Jacob Heilbrunn

A Defiant Obama Press Conference

Russian president Vladimir Putin slouches like a "bored schoolboy in the back of the schoolroom"? That was just one of the feisty and rather undiplomatic statements that President Obama made during his press conference made today. It must have made Putin sit bolt upright. Obama did everything but call Putin a lout. As the Washington Post notes, it isn't even true. Putin is about as buff as it gets. With all the crunches and judo he practices, his posture is great. Engaging in a smackdown of Putin's figure is about as low a blow as Obama could deliver. So who was being childish?

Maybe Obama was channeling the spirit of George W. Bush. Obama wasn't willing to concede much ground to any of his questioners. He did come close to admitting that he made a mistake when it came to talking about surveillance programs, then drew back and simply said that the virulence of the public debate showed that his take had been "undermined." Yes, it has. Obama's response to the uproar over surveillance was to offer a few token concessions. When it comes to surveillance, he announced that he would back tweaking the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates, create a few safeguards. But that was about it. And when the matter of Edward Snowden was raised, Obama bristled. He didn't say Snowden slouches but he did declare that the former National Security employee was no "patriot." OK. But it remains the fact that he triggered a debate about something that Obama doesn't want to be debating. Obama announced,

Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate but not always fully informed way.

But, Mr. President, how could it be otherwise? Obama himself either fibbed or misspoke on the Jay Leno show on Tuesday night when he once more claimed that massive surveillance is not taking place of e-mails and phone calls. It is. The kind of "lawful process" that Obama is outlining would never have occured. Had the administration fessed up from the outset, or sought to have a discussion about surveillance, then maybe something on the lines of what Obama proposed in his press conference might have occurred. But the blunt fact is that neither the intelligence services nor the White House has a smidgen of interest in discussing its proclivity for scooping up as much information as possible about average Americans.

In discussing these matters Obama was stony, obdurate, refractory. It was only when healthcare came up that he became impassioned. He regards questions about national security as a pesky intrusion. Not so when it comes to healthcare. He defined his battle with the congressional Republicans as a choice between cavalierly destroying the economy or providing thirty million Americans with health benefits. Republicans, by contrast, will contend that the health of the economy can only be restored by focusing on government spending and shutting down Obama's ambitious new program.

This, not questions about Benghazi or Russia or Syria, is what will determine the course of his presidency. The next few months will form a crucible for both Obama and the GOP. If the president's defiant mood is anything to go by, the fall will feature a battle royale that will make the frictions with Russia look mild by comparison. The 2014 midterm elections will ride on the outcome. Who will blink first?