It would be hard to find a more striking contrast of presidential behavior than what transpired in the course of just a few minutes on cable news early Wednesday. As Barack Obama spoke to reporters in Chicago about the grave concerns and frustrations that the economic crisis portends, George W. Bush was making turkey and dog jokes on the White House lawn.
If one hadn't the faintest clue about the American political process, it would be downright confusing to be told that the latter individual was officially in charge. But this is the status of the White House transition: the public is forced to watch as the man without the certified power sounds competent and concerned while the one controlling the levers does a decent imitation of Nero.
In one particularly poignant ten-minute moment, the camera went from Obama accusing leaders in Washington of failing to provide "bold clear decisive steps to deal with our economic problems" to Bush discussing the pardoning of his "feathered friends."
"Just to be safe," said the outgoing president, "I will be pardoning a second bird in the unlikely event the main act chickens out..." Get it? ... "Turkeys are not only the ones on edge this morning. You see, it turns out the Rose Garden is Barney's turf. So the press corps is a little nervous as well." The latter line was a reference to the president's dog recently biting a reporter from Reuters.
"This is an election year, so it is fitting that the names of these two birds were chosen through the Democratic process," Bush went on. "After a long, drawn out election season, the people finally spoke. The name of the ticket sent here to the White House was Pumpkin and Pecan. Pumpkin is right there. Pecan is in an undisclosed location."
It is a Thanksgiving tradition for the president to pardon a turkey. So Bush is excused on that front. And certainly, the hospitalization of his mother was weighing on his mind (he gave thanks for the fact that she was "doing well.") But contrast the geniality of the White House affair to the generally serious and occasionally dire tone that marked Obama's event, in which he announced the formation of an Economic Recovery Adviser board headed by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.
"I think [having a third press conference in three days] speaks to is the frustration of eight years in which middle class wages have gone down, or in real terms their family incomes have been reduced," said the president-elect. "It speaks to my frustration about all the families I've met over the last two years that have lost their health insurance or their pensions are in danger, young people who can't afford to go to college. It expresses frustration about our inability to tackle some of the long-term problems that we've been facing and have been talking about for decades, whether it's health care, energy, an education system that's been slipping behind in critical areas like math or science. And most of all, I think frustration with the incapacity of Washington to take bold, clear, decisive steps to deal with our economic problems."
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