Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama's 4th Press Conference: A Waste of Time and Political Capital

As the wise saying goes "if you've nothing good to say, don't say anything." But President Barack Obama went ahead anyway with a prime time press conference, and as Bill O'Reilly was right to observe on Wednesday night - he said practically nothing specific about what the shape of the health-care bill would look like and viewers were left scratching their heads.

President Obama wanted to let Congress take ownership of the bill, rather than hand them a fait accompli (as Hillary Clinton did back in 1993/4), I hear Democrats chant in his defense. But if Obama wants to stay on the side-lines, then he should do so consistently. Either be genuinely deferential to Congress and stay out of the picture until a consensus emerges, or take complete ownership of the agenda - don't try to do both. Yet the president is back in the limelight doing prime-time press conferences, and attending town hall meetings in Cleveland and such. Obama should decide which way he wants to go. If he is the salesman-in-chief, then he has to have something to sell, if not his consumers would be left completely befuddled as to why he's putting on a show for no particular reason at all.

Liberals are mad that Obama didn't throw a few more punches at Republicans. I think many are unwilling to admit the more pointed fact that he just didn't do a very good job at all, because he didn't have much to say.

So Wednesday's press conference was a squandered opportunity. We are not in 2008 anymore when Barack Obama would announce that he is giving a speech and the whole world would stop to listen. The clock is ticking on his presidential luster, and the next time he says "hey, listen to me," it's going to be that much harder.

Let us be clear why health-care reform has stalled, at least till the Fall. Because the Congress, and in particular the Senate Finance Committee could not agree on a way forward. I don't see why the President and his advisors thought that a prime time press conference last Wednesday night would have gotten things moving. In fact it probably achieved the exact opposite, when we heard on Thursday morning from Senator Harry Reid that a Senate vote before the August recess would not be possible. The president's time would have been better spent persuading his former colleages up on the hill in private conversations to compromise on a bill. When they've got a bill and all/most are united, then go out and do the meda blitzkrieg, by all means. Wednesday night just wasn't the time for that.

So it looks like the Permanent Campaign is back. The President has chosen to go back to campaign mode, selling himself. Because without a specific plan to sell, all his public appearances amount to going public for the sake of going public. This strategy belies a serious misunderstanding of American politics. Personal approval ratings do not translate to public support for specific policy proposals (not that they were forthcoming) - the president should have known this by now. They barely even translate into congressional support for presidential policies.

This error - of going public with nothing specific to sell - was compounded, and probably encouraged, by a complete underestimation of the push back from the conservative wing of the Demoratic party (the "Blue Dogs") worried about spiralling deficits. These were the people Obama should have been talking to. And given he's still out town halling and speechifying, I'm not sure he fully undertands what came over him.

To make matters worse, Obama had to pour fuel over the fire of the Henry Louis Gates controversy during the press conference, accusing the Cambridge police of of a "stupid" arrest when he had incomplete possession of the facts. Have something to say about anything all the time has become the rhetorical ethic of the modern presidency. Obama's observance of this ethic was a disastrous distraction to what little point he had to make at his press conference. The news cycles are now spending more time covering the Gates controversy than they are covering the health-care debate.

I'm afraid to say - though this is water under the bridge - that Hillary Clinton would have known better. This week, for the first time in his fledgling presidency, Obama looked like a total novice in Washington. His 4th press conference was a waste of time, and probably the first time since Obama broke onto the national scene in 2004 that his rhetorical wizardry had fallen so flatly on death ears. He seems to have bought the bad conventional advice - whenever you're in trouble, just go out and give a speech - wholesale. The president should take heed:

1. The public is less attentive between election years and he must have something meaningful to say if he wants to keep their attention.
2. Especially on a complex issue like health-care where there are too many details to cover, the media is much more likely to jump at an oportunity to take the path of least resistance to cover something juicier, like Henry Louis Gates and racial profiling.
3. Just because the public (still) loves Obama doesn't mean that they will love what he is doing as president (and not as presidential candidate).
4. It is often more important to talk to members of Congress - the people who actually pass legislation - than to deliver speeches around the nation where the only tangible return of applause is a fleeting sense of psychic gratification that one is loved.

