Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

When Grey’s Anatomy Trumps the President

If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?

Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.

What gives?

Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.

If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:

  1. It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
  2. The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
  3. It’s sweeps monththe regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
  4. It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
  5. Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.

I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.

Mitt Romney’s 47%: A Modest Exercise in Dialogic Thinking

Dear Reader, the last few weeks have been a blur—and a great deal of it had to do with getting the book on press. As of last week, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart is off to the printers. We’re looking at a publication date sometime around mid-November (if you want to beat the holiday rush, feel free to pre-order now). The pre-press chaos has taken me away from this space, unfortunately, but things should be relatively steady now that I can’t change the book anymore. So, on to this week’s topic…


When the notorious video of Mitt Romney’s fundraiser first came out, it seemed like an interesting case study of how to think through a breaking news story in a dialogic fashion. Let’s follow the developments as they unfolded—in the news and in my brain—and consider what the results might say to us.

(One disclosure will help make sense of this case. After much paying of attention to the candidates, I plan to support Obama over Romney in the upcoming U.S. election. At bottom, I think both are good and honorable people; it just so happens that I tend to agree more with Obama’s way of thinking than Romney’s. My position matters here only because it aligns me with the 47%.)

I first heard of the candidate’s remarks in a news story.  My gut reaction was to be personally insulted: I do not see myself as a victim, I have a strong sense of personal responsibility, etc. How dare he.

Quickly my dialogic self chimed in: You know how often these quotes are taken out of context—or even outright misrepresented by the other side. Do not make an assessment until you’ve seen the source.

So I looked at the source*—while also paying attention to any explanation Romney might make. Both, I figured, would provide context and nuance.

No such luck. As you know by now, he said what he said. The day after the news broke, Romney admitted that he spoke inelegantly, but he did not try to defend it.

So now I’m still insulted, but at least I have the full picture. End of story, right?

Not really. One valuable tool in the dialogue toolbox is to ask the unasked question. Often, after a few news cycles, the same questions and data keep showing up, and no new ground is covered. In this case, after a few days of reports on who does and does not pay income tax, what the political fallout would be, etc., one of these unasked questions came to mind:

Is it really ethical to bring a hidden camera into a private fundraiser?

I’d still be stewing over that, except that unasked question led quickly to another unasked question:

Why do we allow private fundraisers for presidential candidates anyway?

In general, I’m a big fan of preserving the privacy of people in the public eye. But as I see it, the point of U.S. presidential campaigns (and one good argument for how damned long they are) is to get us fully acquainted with the candidates—the way they think about the world, their stands on issues, their character flaws, all of it—so we can make a serious and informed decision. How can we do that when candidates are hiding key elements of their thinking, only to be trotted out for private fundraisers?

To summarize:

  1. Gut reaction: insulted and outraged.
  2. Dialogic reaction: insulted and outraged, but with a more complete understanding of the event, and added thinking on two deeper issues regarding the structure of our political process.

If we stay at the gut level, we get to carry around our outrage but have little to add to the general conversation (the outrage has received its fair share of attention already). If we delve deeper into the issue, asking questions of it in a dialogic way, we come up with more questions and insights that might make a difference, however small, in the general conversation. If enough of us explore and raise enough of these questions and insights, who knows what kind of change we might effect?

*If I had completely followed my dialogic self’s advice, I would have watched the entire video. I have not had the time to do so, and perhaps that is a failing on my part. Here, I am relying on Romney’s reaction; if the full video had included anything to mitigate the effect of the 47% comments, he would have brought that up loud and clear. 

Tapping into the Ordinary to Restart Dialogue

I camped out at my favorite Starbucks this morning with the intention of writing about the U.S. debt crisis and the dysfunction of government. We might get to that in another post. But as I wrestled with the wording, normal life kept going on around me…and eventually forced me to pay attention.

To my left, two young women talked animatedly about dress styles. To my right, a boy of around six jabbered to his father about the baseball game they might take in later, as Dad listened with obvious patience, attention, and love.

It felt so blessedly ordinary. People—just people—talking and listening and paying attention and, by doing so, affirming each other.

This feels like something very fundamental to the human spirit. Part of us is hard-wired to be social: to talk and listen and pay attention—in other words, to use the basic abilities that are also the ingredients of dialogue.

I wonder if we can tap into this “ordinary” part of us in extraordinary circumstances, when dialogue is of the utmost importance.

