President Obama had the unpleasant task of addressing reporters at the White House following the Democrats' disastrous midterm election, but both he and the assembled press were well-prepared with the standard accoutrements. Reporters asked predictably substance-free questions like, "So, what's the new word for shellacking," show-offy questions like "are we winning" against ISIS ("When do we get to win, Sarge?!?"), and questions we already know won't be answered, like how big will the President go on immigration. The president was ready with long stretches of boilerplate that we've all heard before, like that he'll look for common ground with Republicans, but studiously avoided tipping his hand on immigration, or anything else.
The lone exception was CBS News' Major Garrett, who put on a veritable training camp of White House reporting techniques, and managed to get some useful answers out of the President. He first deployed two of my favorite techniques, the Shop and the Threeway. I always ask my questions in threes because I don't get that many chances to ask, and Garrett did the same thing here, hitting the President with a trio of queries about specific policy implications of the midterms, while also shopping a Mitch McConnell quote for a reaction. The president tried to cut him off with a joke, but Garrett plowed on through his question:
GARRETT: Moments before you walked out here, sir, Mitch McConnell said, and I quote, if you in fact use your executive authority to legalize a certain number of millions of undocumented workers, it would poison the well, and would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
Couple of specifics...
OBAMA: Do I have to write these down? [pulls out pen and writes]
GARRETT: The Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans will ask you to repeal the medical device tax as part of the mechanism to the Affordable Care Act, and repatriate by reforming the corporate tax code, without touching the individual tax code. To use your words, are any of those three lines you will not cross?
Ordinarily, this kind of over-talking will shut a reporter down somewhat, but a well-regarded veteran like Garrett can get away with pressing on questions of real substance.
The president didn't give up much on immigration, other than an eye-of-the-beholder assurance that the midterm result wouldn't necessarily change his calculation on it, but on the medical device tax, he seemed open to ideas. On tax repatriation, the president was fairly clear that any such plan would have to come along with infrastructure spending, rather than funneling that revenue into more tax cuts.
But on Keystone, Garrett's question gave the president a chance to make a fairly convincing argument against rushing it through, citing, among other things, the record-low gas prices that Fox News thinks are such bad news:
"On Keystone, there is an independent process. It is moving forward. I have given parameters in terms of how I think about it. Is it going to create jobs and reduce gas prices that have been coming down?"
"Is it going to be, on net something that doesn't increase climate change that we have to grapple with?"
"I will note, while this debate about Canadian oil has been raging, keep in mind this is Canadian oil, this isn't U.S. oil, while the debate has been raging, we have seen that some of the biggest increases in American oil production and American natural gas production in our history."
"And so Keystone I just consider as one small aspect of a broader trend that is really positive for the American people."
Shorter Obama: Fuck your dirty Canadian oil, we got this!
The rest of the presser was pretty pointless, as the most glaring questions went unanswered, and unanswered at length. At least now, we know President Obama lets John Boehner win at golf.
Here's the full exchange between President Obama and Major Garrett: