March 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama the Adaptive Communicator, the Oliphant cartoon controversy, and other observations

With tip of the umbrella (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

ALREADY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS SHOWING THE ABILITY TO ADAPT HIS COMMUNICATION STYLE to the audience, occasion, and purpose. Will history see him as the Great Adaptive Communicator?

It’s now conventional wisdom that Obama can deliver a brilliant set speech, although he has often toned down the soaring rhetoric when it doesn’t suit his political ends (witness his somber and workmanlike Inaugural Address). Despite mixed reviews from media critics, the new President has quickly mastered the prime-time news conference, one which plagued many of his predecessors in the White House. Where Obama has struggled, surprisingly, is in less formal settings where he lets his guard down (for example, the Jay Leno Special Olympics kerfuffle or Obama’s “gallows humor” joviality on “60 Minutes”).

Some conservative pundits have mocked Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter in public appearances, but his recent news conferences prove the President can think quite well on his feet without a canned script. He knows he gives a smoother, more telegenic performance with the teleprompter, and that’s why he turns to the device.

I think Obama will prove to be a master of presidential news conferences, as well. Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, he doesn’t disdain the press (or at least openly show that he does), and he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of fielding questions.

What Obama has apparently realized is that the President can control and shape a East Room news conference to his liking. He can pick and choose the questioners. He can slow down the pace of the proceedings by stretching out his answers (which meant just 13 questions in his last hour-long press conference). He can ignore the intent of any given question and, even when pressed on it in a follow-up, always has the last word. And if he keeps his emotions in check, and sticks to his message, he can avoid any “gotcha” moments.

The media hopes for something newsworthy from a presidential “presser”—a dramatic revelation, an insight into the president’s thinking, a policy shift. They are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Obama’s performance at his last formal news conference (before leaving for the G20) was panned as “professorial” by many in the mainstream media. Obama sounded “like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell” according to Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. True, Obama largely repeated his administration’s talking points on the economy, but that doesn’t mean the news conference wasn’t a success—from a presidential perspective.

I’d argue that Obama’s professorial style worked quite well: he projected the three C’s—confidence, competence, and calmness—which is what a national leader must project during troubled times. What about substance? Obama’s long, discursive answers—which annoyed many commentators—signaled that he has a detailed grasp of economic policy, which was enough for his audience—the average voter worried about his or her job and future—if not for Beltway journalists.

POLITICAL CARTOONIST PAT OLIPHANT STIRRED CONTROVERSY in March with Jewish groups objecting to what they called anti-Semitic elements in his cartoon on the Gaza situation. (The cartoon featured a headless goose-stepping soldier and a fanged Star of David looming over hapless Gaza refugees. You can view it here). The Anti-Defamation League called it “hideously anti-Semitic” for using “Nazi-like imagery and hateful evocation of the Jewish Star of David.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center said “the cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I’ll defend Oliphant’s right to create and distribute the cartoon. And while likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi aggression is both deliberately provocative and ludicrous, it’s not prima facie anti-Semitic. The ADL and others are correct, however, in deploring Oliphant’s choice of imagery because it draws on a particularly ugly and hateful legacy.

ARE ASPECTS OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (“G”) MORE LINKED TO NATURE, AND LESS TO NUTURE? Here’s how ScienceDaily summarized a recent study (from the Journal of Neuroscience): “…UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.”

Thompson and collaborators scanned the brains of identical and fraternal twins, measuring signal speed, and then compared those findings to results from traditional IQ tests. We inherit how much of a key substance (myelin) we have in our brains that allows for these fast signaling bursts.

IS “DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DRIVE” THE MOTTO FOR TOP OBAMA AIDES WHEN IT COMES TO American cars? According to Politico, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner owns a 2008 Acura TSX, and other Obama economic advisors also own Japanese cars (Larry Summers has a 1995 Mazda Protege, Peter Orszag drives a Honda, and Austan Goolsbee, a Toyota Highlander).

Politico also reported: “A survey of West Executive Drive, where White House staffers park, revealed only five American cars out of 23 –a Dodge Grand Caravan, two Ford Escapes, a Jeep Cherokee and a Cadillac.”

And Obama’s car czar, Steve Rattner, apparently favors Mercedes, according to cityfile. (President Obama does own a Ford).

It is a bit awkward for the new administration to advocate massive taxpayer-backed loans for the Big Three when its top staff drives non-American brands.

HOLD THAT OBITUARY FOR CAPITALISM, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN PAUL KENNEDY in a fascinating Financial Times essay focusing on the wisdom of past economic thinkers.

Kennedy predicts that in the post-crisis economic system:

…the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years. Homus Economicus will take a horrible beating. But capitalism, in modified form, will not disappear. Like democracy, it has serious flaws – but, just as one find faults with democracy, the critics of capitalism will discover that all other systems are worse. Political economy tells us so.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM CHARLES DICKENS’ NOVEL LITTLE DORRIT: “A person who can’t pay gets another person who can’t pay to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking-match.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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