Dispatches by James Fallows and others, and responses from readers, on the nature of leadership in the Obama era, in response to his 2012 cover story “Obama, Explained” and his December, 2015 post, “Obama: Chessmaster, not Pawn.”
Yesterday morning I had an interesting (from my POV) talk with Kerri Miller of Minnesota Public Radio, on the by-definition impossible task of assessing how the Obama administration’s record will be seen five or ten years from now. The podcast is here. You can tell that I’ve had a cold, but at least Kerri Miller sounds healthy and on top of her game!
This discussion happened 24 hours before Obama’s presentation this morning on gun violence and possible steps against it. I regretfully stand by what I wrote several years ago, and said on MPR 24 hours ago: that trying to change this most pernicious aspect of “American exceptionalism” is itself a case-of-one political outlier.
The United States, unlike other countries, already has countless millions of guns in circulation. Unlike other countries, it has a Second Amendment, misconstrued as it has been. Unlike other countries, it has a substantial minority that will vote on the basis of this issue to the exclusion of all others. Changing climate and energy policy in the United States is hard and slow, but it will happen. Changing health-care policy, ditto. On gun policy I’m most pessimistic.
And to round this off, plus illustrating something about the state of the GOP race, check out Ted Cruz’s response to Obama’s gun statement today.
Without much set-up or padding, herewith some of the slew of holiday-week responses to last night’s Note, on why President Obama doesn’t watch TV news, and why no president should.
It could have been worse. A reader notes:
Imagine the reaction if the President watched Al Jazeera America as I do.
It could have been better. A representative sample of the anti-Obama response that has come in:
Why would you watch the news when every day another story is told about how your failed policies are destroying the country. Instead he spends his time gazing in mirrors.
How other leaders did it: Part I, Dick Cheney. Many readers wrote to point me toward a leaked memo The Smoking Gun reprinted back in 2006, saying that then-Vice President Cheney required “All Televisions tuned to FOX News” in any room where he would stay. That’s the memo you see above. One reader’s gloss:
Apropos of your post on Obama understanding the worthlessness of cable news, recall the leaked document describing then-Vice President Cheney’s insistence that all TVs in his hotel room be... tuned to Fox News.
Sort of explains the distinctions between the two men in a nutshell.
Another reader says of the memo,
So not only embracing the chatter, but the echo chamber as well.
How Other Leaders Did It: Part II, LBJ. A reader in Texas sends in this note:
Interesting comparison is to tour the “TX Whitehouse” of LBJ to see the row of TV’s in one room with photos of all blaring at once. Lot of good that did as he, LeMay, and McNamara sat around next to the Pedernales river deciding who to bomb…
The Only Thing We Have to Sell, Is Fear Itself. From a reader who, it’s relevant to point out, has a background in professional photography:
TV news in all its forms is “bad for America”, as Jon Stewart would say. What wasn’t mentioned in your piece is that TV news is in the business of selling fear, and not providing information.
Ebola, ISIS, the financial crisis, the weather, sharks, the Muslims, killer bees, a mass shooter, a plane crash, a fire, the bankers, the auto industry, they are coming to get you.
They use all the audio-visual-psychological tricks they have to grab our attention and they try to continually scare our pants off. Keeping us watching means of course ratings, which mean ad dollars, which is really what they are about. So what we get is the constant jangling of our fear receptors, and the constant stimulation of our eyes and ears. The busier the screen, the louder and more mesmerizing the whole experience is, the more likely we’ll just sit there like zombies and see all the ads. The book The Culture of Fear is relevant here.
When I was in college (in the 70s) I would see bumper stickers that said “Kill Your Television”. I could not make sense of them at the time. Now I understand.
“It makes you stupider and more dangerous.” Another reader weighs in:
It's not a question of rationing or balancing TV news viewing. No one should watch cable news, or the Sunday morning shows. Ever. At least no one charged with making responsible decisions. It's a cliche that TV news feeds its viewers sensationalism, and buries the "serious stuff". But it is also true. We see in Donald Trump's poll numbers how voters who consume a steady diet of Fox News select a candidate. But let's not single out Fox because they sensationalize and distort with a rightward slant. CNN purveys garbage, as does MSNBC and the networks (and who can tell what their slant is?).
Not only will cable news not make you a more informed citizen. It will make you a stupider, more dangerous citizen. TV news should not just be rationed, it should be shunned.
I’m sticking with cable, for the sports. One more:
Like your retired Silicon Valley reader, I don’t watch cable news. I don’t watch TV news at all, not cable, not broadcast national news, and not local news. I haven’t for at least 15 years, or since it became possible to know what was going on in the world through the internet rather than through the television.