Perhaps this is why some longtime public servants fondly recall the days when they’d fight like mad on the Senate floor and then head out to the local pub with their adversaries. It’s probably (as mentioned in last week’s post) what former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her days as an Arizona legislator, had in mind when inviting the warring sides of an issue to her house for Mexican food and beer and chat. It’s hard not to relax one’s iron grip on contentious issues in such a relaxed environment. As they prattled and swapped stories and talked about nothing much, I imagine, they stopped being “politicians” and started being people—just people. They tapped into that “ordinary” vein. They allowed their humanness to come out.

And they saw the humanness in one another.

I would submit that it’s harder to mount a savage attack on your adversary once you’ve seen her human side. So these opportunities to be “ordinary” open a door, if even only a crack at first, to talk and listen.

What might have happened if, a week ago, President Obama and Speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Cantor and others had pushed away from the debt negotiation table, changed into polo shirts and khakis, and took in a Nationals game? What if they’d shared some nachos and bought a few beers and yakked about anything but the debt? Would it have eased the negotiations, fostered more respect, led to a better, and better thought out, solution?

I think this sounds more naïve than it actually is. Why do you think parents give warring toddlers a timeout, if not (in part) to help them take a breather and regain their center? Who’s to say it can’t work with adults?

Considering what doesn’t work in Washington—and the fajitas and beer that have worked in the past—why not give it a try?

(The Lack of) Dialogue and the Debt Ceiling

Every now and then, our elected officials provide an object lesson in how not to conduct dialogue. In that respect, the gridlock over raising the U.S. debt ceiling is turning into a classic. Here are a few lessons I draw from the whole dustup (warning to my conservative friends: I’m going to be particularly hard on the Republicans):

  1. Set aside your preconceptions—however temporarily. By doing so, we can transcend our own filters (through which we see the world), clearing our minds and hearts to listen more fully to other perspectives. Had Republican congressional leaders done so, they might have at least heard the views of some distinguished economists that tax increases should form a part of any long-term effort to address the debt. Instead, the leaders have refused to even consider the notion of raising taxes, dismissing any explorations to the contrary and thereby restricting the potential of the dialogue to reach the best solutions.
  2. Do not repeat sound bites ad nauseam to address complex issues. The very structure of our news media—fast, brief, pithy, designed for today’s shorter attention spans—puts leaders under tremendous pressure to communicate in sound bites. But while sound bites might illumine an isolated aspect of an issue, there is no way they can communicate the full complexity of something like the national debt. Moreover, when we hear the same sound bites over and over, we begin to assume they are the only way to think about an issue. To borrow a business cliché, these terms set the “box”—and make it more difficult to think outside it. That goes for the people using the sound bites as well as those who hear them. So we need to retire phrases like “job-killing tax hikes” and “balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class.”
  3. Treat the issue with the seriousness and urgency it deserves. When ice-in-the-veins economists start using words like catastrophic and very significant, one would do well to approach the issue with instant and extreme seriousness. Add in the constraint of a time limit, and there is precious little room for wasted effort. Yet our leaders continue to talk past one another and not with one another. Other dialogues in other settings—a mutual sharing of views in an interfaith forum, say—can take their time to evolve and explore and meander as necessary. Not so here.
  4. Use anger carefully. Part of being human is that we come with the full range of human emotions as standard equipment. Communication tends to work far better in a spirit of calm and open-heartedness, but sometimes (see above) open hearts and minds are in scarce supply, and intransigence rules. In such cases, a judicious expression of heartily felt anger might be just the thing, on the chance that it could wake people up and reset their orientation toward resolving the issue at hand. That’s why I have no beef with the president’s alleged sharp words to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

I’ll bet you’ve drawn your own lessons from this affair. What have you learned? Do share. And to any congressional leaders who might be reading this: Please. Do the right thing. The debt is serious business; give us serious solutions.

Dialoguing Our Way out of Debt

We Americans are having a national dialogue of sorts about the federal debt. Our elected officials and pundits are leading it. It might even go well this time.

Stop chortling out there.

My hope for serious dialogue began to stir in December, with the release of a report from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Often associated with its co-chairs—former Republican senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles—the commission seems to have approached its work with both seriousness and bipartisanship. You’ve got to love a report that includes this:

We spent the past eight months studying the same cold, hard facts. Together, we have reached these unavoidable conclusions: The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table. And Washington must lead.

Read that first sentence again. I would submit that the experience of coming together, with all our differences, to study “the same cold, hard facts” is extremely rare these days—let alone for eight months at a time.