President Obama, it's crunch time. Stop yakking.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite

For most of the second half of the twentieth century, Walter Cronkite was always there whenever history moved. Before the word "embedded" came into fashion, he flew on the first bombing raids over Germany in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Before he covered the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam and Watergate, he was also right there at the Battle of the Bulge. He covered the first nationally televised Democratic and Republican National Conventions - out of which the term "anchor" (and the Swedish term "Kronkiter") was coined to describe his role. Walter Cronkite was always there; he was the anchor of all anchors.

But while Cronkite was always there, he understood that it was never about him, but about the facts. Today however, his model of reporting is praised by everyone, but emulated by no one.
Not by Lou Dobbs, or Keith Olbermann, and not even by his replacement at CBS, Dan Rather, who tried to meddle in politics rather than to report it. CNN has a name for this narcissistic reporting style: "I-report." I don't think Walter Cronkite believed that there was an "I" in the news, however much an event lent itself to self-reflection.

So Cronkite's legacy lives on only in advertising slogans. CNN may be "the most trusted name in news," and Fox news may be "Fair and Balanced." But "the most trusted man in America" would tell us that self-praise is no praise and that objectivity should be practiced, not trumpeted.

To be sure, it isn't that today's journalists are unrepentant gossips or opinion exhibitionists (though some are). It is that their bosses know that opinion and fiesty debate sells. It is because experts in mass communications and social psychology have discovered that listeners and viewers like to hear what they want to hear, especially opinions that cohere with their own. That is why our journalistic umpires venture their opinions, and if they don't, they pose incendiary questions to get their interviewers to say something about their political opponents that would start a war of words. While Walter Cronkite covered the news, the news establishment today wants to drive it.

Cronkite was a first-rate journalist who understood that it is always about the news, never about the reporter, transmitting the news faithfully while at the scene but never making a scene. He didn't engage in story making, he didn't engage in frivolous banter about the role of the media in order to insinuate the self-congratulatory premise that he is a mover and shaker and master of the universe. Walter Cronkite knew that it was never about Walter Cronkite. It was his principled commitment to reticence that made his exceptional departure in declaring the war in Vietnam unwinnable so compelling. In his self-abnegation lay his considerable credibility.

Walter Cronkite was confident enough in the processes of American democracy, and humble enough to know the difference between newscaster and newsmaker, to desist from meddling from either the meaning or movement of politics. Without touch-screen monitors or a teleprompter, he brought us the news. Plain and simple. He wasn't cool, he wasn't a model, and he was even, by his own admission, "dull at times." Though his career is a period piece in the age of facebook and twitter, we will do well to remain anchored in his journalistic values.

"And that's the way it is."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Empathy is Important

Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court is probably going to be confirmed, but only after Republicans in the Senate put up a fight to appease the base that they tried to block the inevitable. There is value, though, in airing these differences, for they explain the irreconciliably liberal and conservative conceptions of justice that exist in America.

Conservatives have every right to disagree with Judge Sotomayor's judicial judgments, as they are entitled to contest her understanding of the constitution. Most of their opposition will focus on the New Haven "reverse-discrimination" case (Ricci v Destafano) and this infelicitous remark: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." In short, the gist of the debate will be about the ambit of the Judge's fellow-feeling. That is why Democrats and President Obama believe in the relevant virtue of "empathy" in a judge, whereas Republicans want a judge "for all of us" rather than "just for some of us." Let us unpack this significant difference in perspective.

Democrats in general believe that justice is about helping the dispossessed, whereas Republicans in general believe that justice is about equality before the law. Democrats believe that justice is necessarily a distributional value. They believe that the world we are born into is structurally unfair and steeped in institutional biases, and it is the duty of the privileged and powerful to come to the aid of the dispossessed. That is why Democrats project their empathy to the particular few who they feel have been disadvantaged and not to all.

Republicans believe that the state of the world we are born into is morally neutral, and it is up to each individual to make the best of one's talents in it. Because the ambit of Republican fellow-feeling extends to all, there is no extra virtue in empathy. Hence Democrats always presume an injustice to be righted (hence they are "progressive"), and Republicans valorize and want to preserve the status quo (hence they are "conservative.") These are irreconciliable positions because they are starting premises to much of the debate between liberals and conservatives. Logic can only be deployed to adjudicate the move from premise to conclusion, it can do nothing to discriminate between the choice of argumentative premises.

