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The game I am speaking of is the partisan and divisive game used by many politicians, candidates, and polarizing news radio or television pundits. It is the game of manipulation. The game of manipulation is designed to gain your attention and to then gain influence over your opinion. I am talking about the politicians in your party, especially the "celebrity" types, as well as the television and radio news hosts you listen to, all of whom find a way to be the loudest mouth in the national conversation. DO NOT assume that I am only talking about the other party, the other shows, or the other politicians. I am talking about the politicians in your party, especially the "celebrity" types, as well as the television and radio news hosts you listen to, all of whom find a way to be the loudest mouth in the national conversation.
What are the methods of play?
These divisive and polarizing figures take the path of least resistance. On one hand, this entails "dumbing us down" with overly simplified, overly broad, misleading and sometimes downright untruthful statements. These characters do not get your vote or attention unless you are filled with rage or passion; but more importantly, they do not get your attention unless they reduce complex arguments down to a "bumper sticker sized"statement. Bumper sticker sized statements, sometimes referred to as "sound bites" are better tools of manipulation than complex discussions or nuanced statements. Bumper sticker statements and sound bites convey a minimal amount of information that is devoid of context. To include context in a statement, would lead to facts that do not support the statement or opinion, and would also lead you to believe that the world is a bit more complex than the speaker would like you to believe. Context and fact may also lead you to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. For some politicians, partisans and ideologically extreme media characters, educating you in historical fact, statistics and context would be counter-productive to their effort to hold your attention and counter-productive to their policy goals.
The second method of play is distraction. The game's objective is not to have analytically and substantive discussions or statements about meaningful action and policy, but to prevent us by distraction from coming to our own conclusions using critical thinking skills. One such "shiny object" used for the sake of distraction every summer is the vacation taken by the President. Another such shiny object is the attendance at a fundraising event by the President. Most of these shiny objects are brought to us by a steady barrage of pictures and video clips of Presidential activities.
Example...don't worry...it's non-partisan ;)
Every president, Republican or Democrat, goes on vacations, some extended and some short; and every president, Republican or Democrat attends fundraising events all over the country. Much of the time, these trips occur shortly before, during, or after a major news event. For President Obama it has been the recent August vacation and golf outing in the midst of the growing ISIS threat and beheading of journalist James Foley. President Obama also received some flack for neglecting to visit Ferguson, Missouri during the civil disorder related to the police shooting of Michael Brown. For President Bush, the most resilient memory Americans have of a bad photo op is his 2005 fly over of the damage in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Another memory of the Bush administration is the great deal of
time spent in Crawford, Texas on Bush's ranch even while Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier, protested at the ranch entrance. What Americans must understand is that the "optics" do not necessarily convey a truth. A photo or a trip does not convey action or inaction of a President, no more than a photo posted on Instagram or Facebook for all the world to see conveys your priorities, actions and decisions on a daily basis in managing your career, home and family. Any knee-jerk reaction of a President is either an action taken in ignorance and without forethought, or is simply to put forth an illusion of control and action. American action, whether through the executive branch or Congress, takes time. There are legislative, executive and legal officials that must be consulted; there are facts that must be learned, obtained and continuously updated; and there is often an attempt to build a coalition of support. This is true for domestic events and not just those concerning foreign policy. President Obama's golf outing and delayed press conference did not imply a lack of behind the scenes action in terms of the military and diplomacy, but only implied a lack of public relations. Similarly, President Bush's fly over of Louisiana did not imply that he was failing to fulfill his responsibilities as President when it came to executive action through FEMA. Nor did it imply that he "hated black people" as Kanye West so famously stated on live television. The people of New Orleans were not let down by George W. Bush and thus ended up in the predicament they found themselves in. The people of New Orleans were let down by a system, at the federal and state level, of inadequacies and missed opportunities that goes back decades. President Bush, because of the singular and easily identifiable nature of the Presidency, was made the "poster boy" for this societal and governmental failure. Others questioned why Bush continued to sit and read a book in front of a group of elementary students after the initial news of the 9/11 attacks were whispered in his ear? Those critics couldn't put a human face on Bush and think that like many of us he needed a minute to wrap his head around what had just happened or conceive of the fact that a President should not jump up arms flailing and produce national panic.
Use your own head; think logically.