Now look at the result. The recommendations in the final report could not possibly have come from one partisan group or another. They include substantial reform of Social Security and reductions in defense spending. They include commitments to protect the disadvantaged and to “cut spending we cannot afford—no exceptions.” They devote a lot of time to the programs that contribute the most to the debt.

This is what dialogue can do—dialogue that sets aside preconceptions (however temporarily), looks at the “cold, hard facts” when they are available, and shares ideas across divides. Why is it that such clear thinking and dialogue in Washington happen only in rare shining moments? What would happen if it took place more consistently?

Maybe we won’t have to wait too long to find out. The “roadmap” from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) is certainly a bold attempt at a serious proposal (though I find it draconian). The president’s 2012 budget proposal takes on some recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles commission (though not nearly enough of them, in my view, and the cuts to key programs for the poor are still too deep). Then there’s the so-called Gang of Six: a half-dozen senators, three Democrat and three Republican, who are crafting a counterproposal of their own.

So the president has paid attention to the dialogue from the Simpson-Bowles commission, if only in part. Others are dialoguing with their “adversaries” on a proposal that offers more cold, hard truth about a cold, hard situation. Perhaps the result will be legislation that actually addresses the debt crisis.

Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change? And if dialogue truly can contribute to big solutions, shouldn’t we be demanding more of it from our elected officials?

Arizona and an Opportunity for Dialogue…or Not

If you’ve been perusing this blog awhile, you might not expect what you’re about to read.

Like every national tragedy, the horrific shootings in Arizona last weekend have led to instant analysis of the broader picture—especially what this says about us, our laws, and the remedies required. A groundswell of voices is calling for dialogue, for reaching across divides, for “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” More stridently, pundits like Gary Hart have explicitly blamed our toxic public discourse for Jared Loughner’s actions.

Naturally, as someone who cares deeply about dialogue, I would join that groundswell in a heartbeat. Right?

Would that I could.

Look, I am always delighted to see civil, compassionate dialogue get the support it deserves. I think the president hit the right note in his Tucson speech: this tragedy can serve as a catalyst to re-examine our actions and behave more civilly. But precisely because I care about dialogue, I don’t want to connect it causally to the horror in Arizona. Not yet, anyway.

Why not? First consider the evidence—or, more to the point, the lack thereof. We still know precious little about Loughner. What we do know points to serious mental imbalance at the root of his actions. Almost nothing connects him directly with our scorched-earth public discourse. Any connection we make, therefore, is tenuous at best, at least right now, until more evidence comes in.

Consider too our emotional state. Simply put, we are a nation in shock. If you have ever experienced shock, you know it is impossible to think straight. Same deal here.

Authentic dialogue is about clarity, a quest to uncover truth wherever possible, a “listening together” to grasp what the situation is saying to us. By its very nature, this kind of dialogue—whether among friends, between partisans, or across the blogosphere—takes time: time to reflect, time to build on one another’s perspectives, time for new facts to emerge.

Yes, we do need to restore civil dialogue to our public square. The effort to foster it should proceed regardless of any connection with the Arizona shootings. In the weeks and months to come, there will be plenty of opportunity to reflect on that connection. But now is not the time. Better to grieve now and reason together later.

Dialogue With Those Who Loathe Dialogue…(or Do They?)

A funny thing happened on the way to this post. It leads to a question and a sidebar that might change the question. (Got that?)

My original plan was to reflect on Cynthia Tucker’s column “Obama tried too hard to work with Republicans,” which appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her thesis is that “the president has made some of his biggest mistakes trying to woo a GOP opposition that has committed itself to frustrating him at every turn.”

This perspective on the last two years—which I share—leads to the question: how can we dialogue with those who refuse to dialogue?

This is not the same as holding a difficult dialogue, or dialoguing with difficult people. Several of my “dialogue partners” in years past have disagreed with almost everything I said. But despite their contentious words and occasional exasperation with me, they kept going. They saw the value in the dialogue itself.

No, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those who, like my perception of congressional Republicans and many in the Tea Party movement, prefer to fight the opposition at every turn rather than talk together.

I tend to think that, in a world with so many complex issues and so many people to address them, it’s more effective to sidestep the anti-dialoguers, at least for the time being, and seek out those willing to dialogue, whatever their point of view. My hope is that by doing so, we might eventually build a critical mass of people committed to dialogue—enough, maybe, to make dialogue the preferred method of addressing issues.

