarly vague when he said that "somebody" had visited him as part of writing a book about the 10 letters he receives each day. That "somebody" visited him yesterday. Surely Obama knew his or her name. But he never said. As David Bromwich has observed, Obama likes to keep things vague and to talk down to much of his audience, at least when he isn't addressing his fellow elites. Then he talks about people clinging to their guns.

But even Obama couldn't disguise that he feels a little embarrassed about his budget cuts. He made a wincing expression about lopping off Pell grants for the summer, claiming that it would allow him to maintain the viability of the program for the rest of the year. Ditto for heating costs. Somehow helping people to insulate their homes becomes less important when energy costs are down. In any case, the cuts are mostly trivial, at least in relation to the deficit. Social Security and Medicare are not on the table, at least not yet. The GOP, it appears, is talking more seriously about curbing entitlement programs. Now that could get interesting, especially if it wields Obama's own deficit commission against him. For his part, Obama says he is ready to negotiate a deal with Republicans. They should take him up on the offer.

Obama was clearly more at home in discussing Egypt, which turned out OK. At least it seems to have gone well in the sense that a virulently anti-American regime does not appear in the offing. Obama claimed that at every "juncture" history will show he was on the side of the angels. Still, he took a pounding from conservatives and neoconservatives who said he was too slow to embrace the Egyptian revolution. If Obama gets really lucky, then the upheaval will jeopardize the regime in Iran. But that seems about as likely as serious deficit reduction.

It seems clear that in everything he does over the next two years, Obama is fervently going to cast himself as the moderate. That means he's going to leave as little room between himself and the GOP as possible. Obama is showing that he is a master of self-preservation.