Notes from a briefing room press insider…
For the Afghan Speech Bingo Card: While POTUS continued to work the phone tree of world leaders to outline (without specific numbers, the WH says) the new Af-Pak strategy to be unveiled tomorrow night at West Point, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs hit on several of the speech’s points in response to briefing questions from reporters. A laundry list: relationship with Pakistan, already made “stronger” through engagement and diplomacy; cost (!)–noting that this is not an “open-ended” commitment, though RG warned not to expect specific dollar numbers in tomorrow’s address; sacrifice of the troops, which will be mentioned “early” in the speech; stability and anti-corruption efforts (rather than a focus on “nation-building”); benchmarks, of which there will be “new wrinkles” from the March announcement; the al Qaeda threat that remains (“dismantle, disrupt, destroy”–and on some occasions the WH will use “defeat” as one of the three D’s); and a “renewed emphasis” on Afghan security training.
Crash Heard ‘Round the World: Overlapping the highly anticipated West Point details was the still-lingering WH/tabloid drama of the now-infamous, party-crashing Mr. and Mrs. Salahi. A rare outburst of simultaneously shouting reporters was further evidence that the week-old story won’t die easily. “None of that relay happened,” RG explained of the Secret Service’s lack of communication with the WH social office on the unlisted guests. RG continued to remind reporters that “nobody picked up the phone” to make the appropriate check, while reporters questioned whether the social office might assume some of the blame. “I will let the investigation put the onus on where the onus should be,” RG said. Impatience from the podium was evident as RG attempted to disrupt the momentum of shouted questions by calling on the next reporter in the first row. Declining to characterize the specifics of POTUS’s reaction to all this, RG did mention that his “concern goes greatly beyond ‘The Real Housewives of DC.'” He then noted the silliness of mentioning the reality show in the same line of questioning as Afghanistan….
A Step Ahead of RNC?: RG at least twice said no one should underestimate the commitment of a POTUS who has already doubled troops there. And reacting to whether not outlining cost details was hypocritical, considering similar Obama team criticism of their predecessors, RG clarified that the criticism was directed at Bush pre-war deliberations, and that this WH has included cost in its discussions from the beginning.
Due for a Check-up: Noting that it’s been more than four months since POTUS’s last press conference, ABC Radio’s Ann Compton asked whether Obama no longer finds such an exchange useful. Dodging the premise, RG first joked about upcoming interviews with ABC. Then he chastised the press for inconsistency, as other reports have charged that POTUS is “overexposed.” When Compton again reiterated that the question is on the format of his interaction with the press, RG closed with this: “The president enjoys taking your questions and questions from reporters throughout this process. And I… assume he’ll continue to do so.”