Additionally, I try to stay away from “breaking” news on the internet, because way too often, early reports are wrong reports. It’s much better for my mental health to wait and find out after things have stabilized and more accurate reporting has emerged. There’s nothing I can do to respond to what is happening in news the vast majority of the time, and having it on would keep me feeling like I should be responding.
I also don’t watch presidential debates, Sunday morning talk shows, or anything related. By most measures, I’m a high-engagement, high-information voter. I donate to candidates and political causes, I volunteer for local campaigns, I’m on the planning commission for my local town. But TV is giving me information I don’t find useful in a format I don’t find helpful.
And I’m no cord-cutting millennial; I’ll probably be one of the last cable subscribers left, because I do watch a lot of sports!
Because of stereotypes about sports-viewing fans, it’s relevant to point out that this reader is a woman. President Obama, too, has said from time to time that he likes watching live sports on TV. I also feel least guilty about watching something on TV when that something is a live game — or a Breaking Bad-style, Fargo-style serial drama. That is all for now.
In the previous note I mentioned a strange little controversy over President Obama's comment, in a supposedly off-the-record session (which I attended), that he “doesn't watch TV” or “doesn’t watch cable news” and therefore wasn’t initially in sync with the sky-is-falling saturation coverage cable outlets had given to the shootings in San Bernardino.
The controversy was strange at one level because of the backfiring effect of “off the record” rules. As explained earlier, the main justification for off-the-record sessions is to reduce the risk that a single phrase will taken out of context — “I voted for the bill, before I voted against it” — and thus become a “gaffe.” This time, the single “I don’t watch TV” phrase leaked anyway, and the larger context, which obviously I heard at the interview, remains off the record. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that the context could have involved Obama’s awareness of the jerky, crisis-to-crisis outlook conveyed by 24/7 news. In that case Obama’s no-TV comment might be part of a larger argument about how permanent-emergency coverage affects a society’s ability to figure out what to be afraid of, and how afraid to be. (For more in this vein, naturally I invite you to stroll back down memory lane to take a look at Breaking the News.) Hypothetically.
The larger strangeness was the miffed tone from much of the commentator class about the “no TV” admission. Who does this guy think he is? Talk about aloof! For the DC media culture, Obama’s comment carries an extra dose of status-offense, since “cable hits” are such an important part of modern journalistic branding and presence.
A reader from the West Coast tech world writes in with a reaction that parallels my own: That this supposed mis-step by Obama actually says something good about his understanding of his job. Over to the reader.
I am a life long Democrat from a pretty working class family. We lived in [the San Fernando Valley] as children and my dad was a plumber. I went to college, moved to San Jose in 1975 and enjoyed a very successful career in Silicon Valley, the fruits of which have allowed me to have an extended and comfortable retirement. That is the background behind what I want to say next…
I never watch “cable news”. Never. Never. Never. That includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The whole idea of “cable news" is toxic in my mind. The first thing that I do when I get a new TV provider is to delete those channels from the list that I cycle thru when I do any channel surfing.
I also never watch most of the network news broadcasts and especially any of the Sunday morning chat shows. I do watch the PBS News Hour, but only after recording it so that I can delete any segments where they have 2 people from opposite sides of some debate contradict each other.
Judging by the ratings that those channels get, I don’t think that I’m alone. In my immediate circle of friends and family, I don’t know anyone who does watch that. Neither my own kids, nor my step children have “cable TV” connections. (That includes actual cables as well as satellite ones…)
“Cable news” is what we call in Silicon Valley a “push” technology. I only use “pull” technology to get my information. I have to do that to make up for the editorial control which disappeared from “cable news” long ago. You have railed about the false equivalency problem at length, but that is only one of many sins of the modern “cable news” world.
Given all that, I am not shocked that Obama does not watch it either. To me that is a sign of one reason I like him so much.
I have other things to say about the state of the Democratic Party, The Donald and more, but I don’t want to dilute this message. Not watching “cable news” is not a bug, it’s a feature of a sane person.
Or rather, I agree about the president — that I’m glad he’s not following these shows. I personally am exposed to more cable news than is healthy, often having it on as B-roll while I am doing other things. That’s partly habit (though I think I’ve broken the habit of turning a TV on when I walk into a hotel room) and partly because I feel that situational- awareness of the news environment is part of my job. On the other hand, my perma-resolution, to be re-upped once more for 2016, is to reduce screen time of all sorts in my life, and increase the time devoted to physical, printed reading matter and actual, living human beings. We’ll see.
Controlling how he spends his time and directs his attention is obviously a more consequential matter for a sitting president. For anyone in that job, the ability to make long-view judgments, which involves deliberately thinking beyond the chatter of the moment, is ultimately the most precious asset. Close behind in preciousness is developing a sense of which sources of info and advice are most reliable, and least likely to be distorted by personal vendettas, ideological preconceptions, hidden agendas, past positions, or any factor other than a desire to present a situation as clearly and fairly as possible. When we talk about presidents “learning” the job, we’re mainly talking about their deepening understanding of the kind of information and advice they need. Famous recent example: George W. Bush placing Dick Cheney and his perspectives at greater distance in the second term than in the first.
