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The Obama White House: Mired in Distraction

Why does President Barack Obama’s White House continue to be mired in distraction? Since the president took office there has been Gates Gate; the international snub in Copenhagen, Denmark, after the president flew there overnight to make a bid for Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Olympics; the call for New York Gov. David Patterson not to seek election to a full term; and now the puerile decision to attack Fox News.


“What I think is fair to say about Fox — and  certainly it’s the way we view it — is that it really is more a wing of the Republican Party,” White House Communications Director Anita Dunn said on CNN. “They take their talking points, put them on the air; take their opposition research, put them on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news network the way CNN is.” 


A real network the way CNN is? So now the White House is in the business of defining what a real network is and is not? I thought the role of the White House was to govern, not to endorse or legitimatize networks. Should we now expect that the White House will be telling us the difference between “real butter” and “real margarine” next? This is the theater of the absurd.


In a representative democracy, government does not get to tell the people which networks are real and which are not. We decide for ourselves. Is the White House comfortable engaging in a propaganda campaign? Surely Ms. Dunn does not think that this edict from the White House will distract from the real issues. Or, perhaps she does.


To be sure, presidents have always complained about the media. However, never has a White House engaged in such a high-level strategy to drive up a network’s ratings.  So, thanks to the White House and Ms. Dunn, advertising time on Fox News may soon be more expensive. Perhaps, this is linked to their broader goal of stimulating the economy. (Stimulus Part II)?


If the president and his team decide they don’t wish to appear on Fox News then it is their choice to make. However, to have the White House take an official position vilifying a single network is amateurish and moronic.


Perhaps, the better role for Ms. Dunn is to define what a real communications strategy is for an increasingly distracted presidency and stick to it. 


On the day before the first major vote on health care reform from a Senate committee, the news was about the war on Fox News.  Is it any wonder that this continues to be a White House that is out of focus? Ms. Dunn, can you communicate to us with the same crystal clarity that you did about Fox News what the president’s real position on the public option is? Can you also let us know whether the president plans to commit to sending more troops to Afghanistan? Can you tell us why the White House thinks it can win the war in Afghanistan without seriously dealing with Pakistan? Does the president believe al-Qaida is in Pakistan or Afghanistan?


As the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, why does the president still employ the technique of rendition that allows combatants to be interrogated outside of the U.S.? We also want to know whether the president believes N.Y. Rep. Charlie Rangel should resign his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee given the serious allegations surrounding him. Could you also communicate to us when Guantanamo Bay will close and what we will do with the prisoners there? Could you also tell us how many czars work in the White House and what they do? Is there discussion that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded as a way of influencing U.S. foreign policy? If so, what’s the president’s position on this?


The White House even used its blog to criticize Fox News in a post called “Reality Check.” The reality is the White House would have more credibility if it would be truthful. The president will not appear on Fox News because he and others in the administration do not agree with the politics of many of its commentators and pundits. The same blog does not provide any reality check for NBC or MSNBC where the commentators and pundits support and generally fawn over the president.


As I wrote in “The Obama Presidency in Peril?” “Leadership, in a digital and global world, requires first having a message and then taking control of the message before the message gets lost in the real or manufactured political scandals of the day. What we have seen from this White House so far is that a) they don’t understand this b) they are incapable of rapid and deliberate responses and c) they intend to run from crisis throughout the Obama presidency. This, of course, is counter to transformational leadership.”


So, why does Obama the president appear to be less transformational than Obama the candidate? Perhaps it is because he needs more diversity in his close circle of advisers. According to a survey conducted by The National Journal magazine, 37 percent of top Obama administration officials graduated from Ivy League institutions. This raises the question of whether there is sufficient intellectual diversity to help the president become a transformational leader.

Intellectual diversity within the administration may help the president make decisions that focus on governing and eschew posturing.


Finally, some of you will no doubt conclude that this piece is a defense of Fox News. It is not. It is a defense of the right of critical thinkers to decide for ourselves what is fact and what is fiction without the imprimatur of the government.


Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of “The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post-Racial America” and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

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