The pure liberal and pure conservative conceptions of justice are probably irreconciliable. But while the goalposts are not movable, we are. Ironically, empathy - the standard for Supreme Court justices that is under debate - is exactly what the two parties need to possess. If our starting premises are different and irreconciliable, the least (and probably the most) we can do is to try to understand why the other side thinks as it does. I think liberals can start by asking conservatives that if empathy is such a vice, would they teach their children to do onto others only what they would not want others to do unto themselves? And conservatives can return the favor by asking liberal parents this: if empathy is such a virtue, then shouldn't every wrongdoing be at least partially exonerated?

Emotional and intellectual identification with alternative conceptions of justice is neither the only route to justice nor an insurmountable roadblock to it. Liberals are right in one sense - only empathy about the other party's understanding of empathy will help resolve the partisan stand-off in Washington - but they should also practice what they preach.

Monday, July 6, 2009

In Defense of Sarah Palin

People love to hate Sarah Palin. I thought she was trouble on the McCain ticket, trouble for feminism, and trouble for the future of the Republican party, but I am troubled at the feeding frenzy that has continued despite Palin's express desire and efforts to bow out of the negative politics that has consumed her governorship.

The speculation about what exactly Palin is up to is itself revealing - for it comes attached to one of two possible postulations - neither of which are charitable. Either Palin is up to no good, or she is completely out of her mind. Even in surrender Palin is hounded. Either she is so despicable that post-political-humous hate is both valid and necessary or she is so dangerous that she must be defeated beyond defeat.

Even Governor Mark Sanford got a day or two of sympathy from his political opponents before he admitted to other extra-marital dalliances and referred to his Argentinian belle as his "soul-mate." Sarah Palin was accorded no such reprieve. Yes, I think gender is entirely relevant here.

Feminist scholars have studied the double-bind of woman political leaders for a while now. Women leaders are faced with a dilemma a still-patriachical political world imposes on them: women must either trade their likeability in return for male respect; or they preserve their likeability but lose men's respect for them in exchange. When it comes to women in positions of political power in the world that we know, they cannot be both likeable and respected. Unlike men, they cannot have their cake and eat it as well. This is not the world I like, but it is the world I see.

Let me draw an unlikely parallel to make the point. People love to hate another woman that we saw a lot of in 2008 - Hillary Clinton. Like Palin, she was to her detractors the she-devil to whom evil intentions were automatically assigned for every action. But unlike Palin, she was respected and feared - she was everything Sarah Palin was not. What Clinton lacked in terms of likeability she possessed in terms of respect (or at least reverent fear). No one underestimated Hillary Clinton, no one doubted her ambition. And of course, as Barack Obama put it in one of their debates, she was only "likeable enough." Clinton was respected as a force to be reckoned with, but she paid her dues in terms of likeability. Just like the Virgin Queen and the Iron Lady, she could only be respected if she surrendered her congeniality.

Palin stands at the other end of the double-bind. Where Palin was in need of respect she gained in terms of likeability. She was the pretty beauty queen loved and beloved by her base, unapologetically espousing a "lip-stick" feminism (in contrast to a grouchy liberal feminism). But what she enjoyed in terms of likeability she lost in terms of respect. If there was one thing her detractors have done consistently, it has been to mock her. She was the running joke on Saturday Night Life, and now, a laughing stock even amongst some Republicans who see her as a quitter and a thin-skinned political lightweight. Strangely enough, Sarah Palin is Hillary Clinton's alter-ego. Where Clinton is perceived as strong, Palin is seen as weak; whereas Clinton turns off (a certain sort of) men, Palin titillates them.

If we lived in a post-feminist, gender-neutral world, the two most prominent women in American politics, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, would not so perfectly occupy the antipodal caricatures of women trapped in the double-bind of our patriachical politics. That they each face one cruel end of the double binds tells us that the two women on opposite ends of the political spectrum sit in the same patriachical boat. So the next time liberals mock Sarah Palin, they should remember that they are doing no more service to feminism than when some conservatives made fun of Hillary Clinton's femininity allegedly subverted by her pant-suits.