In short, the kind of information a president needs, and the kinds of people he needs to hear from, together are just about the opposite of how you’d choose a line-up for a “lively” or “Breaking Now!” news show. The kind of follow-up questioning you need to pursue has no relationship to the “and we’ll leave it there” sign-off from each few-minute segment of TV discussion. The range of options you need to consider very rarely matches the pro-vs-con of the standard talk show. And so on.
It’s one thing to be aware, as any leader must, of what everyone else is hearing and reading — and, in the leaked comment, Obama was saying that he realized he had been caught off-guard. It’s something different to expect that a sitting president would allow permanent-emergency chatter to be part of his normal workday. I don’t want a president who will spend much of his or her day in front of the TV.
Lots of other interesting Chessmaster-v-Pawn accounts have come in, but as the reader is sticking to one issue in his email, I will do so in this note too.
A week ago at this time I was still typing up notes from a two-hour “off-the-record” interview that President Obama held at the White House with several magazine and newspaper writers, including three from The Atlantic: Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and me. I put “off the record” in quotes because things a president says in front of more than two people rarely stay secret very long. Also, part of the White House’s hope was obviously to expose this group to the president’s rationale. And I say “still typing up notes” because attendees were not allowed to bring recording devices other than notepads to the session. (For why it is worth going, despite off-the-record ground rules, see explanation* after the jump.)
Indeed not long after the session, the New York Times ran two articles (one, two) by a reporter not at the session about what Obama said there, and my friend David Ignatius of the WaPo, who was there, did two columns (one, two) reflecting what Obama must be thinking, although not directly attributing anything to him.
In public and in private, Obama likes to say, “I’m a pretty consistent guy.” And he is. In my limited experience, the gap between the cases he makes on- and off-the record is not very large. (Why, then, bother to go off-the-record? For most public figures, it’s for protection against a single phrase or sentence being taken out of context — although ironically, as explained below, exactly that happened to Obama in this case.)
Through his year-end press conferences, speeches, and on-the-record interviews Obama has been doing two things over and over: (1) stressing the long view, which I’ve been calling the “chessmaster” perspective, on just about any issue, from domestic politics to the range of problems the nation deals with overseas, and (2) wrestling with the balance between seeming adequately aware of the fear generated by terror attacks in Paris or San Bernardino, and not doing the terrorists’ work by hyping that fear.Most of what is on my scrawled-out notepad from last week’s session is consistent with what everyone has heard him say on those two recurring themes.
Today’s update: readers on whether Obama is being strategically accurate, or instead self-deluding, in presenting his chessmaster-style “long view” perspective. Let’s start with an area where he seems most visibly to have failed: the rout of his fellow Democrats from Senate and House seats, plus governorships and state legislatures, during his time in the White House. The first message comes from a poli-sci academic whose dissertation is on exactly this topic:
[That Obama’s party is in a weaker position now than in 2008] is a truism that I think runs the risk of being somewhat myopic. The Democratic Party is pretty clearly in a more vulnerable place now than it was eight years ago, though I'm not convinced this should be characterized as weaker.
For decades now Dems have been awaiting their "emerging majority," based on a tipping point in the nation's demographics. Obama's personalistic appeal and organizational sophistication helped speed this process along-at least as a presidential coalition on his behalf. The downside is that it made the Democrats more dependent on a coalition of irregular voters, and likely caused a counter-reaction of further consolidation of older, whiter, yet more consistent voters within the GOP.
As a result, Democrats have been boxed into a broader if more shallow coalition. A lot of veteran pols and operatives (that the media depend on for their narrative on this stuff as there is not tremendous interest in the nuts and bolts of party building by journalists) have expressed frustration over this…. That being said however, few would disagree that the long-term fate of the party rests with Obama's coalition.
I suppose a case could be made that a slower transition that did not make the party brand quite as toxic toward certain high turnout segments of the population would have bolstered Democratic short term electoral fortunes- especially in off year elections. But it should be remembered that since the 60's, the Party's struggles to maintain its non-white and more liberal factions, along with the white working class, has put it in a consistently tenuous position.
I think there is something to be said for ripping the scab off now, once this coalition could be established on a presidential level, and engaging in the difficult (and likely at times electorally painful) process of consolidating this coalition. This seems especially true given the scope of problems the country faces, and the intransigence of the opposition, likely means that it will take large Democratic majorities to pass meaningful legislation on issues like economic inequality, climate change, etc.
Another reader with a different explanation of the party’s weakness:
Someone well to my left told me years ago that he thought Barack Obama was several moves ahead of everybody else on the chessboard. I do tend to agree….
