So after breaking his principled pledge to enter into the public financing system for the general election, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., held a press conference Friday.
Somewhat surprisingly, very few of the questions were about this flip-flop on taking public funds.
I wasn’t traveling with the campaign — ABC News’ Sunlen Miller was there — and she and I conferred beforehand about what she would ask the senator.
Here’s an abbreviated version of how it went down.
Obama, standing at the banks of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla., began by talking about Sen. John McCain’s latest flip-flop, this one on off-shore drilling.
“I understand how badly people are struggling to pay gas prices that have reached well over $4 a gallon in many places,” Obama said. “That’s why I’ve proposed taxing the record, multibillion-dollar profits of oil companies and using some of that money to pay for a $1,000 middle-class tax cut that would go to 95 percent of all families and offset some of these rising costs in fuel. It’s also why I’ve proposed a second fiscal stimulus package that would mail another round of rebate checks to the American people. These steps, along with investigations of possible market manipulations in the oil markets, would ease some of the short-term pain of these gas prices. But what wouldn’t do a thing to lower gas prices is John McCain’s new proposal, a proposal adopted by George Bush as well, to open up Florida’s coastline to offshore drilling.
“John McCain’s proposal, George Bush’s proposal to drill offshore here in Florida and other places around the country would not provide families with any relief this year, next year, five years from now,” he said.
Question 1 — When would he consider drilling?
Obama: “What I know having spoken to experts in this field is that we can’t drill our way out of the problems that we’re facing.”
Question 2 was about Obama’s flip-flop on public financing, specifically about his assertion that the public financing system is broken. How so?
“What we’ve got as a system — as I’ve said yesterday — that where we see 527s, the RNC, or the DNC outside groups raising vast amounts of money, much of it undisclosed from special interests, from PACs, from lobbyists, and that amount of money last election cycle dwarfed some of the money that was spent within the system,” Obama said.
“Now, if you look at what we’ve done, we don’t take PAC money, we don’t money from federal registered lobbyists, we’ve now imposed those same rules on the DNC, 90 percent of our contributions are from small donors and what we have done is to create a system that allows us to free ourselves from dependence on special interests and from lobbyists,” Obama said. “That stands in contrast to Sen. McCain’s operations right where he says he’s in the system and yet a huge proportion of his money is raised from special interests, from lobbyists, I don’t think that’s a recipe for reform. I am a sponsor of a public financing bill that can strengthen the system because I recognize not every presidential candidate may be able to do the same things that we’ve done in this campaign. And so my commitment to fixing the system remains, but in this campaign it’s my belief that in fact what we’ve built is something that frees ourselves from special interests and allows us to run an effective campaign as well.”
Question 3 — What would he have done in the Elian Gonzales case?
(Elian’s Miami relatives protested Obama’s appearance since two of his top advisers — Gregg Craig and Eric Holder — were involved in the case on the “wrong” side. Craig represented Elian’s father in the custody case; Holder worked for the Justice Department that seized Elian to return him to Cuba.)
“That was eight years ago, and obviously it was a wrenching situation for the families involved,” Obama said. “But I’m running for president in 2008, and my focus is on how do we create a US-Cuba policy that will create political freedom on that island and allow the people who live there to prosper. That’s not what we have right now and I outlined just as recently as a month ago an extensive approach that I think can lead to liberty in Cuba.”
Question 4 — In 2000, almost 20,000 votes in the Jacksonville area, almost all African American, were cast out and not counted. Does he think Bush won fair and square?
“I’m running in 2008, that was eight years ago,” Obama said. “So my focus is moving forward — how do we protect voters who are going to be registering in record numbers here, and are going to want to turn out and vote?”
Question 5 was about the Fortune Magazine report that Obama had backtracked on his primary position on NAFTA.
Obama said, “We’ve distributed the full transcript, right? So you guys can make your own judgment as to whether I had changed my position on NAFTA. I think what you will see from the transcript is — rather than the impression of a reporter — is that in fact that my position hasn’t changed. What I said very clearly in that interview was that I have no doubt that there was some overheated rhetoric in the midst of a primary campaign, but that my essential position has remained unchanged not just during this campaign, but for the last five years.”
Question 6 was whether Obama supports broadening the use of nuclear power.
Obama said, “Nuclear power should be in the mix when it comes to energy. … I don’t think it’s our optimal energy source because we haven’t figured out how to store the waste safely or recycle the waste.”
Question 7 was about reports of Israeli military exercises possibly to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Without access to the actual, detailed intelligence, you know, I want to be careful about characterizing what was done and whether it was appropriate or not,” Obama said. “I think Israel is entirely justified to be concerned about the constant harangues by Iran and Pres. Ahmadinejad and Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas and so there is no doubt that Iran poses an extraordinary threat to Israel and Israel is always justified in making decisions that will provide for its security.”
Question 8 — Does Obama have a lot of work to do in Florida?
“I’ve got a lot of work to do everywhere,” he said.
Question 9 came from ABC News’ Sunlen Miller, asking about two points Obama made when explaining his public financing flip-flop. He said there were threats of GOP 527s, when there aren’t any currentl. (See Politico’s Jonathan Martin’s excellent report, “GOP third-party effort nonexistent.”) Obama also said PAC money and lobbyist money fund McCain and the RNC, but in reality they account for less than 2 percent of McCain’s money and about 1 percent of the RNC’s money. Doesn’t that seem like a thin argument for something so important? Sunlen asked.
