The White House is practically ebullient today, claiming as a major achievement the minor utterance by President Hu Jintao that "a lot still needs to be done" regarding human rights in China.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs, asked a question about technical difficulties from yesterday's press conference, was swift to correct a journalist about the real news from Wednesday's meetings.
"The process of translation was not the news yesterday," Gibbs said. "The news was just that, that President Hu realizes that -- and told the world -- that China has to do better."
In the days leading up to the meeting, the White House got positive advance coverage in the news media by telling reporters that Obama would be pressing Hu about human rights, including the issue of jailed dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
As one reporter in the briefing room told Gibbs, that was a name no one heard for three days.
Gibbs was quick to say that Obama raised the issue privately with Hu. When?
"I was not in the meeting. I can’t quote anything. I know obviously that the topic was brought up....I’ll double-check. I believe it was in some of the private meetings yesterday."
Gibbs later followed up to say Obama brought up Liu Xiaobo twice with Hu, at dinner and in a delegation meeting. That's nice, but does it really matter what Hu says if there's no follow up? Hu says lots of things. Why so credulous?
In public appearances with Hu, Obama followed a familiar script on human rights: Raise the issue, recite American democratic values, avoid direct criticism. Former President George W. Bush took the same tack with Hu. It didn't really advance the issue.
And Gibbs' claim that Hu "told the world" that China could do better just illustrates the point. As Gibbs also noted, Obama a year ago in Shanghai pressed Hu about censorship, urging open internet access and free speech.