The President You Can't Avoid
Obama is everywhere. Turn on a TV at almost any hour and surf the channels. How many clicks of the remote will it take before you see and hear Barack Obama? How many days go by without a sound-bite or two from him?
The answer is "Not many." Whether visually, aurally, or both, the living presence of Obama is practically unavoidable. We see and hear more of Obama than we saw and heard of any of his predecessors during their terms of office. In part, that is because of the internet-driven profusion of communications media. But it is also because, simply, Obama wants to be heard, about practically everything.
That can't be good. Even if you like Obama and his agenda, it can't help him to be heard from so often. Poll after poll registers the public's disgust with politics and politicians of all stripes, and a big piece of that disgust is attributable to the sheer ubiquity of politicians, of whom the president is always the most visible. We get set-piece speeches, press conferences, and sound-bites on the White House lawn. We get Meet the Press, Good Morning America, and those fair and balanced programs where people talk over each other about Obama's quote du jour. And lately we get Twitter tweets and e-mails, from the president of the United States. His musings address every vexation there is, from hurricanes to vacations to the incivility of the body politic. Earlier this week, he gave the world an e-mail complaining about Congress after a clumsy fracas over the mere scheduling of a speech.
It should come as no surprise to Obama that, whenever he and his spokesmen say anything in any medium, his adversaries will use the same media, just as frequently, to present an opposing viewpoint whenever there is one. To those who are only half-listening -- and that means practically everyone outside the DC Beltway -- the constant, unavoidable back-and-forth sounds like the bickering of children. What they're bickering about may be important, sure; one side may be right and the other wrong, sure; but when you hear it day in and day out, your reaction is existential, not intellectual. You roll your eyes. You turn your face away, waving the back of your hand at the tube, or the monitor, or the screen. You just want to tell them all to shut up.
It wasn't always this way. For a hundred years, our country had no mass media. Back then, presidents were neither seen nor heard. Once every four years, there would be an inaugural address. But if a president did any more speechifying after that, people would say he was being unpresidential. There was not even a State of the Union address, that bane of the late-January TV viewer. Jefferson thought it too kingly to appear before Congress in person, so he reported on the state of the union in writing, as did his every successor until 1913. And the modest, almost negligible size of the president's pulpit engendered an equal modesty about his role in the world. It's hard to imagine a Chester Arthur or a Calvin Coolidge daydreaming about how his photo would look in a history book or on a magazine cover.
Then the first mass media were born, as Pulitzer, Hearst, and others gave us newspapers with circulations in the millions. Theodore Roosevelt soon emerged to provide them with colorful copy, and the century-long presidential descent from Mount Olympus began. People started not merely agreeing or disagreeing with a president, but liking or disliking the man himself. Then, with the arrival of radio and newsreel, whose possibilities FDR famously exploited, the president became something still larger. No longer merely the chief executive officer of one coequal branch of the federal government, the president became our leader. We began to speak of the president as someone who "runs the country," and presidents began trying to fill the public's expectation that he should indeed run it. Then television arrived and worsened the trend, with JFK showing the way. Issues and positions started mattering less than smooth delivery and clever wit; Kennedy beat Nixon, as we have all heard a million times, because of a suntan and close shave. Television made the George McGoverns, Jerry Fords, and Walter Mondales of the world unelectable, for reasons wholly unrelated to their ideological worthiness. A stammerer like George Washington wouldn't have stood a chance since 1948.
But the media are changing more now than ever before. Every president from Eisenhower through Bush Senior could ask for airtime and be assured of a captive nationwide audience. TV was the dominant medium and there were only a few channels. And people would listen. Then cable arrived with dozens of channels, followed by satellite with hundreds. And then the internet spawned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other media that overwhelm us with words, sounds, and images. Today, we see and hear more, but we don't have to pay attention -- to really listen -- unless we want to. And we seldom want to.
That's why it's foolish for Obama to speak so publicly so often. When he entered office, he commanded a certain awe among both followers and adversaries, and he deserved a lot of that awe. But he squandered it. Two and a half years of nonstop bloviating dulled the luster with the tarnish of familiarity. Little imperfections, vocal ticks, things about his appearance began to bother us in ways they didn't before. He has shown us a petty, petulant side; a frustrated, impatient side; a fumbling, inarticulate side. Everyone knew that his personality had aspects like that; all mere mortals' do. But we don't benefit from seeing it so often, and he doesn't benefit from showing it. The more he talks, the more he sounds like just another talking head. The more he talks, the less we listen.
There is power in silence, and the media-saturation -- the media-inundation -- of our culture makes it needful for Obama, or for his would-be successors, to find a way to harness that power. If nonstop opining makes people listen less, the corollary is that he who speaks less will be listened to more.