“Well, Sunlen, you and I both know that 527s pop up pretty quickly and have enormous influence and we’ve seen them. There was an ad, one in South Dakota, by Floyd Brown, I think, where it took a speech that I had made extolling faith and made it seem as if I had said that America was a Muslim nation. We’ve already seen attacks on my wife from, you know, the Tennessee Republican Party. I don’t think that I am off the wall here to say that, you know, a lot of outside groups are potentially going to be going after us hard.”
Obama continued: “With respect to the RNC, you’ve got Carly Fiorina, who is McCain’s chairwoman, saying, bragging about how much money the RNC is raising and how that money is going to be used to attack me and promote John McCain. So this isn’t speculative on my part. I think it’s something that we’ve seen in the past, and it’s something that we continue to be concerned about. In terms of PAC money and lobbyist money — you have the statistics right in front of you — but I would suggest that if you look at where John McCain has been raising money in the last several months that a sizable proportion of his bundlers have been from federal lobbyists.”
“This was a highly imperfect piece of legislation, and it’s not the legislation I would have drafted,” Obama said. “I have said before that I thought it was a mistake to provide immunity to phone companies not so much because I’m interested in punishing phone companies per se. Let’s assume that they were acting on good faith based on representations that the administration had made, but because we don’t really know what those representations by the White House were. And I think what’s clear is, is that the way the program operated broke the law that was existing at the time.”
Obama continued: “On the other hand, what I’ve also seen and learned is the degree to which the underlying program itself is in fact necessary to help prevent terrorist attacks. I think it’s very important that we have the capacity to monitor and track individuals who could potentially do the United States harm. My ultimate goal has always been to make sure that we’ve got somebody whose overseeing the executive branch so that it can’t simply assert a national security interest and then wiretap whoever it wants, but rather that there’s some check because of the exclusivity provision that’s provided in this bill because it says you’ve got to run thru FISA and a court outside of the executive branch — it provides the oversight that I sought. I also think that you’ve got an inspector general in place who is going to be able to at least investigate what exactly happened to make sure that we don’t see these kinds of executive branch abuses in the future. And my intention is when I’m president of the United States to have a thorough review of all these programs and to make sure that if there continue to be loopholes or loose ends that I believe are undermining civil liberties, then we are going to get those fixed.”
Question 11 — Will he be at the FISA vote?
“I’m not sure when the vote is scheduled,” he said.
Question 12 — Should the president’s top aides have to testify before Congress in the investigation into the fired US Attorneys?
“I think that nobody is above the law,” Obama said. “If there are specific assertions of executive privilege, then you know those can be examined. But I think this notion, this blanket notion that you can’t subpoena White House aides where there’s evidence of genuine wrongdoing, I think is completely misguided. You know, as I recall, Richard Nixon mounted similar arguments. That’s not how we operate. We’re a nation of laws, and not men and women so … that’s a precedent I don’t mind living with as president of the United States. I think this is not a situation where, I think, the Democrats are trying to go on a fishing expedition. We’ve got direct evidence that was provided by Republican appointed attorney generals, or US attorneys, that, that they had been pushed in the direction of political prosecutions. That violates every tradition we have of an independent US attorneys office that’s gonna prosecute the law without regard to partisan interests.”
Question 13 was about how McCain, in Canada on Friday, implied Obama is a protectionist, and the McCain campaign called Obama an opportunist for his public financing decision. If he hadn’t pulled in $265 million, would he have made the same decision?
“That’s a question you have to ask John McCain because he was all over the map on public financing, right?” Obama said. “At the beginning of this process, when I think they were projecting raising enormous amounts of money, he said he’d consider opting out of the system. Later when his campaign had collapsed for awhile, he said he was definitely in the public financing system. You know, I’m not gonna speculate on what we would have done. What I’m looking at is what we’ve been able to build.
“In terms of Senator McCain’s comments — what’s interesting to me is that he chose to talk about trade in Canada instead of in Ohio or Michigan. (Michigan) Gov. (Jennifer) Granholm was with me today and talked about the state having lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs since George Bush took office. You know, I think Sen. McCain should have shared some of his views there to American voters. But, I repeat, I believe in trade, and you know I had an opportunity to talk to (Canadian) Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper. I believe that the U.S. has an enormous interest in maintaining robust trade relationships with Canada and Mexico, and I expect those to continue under an Obama administration.
Question 14 was something about what he wants voters in Florida to know about him.
“What I’d like them to know is that I come to politics because of my own story,” Obama said. “Somebody who wasn’t born into wealth or privilege but was given extraordinary opportunities, partly because of a family that cared for me and gave me a great education, but partly because of the country that allows you to make it if you try. And that I think is the essence of the American dream, I think that’s the essence of the Florida dream, and what I want to make sure of is that that dream continues for the next generation and for generations to come. That’s what’s slipping away right now, and that’s what we’re fighting for in this election.”
Lastly, Obama was asked about New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg defending him before a Jewish audience on the issue of smears.
“I appreciate Mike Bloomberg,” Obama said. “I think he’s a terrific mayor.”
So … 15 questions.
Three of them were about Obama’s broken promise, 12 were not.
And while certainly it’s important to ask Obama about FISA and other matters, I am rather flummoxed that the press conference was so bereft of conflict.
What do you think?