For a brief and painful moment allow the mostly exaggerated hatred you have for former President Bush, or for current President Obama to disappear. To reference a line from "A Time to Kill", imagine President Obama were Republican or imagine President Bush were a Democrat. Now, think about the following:
1. Presidents, just like us, need to clear their heads. For Presidents, this may be especially so due to the enormous pressure of multiple foreign and domestic crises, the daily tasks they must complete, and the daily pressure of public relations now so reliant on facial expressions, sound bites and hand gestures. And like most of us, they are attempting to nurture a marriage, be involved in the lives of their children and other relatives. Well they asked for it right? Yes they did; but I am glad someone does it because I will not.
2. Presidents are obligated to fund raise for their party. No other political figure can raise the amount of money a president can. It is a simple fact. For this reason, Presidents are under a moral and professional obligation to use the presidency to fund raise for their party, fellow candidates and for groups sharing their policy views. Candidates and non profit organizations, like political parties, survive purely off of donations. Moreover, to not help in raising funds for the party, would mean for the president the prospect of unrealized goals working with an opposition Congress full of those that have opposite view points and policy solutions. To avoid fund raising, which is central to politics, is a silly expectation that Americans have of their presidents.
3. There is always something going on, perhaps even a "crisis". As a super power, every international event is laid at our doorstep. And as a nation of 50 states and over 300 million people it is not a stretch to say that something tragic or worrisome will happen when a president goes on vacation or travels to attend a fundraiser. If Presidents live by the rule of "come back" or "don't go when something bad happens" than they will never step foot out of Washington D.C. except to go on foreign diplomatic trips. This is yet another silly expectation on the part of the American people. However, there are some levels of crisis that would demand that a president drop everything and return to D.C. We have had only a few events in recent history that rise to that level.
4. It is illogical to assume that a president simply "does not care". This is a hate driven opinion that is not rational or logical. We are determined to make the politician of the other party a terrible person bent on destroying America; or at the least, stupid, incompetent, unaware, and unsympathetic. Furthermore, since the presidency travels with the President, they know they can "step away" without actually stepping away.
5. The presidency travels with the President; and because of the huge institution that is now the presidency, presidents are constantly informed, constantly taking part in meetings, constantly managing PR and constantly weighing decisions with input from advisers and analysts. When I go on vacation, I may write some notes down and check email. When a president travels, just about the whole office goes with him. So are they really on vacation?
6. Stop making assumptions based on a trip, a photo, or a sound bite. Presidents are generally tuned in and know more than they may let on for reasons relating to national security or in order to avoiding overreacting, misspeaking or misleading. Presidents cannot give the American people minute by minute accounts of their knowledge, plans, or even feelings. Moreover, a photo op is a photo op and a statement is simply a statement; nothing more. These opportunities may feed the beast of public opinion, but they do little to nothing in terms of governance. A real measure of a president's competence, awareness, and intentions comes by weaving together the many substantive actions taken by a president over a longer-period of time. This does not come as a result of a compartmentalized, week by week or day by day attempt at analyzing a President and demanding that he or she be as reactionary and short-term in thinking as we are. Perhaps there is more going on behind the scenes than we see displayed on the television.
7. Stop acting as though Presidents started vacationing and playing golf only since the beginning of the internet and the 24 hour news network. We allow this silliness to sap our intellect because technology has allowed the daily actions of a president to become the subject of public debate. Do you think that President Roosevelt did not vacation or golf during the Great Depression or World War II when there was a weekly barrage of events demanding his attention? In case your wondering, though, PolitiFact.com has a nice summary of how each president stacks up when it comes to number of vacations and golf outings. You will find a few surprises about recent Presidents, as well as learn that Wilson, President during World War I, arguably an international crisis, golfed more than any president every has.
8. Presidential optics and actions do not just matter to Americans. For every action there is a reaction. This is especially so for Presidents, who are just as visible to foreign leaders and citizens as they are to us. We may not like or understand an action or lack of action taken by a President, but the decision to act or not act may have been to fulfill a purpose not related to public opinion here in the U.S. The president may be attempting to send a message to a foreign government or group, or to a group of politicians here at home to produce a desired result. This is the nature of politics and diplomacy that few Americans understand or are aware of. Just because you get a CNN update on your phone does not mean the President should hold a national press conference. There are times when that is necessary, but there are many times, even when an American life is lost, that this action would be unnecessary or even counter-productive.
If you want a president to drop everything to cater to the minute by minute demands of the media and public opinion in an era of technology-driven rapid response, than you will have a failed presidency on your hands. Stop playing the game by entertaining a thought while thinking critically, rather than immediately accepting it. And do not just do this when it comes to the politicians or party you have been socialized to automatically hate.