Friday, July 31, 2009

Lack of tough questioning during campaign hurts Obama now

I have opined in various forums that the press was too easy on President Barack Obama during his campaign and his first months in the presidency.

And I'm not the only one. Numerous strategists, campaign professionals, bloggers and journalists have noted that he gets quite a lot of 'easy' questions - soft balls - because, it is believed, of an affinity for the man and his positions.

My concern, in noticing his lack of tough questioning, was not just the unfairness (you know how liberals love 'fair') and double standard, but the results of such lack of vetting and preparation.

When the media ask candidates tough questions during a campaign, two things happen: 1) the public gets to see how the candidate responds to difficult issues thus informing the public about the character and the positions of the candidate; and 2) the candidate gets practice for what should be even tougher issues and questions if he should win.

For the first point, having been in the situation, I can tell you that nothing prepares a person more than having to stand in front of cameras and microphones with lights and no one whispering in your ear and have a difficult question thrown at you. Such questions and challenges (for they are challenging you) require you to know your position and be able to articulate it, to respectfully disagree with what an opponent has claimed, to demonstrate your poise in handling the situation, and, hopefully, sway people to your side.

What the public saw with Obama was emotional, for the most part. He sounded good and looked good, but there was very little substance (details) in much of his positions. He really didn't get the type of questions that required him to delve into policy or philosophy, so the public didn't get to see that aspect of him. If you wanted to know those sorts of things, you had to seek out such information on your own. As a result, many people did not really know his positions, just his general approach of 'hope and change.'

On the second point, Obama, because he did not have the tough questions and probing in the campaign, now finds himself unprepared for the type of questions he's beginning to get. He's being challenged on the health care issue and had to admit he hadn't actually read the bill he's promoting, but he's supporting it anyway. He also finds his words about the bill contradicted by the actual language in the legislation.

Additionally, he's being questions on details of the health 'reform' - details he was not expected to produce during the campaign. Remember when he said that 95% of Americans would see a tax cut? Rarely, if ever, did anyone sit him down and ask him to explain various points of this promise, like: what impact will such a 'cut' have on the deficit; if he's giving tax cuts to 95% will he increase taxes on 5%, what about the people who don't pay anything in the first place; how will he pay for the cost of his promises if he's cutting those taxes; will fees or other charges go up instead? Reporters, if they did ask such questions, didn't insist on real answers, just accepting whatever words came from Obama's mouth.

This was a disservice to the man, the candidate, and now, to the President. He is unprepared for the types of challenges he's getting on the issues. He's being asked why, when he promised the stimulus would keep unemployment from going above 8%, the rate is now 10%. He's being asked why, if he doesn't want to 'own' General Motors, he's taken it over. He's being asked why ... and he's starting to get that question a lot, mainly from people and, increasingly, from the media.

Had he been challenged regarding these types of things during the campaign, he'd be better prepared for them now. He'd know that platitudes won't cut it when it comes to talking about medical care for you when you're sick. He'd know that 'feel-good' messages might win you a vote, but it won't win you long-term support if you can't back it up with facts, logic and reason.

As a candidate, I was the underdog in all four of my campaigns. I was the Republican in a Democrat-leaning jurisdiction, my opponents were always much more well-known and better financed, and I was often described as 'young' which was portrayed as a negative at the time. I knew, going into these races and in office, that I had to be twice as good as my opponent just to be perceived as equal.

Perhaps my upbringing in a family business had something to do with that approach - always having to prove myself to my co-workers so they knew I wasn't just 'handed' a position in the company. I earned it.

The media helped me during my time in office - not by supporting my positions, but by challenging them. They asked me the tough questions, they evaluated my answers, they critiqued my campaign promises and compared them to my performance. Their examinations prepared me for the even tougher challenges I faced when making decisions in office.

As a result of what I went though, I was a better elected official. I was routinely more prepared than my colleagues, always had documentation to support my positions, always read everything that came across my desk - myself, and was never without a solid position that I knew how to articulate in the 30-second sound bite. Even my detractors complimented me on my preparedness with one saying that knowing how prepared I would be made him work to be as prepared as well.

President Obama has had no such experience, so he relies upon hand-picked attendees at town hall meetings, pre-screening questions at press conferences and teleprompters. While I don't want to say he's afraid of an unscripted event, he certainly appears to avoid them at all costs, perhaps knowing that he isn't prepared for the randomness and isn't confident in his own ability to handle the unexpected.

If the media had done their job, this wouldn't be an issue.

So what should he do? Some might call me presumptuous offering advice to "the president," but that's what I'm going to do. I think he should do his homework and then go out and participate in unscripted events. Let people question him about all the difficult things and be honest in responding with answers, not just words. Allow the follow-ups when people don't think he's really answered the question. Experience now what he didn't on the campaign trail and use it to get better.

Yes, it will be difficult at first, because mistakes will be made. But that is how we learn. Pres. Obama, being a smart man, will learn quickly ... and that will be good for him - and for us.

2 comments:

Richard said...

You really "hit it on the head" with this one, Maggie!!! Excellent job!!!

navyvet said...

Dear Maggie,

AWESOME!!

tom

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