And now the sidebar (which maybe changes the question):

While preparing to write this post, I started reading the comments to Tucker’s column. Nearly all of them are angry, derisive, devoid of facts, and poorly spelled (yes, this matters to a writer). But they also reveal that the commenters are working from an entirely different narrative: that, far from seeking bipartisanship, the president shut out his opposition and “rammed his legislation down the throats” of the people.

It’s easy for me to simply attribute this reaction to the loose-cannon right-wing media: Beck, Hannity, et al. That could be true. But these commenters think I get all my ideas from the loose-cannon left-wing media. (I don’t.) And the assigning of blame doesn’t get us anywhere anyway.

So let’s refine our original question: what if the steadfast refusal to dialogue stems from something more fundamental—and maybe resolvable—in the issue at hand, like the sides’ working from two contradictory narratives? If instead of refusing to dialogue, we acknowledged the two narratives and explored their validity in more depth, might that change the dynamic? Could it soften the anger on both sides and allow them to talk further?

Maybe the larger question is, how far do we pursue dialogue in such difficult circumstances, and when do we decide it’s not worth the effort? How do we know when to fish or cut bait?

How’s Your Media Diet?

Every once in a while, I try listening to Rush Limbaugh. I never make it past the first five minutes.

Perhaps that’s my loss.

To explore that statement, let’s start with President Obama’s commencement address at the University of Michigan. (If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and visit the site. Many aspects of dialogue that we’ve discussed here appear there as well. Only he’s way more eloquent.) During the speech, Obama gave this advice:

If you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while.  If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website.  It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed.  But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. 

Several good things happen when we “listen to opposing views.” When we hear conservatives articulate conservative stances, or liberals speak from their experience as liberals, we get a firsthand, unfiltered view of that perspective—unfiltered, that is, by their adversaries’ use of terms like wingnut or socialist to inflame passions and thus obscure the details. Even if we don’t agree, we can at least see where they’re coming from. More often than not, we can see that their argument has some logical thought behind it, that they’re trying to grapple with the same issues we are, even that one or two of their insights might make sense.

Then, when we actually engage the “other side” in dialogue, we’re not thinking of them as wingnuts or socialists. Our perspective has moderated. Perhaps our anger has abated. That paves the way for deeper, more effective dialogue.

On another front, a “balanced media diet” doesn’t just facilitate dialogue; it is dialogue. As we absorb our adversaries’ insights, we naturally stimulate our own thinking—whether we’re marshaling counterarguments or just trying to draw out the opposing insight to its logical conclusion. The dialogue is happening in our heads. That in itself prepares us to be more curious and more civil when we have the dialogue with others.  

So how do we balance our media diet? It’s not all that hard, but there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye—even a bit more than Obama articulated in his address. Let’s look at that next week.

Your Government Wants to Hear from You…Really

What would happen if you could express your opinions directly to federal government agencies—before they make the decisions that affect your life? What if they paid attention?

That’s what the White House is aiming for. Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its Open Government Directive—an initiative to connect federal government agencies more closely with the public they serve. Much of the directive deals with transparency: publishing more data more promptly, creating open-government pages for each agency website, and so forth.

But transparency is only one-third of the equation. The directive also requires the agencies to integrate public participation into their decision making and use multiparty collaboration—with other agencies, nonprofits, even individuals—to pursue their core missions.

According to a White House press release on the website for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (of which I’m honored to be a member), “The directive stems largely from the unprecedented Open Government Initiative…in which the Administration reached out directly to the American people for specific policy recommendations.  Thousands of citizens participated in the online forums and offered ideas on how to transform the government into a more transparent, accountable, participatory operation.”

Several nuggets in that last sentence. First, this just might work. Clearly the government modeled public participation in creating the whole Open Government Directive, and thousands of citizens responded. Second, online technology facilitates participation on a level unheard of in previous generations. Third, although agencies have long provided opportunity for public comment on pending regulation, this directive aims at institutionalizing the whole notion of open government—spreading it into every aspect of agency culture.

This is still embryonic, of course, and a ton of questions remain. The directive doesn’t mandate specific steps—simply that agencies create plans for open government. Changing bureaucracies, by its very nature, is arduous and takes time. Some dialogue professionals are underwhelmed with this effort, seeing it as focusing too much on transparency and not enough on participation or collaboration.

But the thought that our government might actually want to dialogue with us is a refreshing change from business as usual. Stay tuned.