The criticism is fair that the Democratic party is worse off politically than it was when he took office, but is that his fault or the result of too many Democrats who are cowardly and feckless? I'll cite Senators Mark Udall and Mary Landrieu--oh, that's right, they were defeated in 2014 after running away from Obama and begging him not to issue an executive order on immigration. How about the Democrats who ran away from health care reform in 2010?
Perhaps it was best expressed by that great philosopher, Stanley Laurel, who said, "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead."
And another reader arguing that the weakness is illusory:
It has fascinated me that most of the country has moved very far left since early 2012. It's been hard to quantify. Maybe I was too young to truly remember what life was like before Obama (I am 25) but I feel like some major changes have happened since the 2012 election cycle.
Occupy Wall Street did not have any clear and immediate victories except perhaps how the 2016 election will discuss income inequality in a way no one would have imagined in 2008. The vocabulary of feminism is completely mainstream. The only real arguments remaining against the ACA are that maybe we need to consider single payer.
Cell phone video has brought the Rodney King anger mainstream. Marriage equality happened almost over night as Americans slowly realized their friends, neighbors and familes were gay.Over-incarceration and drug legalization are now things politicians can speak about. Less politically, Americans now define their eating habits more at Whole Foods, Chipotle and other more "conscious" establishments.
While a good 30% of the country is stubborn and angry, Obama's re-election leads and reflects that a good portion of the rest of the country is actually ready to live up to the ideals our country was founded on.
In the Christmas Eve spirit of boundless giving, here is one more assessment from a reader. This one bears on the climate of fear / loss / resentment that has played such a part in Trump’s rise, and that Obama has struggled to deal with on both the substantive and the “messaging” levels:
I've been thinking about this a lot. Trump/GOP America is not afraid. I think we do ourselves a disservice to credit them with actual fear. And it causes us to misunderstand the challenge we face.
GOP America is afraid of Muslims in the way the Klan and mobs of 20s feared blacks and drinkers and Catholics. Islamic terrorism gives people permission to assert dominance over one of the smallest, weakest groups of in our country -- and fancy themselves bravely standing up for good by shitting on people.
It's a win all the way around. It feels good. Lynchers thought themselves carrying out a noble, hard duty. And they took joy in it. The sentiments on display at the debate are precisely the same. GOP voters eat it up because it feels good. They're not looking for reassurance. They're demanding indulgence.
This follows up on the social permission that electing Barack Obama gave many Americans to indulge racist instincts and bile they long hid. Can't be racist, I live in Barack Obama's America. Inoculation and permission.
I saw this quote in a story about what Americans fear:
"I am very careful taking my small children into large crowds or celebrations - particularly those celebrations of our faith," said one mother."
This is obviously horseshit. And even if it's not, it might as well be. The line between honest delusion and indulgent drama barely exists.
The point of this is that we won't convince people not to act on the permission that their bullshit "fear" gives them. We have to revoke the permission to enjoy how this makes them feel. And that takes confrontation, not reassurance. We just have to beat them.
That's our challenge.
* Rules-of-journalism dept: Why, and when, is it worth accepting “off the record” strictures?
Sometimes that makes no sense, and a reporter will say to a source: talk with me on the record, or not at all. In other circumstances, there are things you learn this way that you couldn’t if participants thought that anything they said might be isolated for publication. When it comes to an incumbent president, unless you’re pursuing an active Watergate-style investigation and need on-the-record answers about specific allegations, the chance to hear someone explain and defend his views in fairly open conversation is presumptively worth taking.
As mentioned earlier, the main thing the White House would hope to gain in specifying “off the record,” that a single phrase or sentence wouldn’t be captured out of context, nonetheless happened this time. Someone relayed the news that the president said he “didn’t watch” or “didn’t watch enough” cable TV news to internalize the widespread panic after the San Bernardino shootings. This became another standalone controversy. In context it was part of Obama’s discussion of the difficulty of weighing risks rationally, but that full in-context version remains off the record. The leaked one-sentence version went public and became another “gaffe.”
Christmas Eve greetings to all so inclined, and appropriate holiday wishes in general.
Through the past ten days in this space, I’ve had several items on the style and logic of President Obama’s leadership style. First, one on the ISIS speech, which I found very strong in logic but perhaps too coldly logical in affect. Then readers chiming with similar views. Finally, after announcement of the Paris climate deal, an argument that evidence on the timeless “chessmaster? or pawn?” question about Obama’s effectiveness was swinging toward the former.
Now, readers pro and con. I’m kicking off a new Thread on this theme, because a lot of response has come in, and I’ll try to break it up into related installments.
