On Monday afternoon, President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House to break the unsurprising news that the United States has not decided to provide lethal arms to Ukraine. That’s a decision I kind of agree with, but not necessarily for the reasons the president cites. There’s every chance that Vladimir Putin will continue to weather sanctions, but arming Ukraine, while certainly well within reason, would be the equivalent of knocking the chip off of Putin’s shoulder, so we shouldn’t do it unless we’re prepared to enter an intensely escalated brawl immediately. Like a wise man once said, “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”
There were also questions about the US/Germany relationship, but the real star of the press conference was LA Times and Trib White House Correspondent Christi Parsons, who really made the most of the setting to get something newsworthy out of the president.
Joint press conferences with world leaders are a mixed blessing for reporters, because they almost always oblige a president to take questions when the otherwise would probably rather not, but the SOP is that they only take 4 questions, two from US reporters and two from reporters from the foreign leader’s home country. There’s a lot of unspoken pressure to stay on-topic, as well, even if the topic is unlikely to yield much news, and you’re only getting a couple of shots at it. The first question from an American reporter was a waste of time that essentially went like this: “Mr. President, could you please recite 10 minutes of on-topic boilerplate we’ve already heard at me?”
Parsons, on the other hand, showed great situational awareness by deploying a multi-pack of smart questions on the ongoing negotiations with Iran, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to the US in March, during which President Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu. She asked if there should be a further extension of the talks past March, and asked a pair of pointed questions about Bibi’s visit. “Some have suggested that you are outraged by the Israeli prime minister’s decision to address Congress. Is that so?” Parsons asked, adding “And how would you advise Democrats who are considering a boycott?”
On the first point, the president laid down a fairly strong marker, saying that beyond a last-minute delay to dot and cross various letters of the alphabet, he doesn’t “see a further extension being useful.”
On the second two questions, the president didn’t actually say whether he was outraged by Netanyahu and Speaker John Boehner’s end-run, instead drawing some fairly big laughs with a not-at-all-veiled shot at Netanyahu’s ill-advised overreach, and completely ignoring the question of whether Democrats should attend the speech:
“We have a practice of not meeting with of leaders right before elections, two weeks before their elections, as much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she would probably not have received an invitation to the White House. And I suspect she wouldn’t have asked for one.”
Oh-to-the-snap. Aside from telling the world that Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t know how to act, the president also sent a crystal clear message to Congressional Democrats, some of whom used to be on board the Boehner-Bibi train destined for a collision with the President’s negotiations with Iran, that they will get no political cover to attend the speech from him.
Ordinarily, in a case where there’s a disagreement within the party, the White House will make its own position known, but also add that Democrats should do what they feel is right. They even do this when they don’t really mean it, because it allows the White House to avoid narratives about waning influence if a few Democrats peel off. Obama’s complete silence on the question was a loud, clear message. It will be a long two years for any Democrat who shows up, and believe me, he wanted them to know it.
Here’s the full video of the joint presser: