Barack Obama, as everyone knows, is one of the most disciplined, controlled and unflappable political leaders in modern times. Except when he grows testy. And during Tuesday afternoon's press conference, the president's inability to mask mild annoyance was on full display.
Asked whether his rhetoric on Iran had changed in response to criticism from Senate Republicans such as John McCain, Obama at first deftly waved off the question with a joking, "What do you think?" Seconds later Obama channeled Lyndon Johnson's belligerent "I'm the only president you've got" crack. (The milder Obama version: "Only I'm the president of the United States.") Then Obama disingenuously claimed that "the Iranian people...aren't paying a lot of attention to what's being said on Capitol Hill and probably aren't spending a lot of time thinking about what's being said here." (If that level of disinterest were indeed the case, then why did Obama go out of his way earlier in the press conference to solicit a question that had come in by e-mail from Iran?)
Then in response to the next question – about the potential consequences if Iran continued to suppress demonstrations – Obama said with a sharp edge in his voice, "We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. Okay?"
Now I am not going to claim that the First Amendment requires presidents always to wear smiley faces when taking questions from reporters. Nor am I going to deny that occasionally – very occasionally – the short-term mindset of the press pack can be irritating for presidents with a more transcendent view of global events.
Instead, I am bringing this up because I want to tentatively advance a larger theory about the president's public moods. Obama tends to drop his cool veneer and sound exasperated when he knows that he is in the wrong.
When it comes to Iran, Obama has at times spoken in particularly mealy mouthed fashion because he is fearful (as he has repeatedly explained) that his words could be hijacked by the Iranian theocrats. Even during Tuesday's press conference, Obama ducked condemning the Iranian election as totally fraudulent by carefully saying, "We didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitely what happened at polling places throughout the country." Obama – who more than most leaders understands the power of inspirational rhetoric – has been forced to keep his most potent weapon (his moral outrage) sheathed through most of the Iranian crisis.
But it was on a far smaller matter (and not one that often comes up during his morning national security briefings) that Obama really put his ire on the fire. What set the president off was a question trying to link Obama's own smoking history with new legislation giving the FDA the power to regulate nicotine. In response, Obama claimed that the reporter just thought that it was "neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law. But that's fine. I understand. It's a interesting human -- it's a interesting human-interest story." (Words alone cannot convey Obama's mocking tone and his obvious disdain for this "human-interest story.")
Smoking, of course, is the secret vice that humanizes Obama. He cannot be that perfect – that in control of himself – if he cannot kick his yen to inhale carcinogenic smoke. Obama, in fact, likened himself (maybe a bit melodramatically) to "folks who go to AA." Small wonder Obama becomes annoyed when he is asked for a monthly update on his cigarette consumption.
The truth is that the Obama White House certainly does not resist human-interest stories when they portray the president in a favorable glow. Obama's grumpiness about the smoking question was not about an intrusive boxers-or-briefs press corps, but about the president's own frailties. As Obama knows, dogs make the best Washington friends. But when a president needs to kick something, there is always the obliging White House press corps.