Let’s start with discussions of why 14 (horrible) deaths in San Bernardino can seem an “existential” threat, when the 60 to 80 other Americans killed with guns that day don’t—and whether there is something more, something different, that a logician-leader like Obama could have done to address that fear.
A psychologist on the West Coast, on why the fear of terrorism is so powerful, including relentless hyping by the news media:
Off the top of my head, I’m having trouble thinking of any attempts to dig a little deeper into the question of the “enabling” role of the media. Yes, politicians—some eagerly, others more reluctantly—are much more likely to bloviate about “terrorist” attacks which are motivated by an allegiance to some foreign conspiracy. And yes, for those media and individual journalists who are looking for ways to make a quick buck it's much easier and more lucrative to let yourself be used by politicians as an outlet than to do the hard work of digging into complicated subject. But that still begs the question of why these things are so.
From my own professional perspective, I’d guess that the reason that there’s always a market for the pols and media to pander to in this way is that focusing on an identifiable and theoretically circumscribable threat provides a measure of psychological comfort that you won't get if you look at the data objectively and conclude that at a certain number of these terrible attacks are not going to be preventable.
Putting it slightly different, believing that the problem is one of foreign-inspired fanatics who “hate us because of who we are” is a kind of mass delusion in which many people, assisted by their enablers in the media and the political world, find a tenuous, illusory feeling of safety that they otherwise wouldn’t get. As in the Woody Allen joke about the guy whose brother thinks he’s a chicken, we all need the eggs ...
There’s a parallel with psychologist Jon Haidt’s contribution to the “Coddling of the American Mind” article (that avoidance just feeds the fear). With respect to the fear of terrorist attacks what’s being avoided is the potentially overwhelming “fear itself” from not being able to circumscribe and, hopefully, destroy your enemy. It’s an ancient problem—240 years ago the not-quite-U.S. was on the other side of it.
After the jump, two former Senate staffers with different assessments of the ISIS speech.
Charles Stevenson of SAIS, long-time Senate staffer and former National War College professor, is among those thinking that Obama’s tone in the ISIS speech was too flat:
The logic of the Dec 6 speech was impeccable, but he wasn't persuasive. This article from Defense One makes the same point about this week’s talk at the Pentagon. I think Obama fell short in the Oval Office address because he spoke of more of the SAME, rather than MORE of the same. He should have stressed what he would do and less what he wouldn't. He did a better job of that at the Pentagon.
I hope the journalists following the Republican candidates force them to be specific on what they would do, what they wouldn’t do, and especially how they could guarantee a large Sunni ground force against ISIL.
But Mike Lofgren, who worked for many years for Republicans in the Senate (Stevenson worked for Democrats) says there is nothing Obama could have said that would have slaked the thirst for a “strong” stand:
Critiques of Obama’s rhetorical style are irrelevant side issues; the fact that people make them shows they are lurching around in vain for a panacea. The president could be Pericles of Athens and he could not make a dent in public opinion if he was arguing for restraint, patience, and a sense of proportion.
People who habitually invoke FDR have no conception of how fundamentally the cultural landscape has changed. A large percentage of the public did not know FDR couldn’t walk, an ignorance abetted by a press which carefully shielded the public from any photos or descriptions of his disability. Would that be conceivable today? And the entire universe of Americans’ relationship to governmental authority has been fundamentally altered, particularly over the last three decades.
The Far Right’s assiduous institution building, including a vast media echo chamber, means there are tens of millions of Americans in a subculture that is operant-conditioned to be instinctively opposed to whatever a president or other authority figure says, unless he or she is a conservative Republican. By means of its relentlessness practice of “working the refs,” right-wing media have also “rewired” the mainstream media to be receptive to right-wing themes and concerns, and to self-censor out of fears of bias.
I began to perceive as long ago as the 1990s that many mainstream publications regarded Matt Drudge as their assignment editor. This clearly has an effect on the kind of news that Americans who are not in the right-wing echo chamber consume, and how they perceive Obama. (Ron Fournier of National Journal is a classic example of this syndrome. His leitmotiv is “Obama is a dictator; why won’t he lead?”)
For those reasons and more, there is simply nothing a Democratic president can say. The far more profound issue than the incumbent president’s rhetorical abilities is the headlong rush of a significant chunk of the American public into fascism (I suppose in the last two weeks it’s finally permissible to use the f-word).
Update in the same vein as Lofgren’s, this note from a current U.S. diplomat:
Few things infuriate me more than the Fournier-esque comments on Obama’s ISIS speech provided by your recent East Coast defense policy commenter [in this post]. The reader acknowledges that he “fully agrees with Obama’s approach as a matter of substance.” He then argues, however, that because Obama has failed to “lead,” by which he appears to mean he has not taken some additional, unspecified action (presumably punitive against Muslims), he has ceded the mantle of leadership to Trump, Cruz, et al.
