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Henry in the House: Nervous energy at an Obama news conference

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
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Capturing bin Laden a 'high priority'
  • Ed Henry: Lots of nervous energy comes with covering a White House news conference
  • Being well prepared is the best way to calm the nerves, Henry writes
  • Economy was the main topic of Obama news conference Friday
  • It pays to be ready for a topical shift, Henry writes

Editor's Note: Ed Henry has covered the White House for CNN since March 2006. In "Henry in the House," he offers an insider's view of what it's like to cover the president.

Washington (CNN) -- I'm always feeling this burst of nervous energy when I walk into the spectacular East Room for a presidential news conference. There's just been so much history in that room that it's hard not to feel the excitement of this one smaller moment in the grander sweep of White House history.

Adding to the tension is that in order to get the dozens of reporters all settled into their seats, White House aides make you file into the room at least 30 minutes before President Obama arrives. So you grab your seat and then have to sit and sit and sit and wait and wait and wait -- giving you lots of time to think about two things:

1) I hope he calls on me.

2) Wait, if he does call on me, what am I going to ask?

The best way to deal with any anxiety is to prepare well before the newser, so I always come to them with two or three questions written out on a sheet of paper -- word for word -- in my breast pocket. And I sit and pore over it during that half hour or so, practicing and thinking which one is the best to ask.

What makes it more challenging is the fact that you never know at which point in the news conference you're going to get called on. In this case, the news conference was organized for the president to discuss the economy. While we are in no way bound to stick to the subject the president wants to talk about, the economy is the top issue for voters about to participate in the midterm election, so you probably want to ask something about the financial crisis if you get called on early.

If your number gets called later in the news conference, there's more of an opportunity to shake up the topic and perhaps ask something a little less obvious that might shed some light on a topic the president has not commented on in awhile.

Adding to the tension for TV reporters, of course, is that just before the news conference starts you have to stand up and get ready to do a quick live shot just before Obama walks into the room. Live shots are nothing new for us, but they're spiced up in this case by the fact that the room gets real quiet and you suddenly have to start blabbing in front of a couple hundred of your colleagues.

Basically, you look like a dork.

But it's all part of the job and this time just as I got ready to stand up for a live shot, some of the tension was broken when I overheard a colleague saying maybe the president should organize a beer summit between two people: the imam who wants to build a mosque near ground zero and the pastor in Florida who has threatened to burn some Qurans.

Neither tense situation is a laughing matter. But talk of a beer summit reminded me of a rule that doctors and presidents holding news conferences have to follow very closely: First, do no harm.

"Beer summit," of course, is a reference to last summer when the president called a prime-time news conference to promote his push for health care reform. That night, he was giving long, professorial answers and was admittedly a little deep in the weeds, but was about to emerge unscathed without committing any gaffes or major news. Until he called on Lynne Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times.

She asked for the president's views of Gates' arrest by the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police, which critics were calling a case of racial profiling. I listened and quickly assumed Obama would duck the question by saying he didn't have all the facts, it was a local police matter that he didn't want to interfere with, etc., and then the president would move on to the next reporter on the list, which was probably going to me.

But it turned out the news conference was about to end abruptly and so I would not get called on because of the second rule of presidential news conferences: You just never know what the president is going to say until he says it. And at any moment he might make major news, which is exactly what happened.

Obama said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly," and suddenly any hope of getting the media to focus on health care for the next few days went up in smoke. That may be one reason why the president has held fewer and fewer news conferences ever since, and why he was very careful on Friday not to get pulled too far off talking about the economy.

But what was striking to me was how the president seemed somewhat restrained in his comments on the economy. He had just delivered two speeches on his new tax cut and infrastructure proposals and had already covered this ground. He was much more passionate about several questions that were tied to Saturday's ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and whether Americans have become too suspicious of Islam.

In fact, I had a question in my pocket about the economy that I wanted to ask. But by the time I was called on, the president had just gotten a question related to al Qaeda, so I decided to go with the second question I had prepared, which was pressing Obama on whether he stood behind his statement as president-elect that capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is a "critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda" because he is not just a symbol but instead is the "operational leader of an organization planning attacks" against the United States.

In addition to the 9/11 anniversary, I felt this was an important question because there seem to be a growing number of terror experts who believe it doesn't matter much anymore, because if bin Laden were caught, then al Qaeda would probably just produce some new leaders who would continue his evil work.

Based on some of the notes I've gotten on Twitter, some liberals think it was an unfair question because they believed I was letting former President Bush off the hook. They seem to have missed that I mentioned in my question that "the last administration had seven years and couldn't" capture or kill bin Laden.

Obama answered that it "remains a high priority of this administration" and while he said it will take more time to get bin Laden and end the broader threat of terrorism, he pleaded for patience from the American people.

"What we can do is to constantly fight against it," he said. "And I think ultimately, we are going to be able to stamp it out. But it's going to take some time."

The next and final question was about that planned construction of a community center and mosque near ground zero. Obama gave his most full-throated defense of the project yet and seemed to come much closer to endorsing it than he had previously by saying, "If you could build a church on a site, you could build a synagogue on a site. If you could build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on the site."

He acknowledged the sensitivity for families of 9/11 victims but then added this with emotion: "I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes they are Americans" and we are not at war with Islam.

When asked earlier about "outright resentment of Islam" that the mosque and Quran stories seem to show, Obama was equally forceful in saying, "I will do everything that I can as long as I am president of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call the God different names, but we remain one nation."

Powerful words but dangerous political territory for a president whom some Americans still believe -- mistakenly -- is Muslim. That's why Obama very quickly added this: "And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise."

A sign that even when he strays a bit off message, this president is determined to not get backed into any more beer summits.