White House press conferences are often pallid and pre-scripted affairs. But President Obama's occasionally testy exchange with reporters this week revealed a key dimension of his approach to the presidency.
The question was Iran, and the charges leveled by Republican critics were that he'd been too "timid and passive" in denouncing the repression of political dissent. After acknowledging the "genuine passion" of those critics, Obama asserted: "But only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests."
In other words, it's easy to appear on television or speak in the Senate and toss out popular applause lines about the evils of tyranny. It's much harder to sit in the Oval Office and calibrate your language, knowing that every word you say will be distributed and dissected around the world.
When you have "responsibilities," the president was saying, you can't afford to see the world in black and white — or even bright green, the color of the Iranian protestors. And you can't indulge your emotions and reach for the quick headline or sound bite. "I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle," he snapped at reporters who pressed him for sharper words and clearer threats. "I'm not. OK?"
OK. But if Obama wants to avoid the florid rhetoric that simply "makes us feel good about ourselves," as one aide told the Washington Post, if he wants to focus on America's real "national security interests," the next question is this: What are those interests? And how will the president pursue them?
At the press conference, Obama said that his "position coming into this office" was to focus on two "core" issues: "Making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders."
On the first point, the president is absolutely right. During the 2004 campaign, both George Bush and John Kerry agreed that the number-one foreign policy issue was controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and that priority has not changed. A nuclear-armed Iran would profoundly alter the power balance throughout the Middle East and directly threaten the existence of Israel.
No matter what happens on the streets of Tehran, that remains the primary focus in Iranian-American relations and the biggest threat to our "national security interests." No matter how badly the theocrats ruling Iran treat their own people, the American president has to keep open diplomatic channels and keep alive the possibility of negotiations — no matter how faint that prospect seems at the moment. As one Obama aide warned, the centrifuges Iran could use to enrich uranium "are still spinning."
"Exporting terrorism" is almost as dangerous. Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza is a constant source of tension and turmoil throughout the region.
In effect, Obama came into office enunciating a version of the "containment" policy that dominated America's thinking about the Soviet Union for decades (and also applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq before Bush 43 replaced containment with invasion). What you do inside your own country is your business; when you start to threaten your neighbors, it becomes our business.
But here's the problem: the world has changed since Obama took office. New technologies enabled young Iranians to voice their hopes, connect with each other, organize an election campaign, protest the fraudulent outcome — and show the world the bleeding face of tyranny.
That blood demanded a response. Decency was in conflict with diplomacy. If Obama failed to express his outrage at the violence, he would jeopardize his moral stature. But if he went too far, he would jeopardize his ability to engage and influence the Iranian regime.
Overreaction carries other risks as well: as Obama put it, the United States should not be a "foil" for Iran, and give the mullahs a chance to discredit the legitimate protestors as tools of the Great Satan. And it should not raise false hopes or make promises it cannot keep.
Yes, the president said, he would "bear witness" to the "remarkable opening within Iranian society." But he would not use American power to enlarge that opening. The cavalry was not coming. "Ultimately," he stated clearly, "this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be."
The situation is delicate and difficult. Obama has to honor American values while pursuing American interests. And the young president clearly understands that only he can shoulder those responsibilities and reconcile those conflicts. OK.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.