This is, of course, absurd. Leadership is not about busy work and bluster. It’s not about latching onto the first policy idea that sounds reassuring and presenting it in overblown terms in order to show you’re tough. We tried that in Iraq; how’d that work out? Real leadership, not the Hollywood version, is about having the courage of your convictions and willingness to see plans through over the long term.
The commenter is on stronger ground when he critiques Obama’s rather cold, intellectual style. Obama and Bill Clinton present an interesting contrast in this regard.
But again, I have to push back on the idea that the most fundamental task of a leader is to empathize with the citizenry. Certainly, a leader should understand the concerns and fears of the people, but a smart leader shapes and focuses those fears and concerns. And Obama is absolutely right to channel the focus of our fears away from Islam as a religion and towards those strains and sects that preach violence and hatred. He is right on the merits: our battle is only with a small faction within the Muslim community. And he right because treating this as a battle between Islam and the West plays directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.
Finally, a brief comment on the current national mood. I’m in my mid-forties and remember well the terrorist incidents of the 1980s – the bombing of the US Embassy and the Marine Barracks in Beirut, the bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait, the kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley, the high jacking of Kuwait Airlines Flight 221, the high jacking of TWA Flight 847, the high jacking of the Achille Lauro, the bombing of the Rome and Vienna airports, the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin, and the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. It’s quite a list. While these incidents engendered a great deal of fear and concern at the time, they provoked little, if any, of the broader hysteria we are witnessing today.
I think the primary explanation for the divergent attitudes of the American public is the 24-hour cable (and internet) news cycle and an opposition party (with its own supporting media/internet apparatus) that will use anything to whip up public sentiment against the incumbent President. Fortunately, at this point, I believe that the fear of ISIS will recede as the panic over Ebola did last year. The flip-side of the intensity of the current media environment is its short attention span.
More to come, including some age-20s-something listeners to Obama’s speech heard its logic and themes, and whether the Obama era has really left the national Democratic party in as weak a condition as it seems.
After President Obama’s anti-ISIS speech, I said that I agreed with his strategy and its underlying logic, but could understand why it might not reassure those who felt most fearful. Last night several readers responded, including one who talked about the president’s super-rational “Vulcan”/Spock-like style.
Now, some harsher views. First from a reader on the West Coast, who agrees with the president’s message but disapproves of his tone:
The president's ideas and words were great but the delivery was abysmal. He sounded not like a professor, but like a dad pleading to his wayward teenagers to wise up and stop smoking out in the shed. Do you hear the stress and rising tone in his supposedly declarative statements?
Obama knows that public opinion is out of control, and he’s gone into coping mode. What the country needs instead—and what Roosevelt brought—is a president who brings a posture of commanding authority.
To achieve that, what Obama personally needs—and is not getting from his tone-deaf staff—is theatrical direction. That’s peachy if Obama analyzes issues like a professor. But a great professor knows that in the classroom, he needs to be a great performer.
Next, from a reader on the East Coast who is in the defense-policy business:
I don’t have any sympathy for Trump or Cruz, who are intuitive and calculated demagogues respectively. But I do have sympathy for a lot of their followers. People are scared. Should they be less scared? Perhaps. Should they accept that there is no solution to their fears, and that the over-reaction is the worst option? Again, perhaps.
But that is not realistic. Leaders need to deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. When President Obama comes out, after a terrorist attack, and says, basically, “nothing to worry about, everything is going according to plan, just be patient,” it is nothing short of an abdication of responsibility.
It hands the discourse over to a Trump or a Cruz because even if their policies are crazy, at least they are acknowledging that people are scared and want something done.
The problem with Obama’s “vulcan” response isn’t that white people don’t want to be lectured by a black man. The problem is that in failing to address the angst people are feeling he is failing in the most fundamental task of a political leader—having empathy for his constituents.
Worse, when Obama spends the last quarter of his speech lecturing the public not to hold Muslims responsible, he is again not taking into account the public mood. It is perfectly understandable for people to be mad at Muslims. This isn’t about San Bernardino. It is also about Paris. And the Russian airliner. And Turkey. And Mali. And Somalia. And Yemen. And Syria. And Iraq. And Afghanistan. And basically everywhere in the world where there is any sizable Muslim community.
Yes, the vast majority of the victims of violence are Muslims as well. The Syrian refugees are victims, not perpetrators of violence. But insisting that the fear people have of Muslims is only racism flies in the face of what seems to many people like overwhelming evidence. And a single, anodyne line about how Muslims need to fight extremism as well is not sufficient to calm the public.
Again, I fully agree with Obama’s approach as a matter of substance if policy could be made in an isolated bubble, but it can’t. And refusing to address public concerns because doing so is inconvenient is not leadership.
As Michael J. Fox’s character in The American President puts it: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage. When they discover there's no water there, they'll drink the sand.”
Finally, from another reader who agrees with the president’s logic and wishes it would be extended:
I just wanted to add a number to your reference to deaths by car crashes and lung cancer. It is a recurring issue, but the estimated number of Americans who die due to medical mistakes every year is over 400,000. See this link.
That is almost 1,100 every day. That is two fully loaded 747’s crashing every day. That is a World Trade Center falling every three days. All year long. And no one notices, no one raises a voice. It is not that doctors are bad, it is just that the medical community is a couple of generations behind the aviation community (old NYT link).
Every death is a tragedy, but there is a question of scale. In 2000, 412 people died by falling off of ladders and scaffolding, that’s over four times more than died in domestic terrorism attacks. When is Trump going to say something about ladders?
There is something to be said that an effective president has to be a bit of a scoundrel, in order to get something done and to bend public opinion. FDR and Johnson come to mind. Obama’s problem is that he isn't a scoundrel. There are enough of them around, it is just that the ones around don't have any positive characteristics.
For the next week or so I will be off-line, for print-magazine reasons. I’ll check back in by the time of the next GOP debate to see what on Earth has happened with Donald Trump.
Three Atlantic writers discuss the HBO epic’s divisive series finale, which tries to break the wheel one last time.
Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers have been discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts on the series finale in installments.
Credentialed authorities are comically bad at predicting the future. But reliable forecasting is possible.
The bet was on, and it was over the fate of humanity. On one side was the Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich insisted that it was too late to prevent a doomsday apocalypse resulting from overpopulation. Resource shortages would cause hundreds of millions of starvation deaths within a decade. It was cold, hard math: The human population was growing exponentially; the food supply was not. Ehrlich was an accomplished butterfly specialist. He knew that nature did not regulate animal populations delicately. Populations exploded, blowing past the available resources, and then crashed.
In his book, Ehrlich played out hypothetical scenarios that represented “the kinds of disasters that will occur.” In the worst-case scenario, famine rages across the planet. Russia, China, and the United States are dragged into nuclear war, and the resulting environmental degradation soon extinguishes the human race. In the “cheerful” scenario, population controls begin. Famine spreads, and countries teeter, but the major death wave ends in the mid-1980s. Only half a billion or so people die of starvation. “I challenge you to create one more optimistic,” Ehrlich wrote, adding that he would not count scenarios involving benevolent aliens bearing care packages.
It was a blockbuster discovery at the time. The team found that a less active version of the gene was more common among 454 people who had mood disorders than in 570 who did not. In theory, anyone who had this particular gene variant could be at higher risk for depression, and that finding, they said, might help in diagnosing such disorders, assessing suicidal behavior, or even predicting a person’s response to antidepressants.
Back then, tools for sequencing DNA weren’t as cheap or powerful as they are today. When researchers wanted to work out which genes might affect a disease or trait, they made educated guesses, and picked likely “candidate genes.” For depression, SLC6A4 seemed like a great candidate: It’s responsible for getting a chemical called serotonin into brain cells, and serotonin had already been linked to mood and depression. Over two decades, this one gene inspired at least 450 research papers.
To save the Church, Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy—and take the faith back into their own hands.
To feel relief at my mother’s being dead was once unthinkable, but then the news came from Ireland. It would have crushed her. An immigrant’s daughter, my mother lived with an eye cast back to the old country, the land against which she measured every virtue. Ireland was heaven to her, and the Catholic Church was heaven’s choir. Then came the Ryan Report.
Not long before The Boston Globe began publishing its series on predator priests, in 2002—the “Spotlight” series that became a movie of the same name—the government of Ireland established a commission, ultimately chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, to investigate accounts and rumors of child abuse in Ireland’s residential institutions for children, nearly all of which were run by the Catholic Church.
The German chancellor has shown how to win and keep power in a man’s world.
To the six women currently running in the 2020 presidential race, I offer this advice: Study German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world’s most successful living politician, on the basis of both achievement and longevity. Now in her 14th year as chancellor of Europe’s powerhouse, Merkel has upended the rules of the male-dominated German political culture, and transformed her country along the way.
Without fanfare, Merkel made German society friendlier to the ambitions of women. Merkel’s handpicked successor to lead the Christian Democratic Union is a woman, there are six other women in her cabinet, and women abound in her circle of advisers. Alexander Gauland, the leader of Germany’s far-right political party AfD, recently asked, “Are there no men left in the CDU?” The party still has quite a few men; they just don’t run it any longer.
It expands by 10,000 times in a fraction of a second, it’s 100,000 times softer than Jell-O, and it fends off sharks and Priuses alike.
At first glance, the hagfish—a sinuous, tubular animal with pink-grey skin and a paddle-shaped tail—looks very much like an eel. Naturalists can tell the two apart because hagfish, unlike other fish, lack backbones (and, also, jaws). For everyone else, there’s an even easier method. “Look at the hand holding the fish,” the marine biologist Andrew Thaler once noted. “Is it completely covered in slime? Then, it’s a hagfish.”
Hagfish produce slime the way humans produce opinions—readily, swiftly, defensively, and prodigiously. They slime when attacked or simply when stressed. On July 14, 2017, a truck full of hagfishoverturned on an Oregon highway. The animals were destined for South Korea, where they are eaten as a delicacy, but instead, they were strewn across a stretch of Highway 101, covering the road (and at least one unfortunate car) in slime.
25 years ago, Neil Gaiman introduced another bespectacled teen boy with a magical destiny.
An unassuming English kid with glasses obtains a pet owl, and takes up his preordained destiny to enter a secret world of magic hidden in plain sight—brought to you by one of the world's most successful fantasy authors. That thumbnail summary of course describes Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling's hit series first published in 1997, which is still a massive pop-culture phenomenon today. But the description also fits The Books of Magic, a DC Comics miniseries published 25 years ago this month by Neil Gaiman. Though largely forgotten, the series foretold much of pop-culture's current (and seemingly insatiable) appetite for the superhero and fantasy genres.
The Books of Magic's fall into obscurity seems on the surface like a surprising failure of marketing. Tim Hunter, the 12-year-old star of the series, is even visually a dead ringer for Harry Potter; you'd almost believe the assorted artists (John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson) had been getting time-travel bulletins from seven years down the road. (A magic bespectacled tween protagonist with an owl has the potential to become a hit, as everyone now knows.) Neil Gaiman was already a celebrated writer back in 1990, and the ensuing years confirmed his ability to write massive bestsellers such as American Gods and Coraline. So why did Harry Potter become a household name while Tim Hunter has remained a random tidbit of esoteric geek knowledge?
No president I know of has asserted a blanket power to reject any request that doesn’t suit him—until Donald Trump.
In my long career as an academic jack-of-all-trades, I sometimes teach law students Jurisprudence—that is, Philosophy of Law. The course begins with the question “What is law?” and its corollary, “What is lawlessness?”
The latter comes in two flavors. The first is anarchy—Hobbes’s “war of all against all,” a Mad Max moonscape in which only stealth and brute force provide even a semblance of safety. Such situations existed for millennia and, though relatively rare, exist in remote parts of the globe today.
But there is an authoritarian lawlessness that is far more common in the 21st century, and next time I teach the course, I will have the most precise example of this second version I have ever seen: the dispute over 26 U.S. Code § 6103(f)(1), which reads: “Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request,” subject only to a requirement that the return be considered in closed session.
The send-off to Season 44 might end up functioning as a send-off to a particularly toothless era for the show.
Saturday Night Live opened the last episode of its 44th season with a sketch featuring Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, sitting in the Oval Office, telling a few jokes, and then singing a song with a coterie of characters from his administration. That might sound like par for the course for this show, but it was actually Baldwin’s first appearance in character sinceMarch, when SNL mocked the president’sreaction to the Mueller report. Almost three years into a presidency one could charitably describe as newsworthy, the best this show could come up with for a season finale was Trump singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and shimmying behind his desk, as if daring the audience to, well, stop him.
The brewing news going into last night’s episode was that Kate McKinnon, the indisputable star of this era of SNL, might be departing for greener pastures. Her contract is up as of now and she may be ready to move on to movie stardom like countless breakout actors before her. But if this was her last hurrah, there was little sign of it, and certainly no grand send-off like the ones Kristen Wiig or Bill Hader got. Instead, there was the same slightly lackluster mix of topical material and unmemorable goofy sketch writing that has defined the show in recent years. SNL has survived for so many decades by knowing when to pull the trigger on a revamp, and Baldwin’s dismal karaoke work last night was the surest sign yet that something needs to change.
The French and Italian politicians see different futures for the continent. Both face tests in this week’s European Parliament elections.
PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, are from the same generation, but more than the Alps divides them.
Macron always wears a suit and tie, and has a penchant for lofty rhetoric and formal ceremonies. Salvini likes sweatshirts that say Italia, rails against illegal immigration, and tweets pictures of himself eating Nutella. The differences go beyond style. Their dueling visions for the future of Europe will be tested in elections for the European Parliament this week.
The Parliament has limited powers and the vote, to be held across the bloc’s 28 countries May 23–26, is generally seen as a test of voter sentiment across member states. But this time more than ever—after Brexit and with Trump rattling the transatlantic alliance—it’s also a test of which Europe will prevail: Macron’s call for a more top-down union that shares responsibilities for borders, defense, and the environment, and maybe more; or Salvini’s euroskeptic one, a “Europe of nations” in which each country retains more sovereignty.