Posted tagged ‘Barack Obama’

The professor in government?

November 4, 2014

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my early teens. At the time I was living in what was West Germany, and the government was a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats. One of the key cabinet ministers was Professor Karl Schiller, who had previously been Head of the Economics Faculty of the University of Hamburg.

Fast forward to 2009. In its issue of January 16 of that year, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education reported that ‘President-elect [as he then was] Obama’s transition team is raiding university faculties as it races to fill … jobs in the federal government’.  Some of those who had been headhunted included the Dean of the Harvard Law School (Solicitor-General), a Professor of Journalism at Ohio University (chief White House photographer), the Director of a Research Centre at George Washington University – and even the then new CIA Director (though he may in the past have been a Congressman and a White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton) had most recently been a professor at California State University in Monterey. The Chronicle suggested that ‘hundreds’ of academics would end up in government or in government agencies under the Obama administration.

Such a strong academic presence in government is not something we expect in these islands, in part because the career path for politicians is wholly different. Many frontline politicians graduate to that status from local government or from one of the professions (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc), whereas in many other countries there is much greater diversity of background. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that in Ireland there have been some prominent academic politicians: Garrett FitzGerald (Fine Gael and of course Taoiseach), Martin O’Donoghue, President Michael D. Higgins spring to mind. But despite that, academic politicians have been few and far between, and even political advisers have not on the whole been from the university world. In Britain I cannot immediately think of any academics who became frontline politicians, though readers may be able to correct me.

I suspect that this has been to the disadvantage both of politics and academia, as it has tended to keep principle and theory out of government and political reality out of academic circles, at least to some extent. So as not to be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that government should be dominated by academics, but some academic presence would probably be helpful, and would also make the workings and benefits of the universities more familiar to politicians. The gap in understanding between the two professions, which sometimes has consequences in government policy on higher education, might not be so pronounced.

Of course the opportunities for such involvement will remain few for as long as the politicians move along their current career paths. But maybe it would be a good idea to raise some questions around that anyway.


Political communication

September 6, 2012

Long term – that should probably be ‘long-suffering’ – readers of this blog may recall that, back in 2009 when I was still working in Ireland, I bemoaned the apparent inability of the then Irish government to make a case to the people for the steps it was taking to repair the economic damage that had afflicted the country. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen in particular was politically tongue-tied, and the lack of any coherent narrative eventually persuaded the people, for better or for worse, that the government did not know what it was doing and had to be removed; and they voted accordingly in early 2011.

Political communication matters, because politics is in part about the discussion and analysis of ideas. It is also about people and personalities, but these become most effective when what they are communicating engages the electorate.

One of the reasons, I would argue, why current economic problems have been so intractable across the developed world is because those who have the levers of power seem to be so bad at explaining what they are doing with them, and why. Even Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 by the American people on a wave of enthusiasm for his message, appeared to lose the ability to engage the people once in power and, no doubt, worn down by the sheer awfulness of the problems that needed to be solved.

But such communication can be done. And if President Obama has been less than perfect at being the national (and global) narrator, his predecessor but one, Bill Clinton, las night showed in his Democratic Convention speech (which you can watch here) that he is the master politician. He may have taken Obama a step closer to re-election; and perhaps to finding his own voice.

The right and wrong Michel(l)e

March 26, 2011

In June 2010 Paul McCartney was awarded the US Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, and to celebrate the award was invited to sing in the White House. As part of the concert he sang the Beatles’ song ‘Michelle’, in the presence of Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle. McCartney quipped that he might return regularly to the venue. Speaking for myself, if he were to do that and give the song another outing, I only hope that its addressee would still be Michelle Obama, and not another Michele [sic] currently hoping to make it into the White House: the extraordinary (and I don’t particularly mean that in the good sense) Michele Bachmann.

If you have no idea whom I am talking about, you may need to take a moment to acquaint yourself with her. Michele Bachmann is Congresswoman for Minnesota, currently serving her second term. On her website she presents herself as ‘a principled reformer who stays true to her conservative beliefs while pushing for real reform of the broken ways of Washington’. Others may see her just a little differently: she is often seen as bizarrely rightwing, and somewhat confused in relation to the US history she likes to cite. Among the political positions she has adopted are phasing out social security and considering a nuclear strike on Iran. She wants the United States not to be ‘part of the global economy’ (whatever that means).

Anyway, this wonderful cocktail of half-baked lunacies may be about to launch itself as a presidential manifesto. Bachmann is apparently contemplating setting up an exploratory committee, the first step towards a potential White House bid. And if you tend to raise your eyebrows at the thought of Sarah Palin as American President, she would be a model of moderate reasonableness and cerebral intelligence next to Bachmann.

There may be something more profound for us to come to grips with here, however, and it is not necessarily just an American phenomenon. There is a tendency right now for the political right – that is, the ‘respectable’ right outside of the overtly racist and xenophobic brigade – to reinvent itself in political terms that owe nothing to the global post-War political market economy consensus. And that may be something to worry about.

For now, whether it is Bachmann or indeed Palin, I doubt that this sort of message will find a majority in the electorate. In fact, before it gets traction in a bigger way it probably needs a rather more intelligent advocate. But it does have support, and we may need to engage with a political spectrum that is changing dramatically, and in very strange ways.

But in the meantime, I hope that Paul McCartney returns to the White House to serenade Michelle Obama in three years or so.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

March 17, 2011

Today is Ireland’s national holiday. This being so, it stands to reason that there will be major parades across the world – particularly in the United States – and new Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be the guest of Barack Obama in the White House. Of course, today the US President is Barack O’Bama.

Ireland’s fortunes have taken a big hit of late, but this is one day when it is able to attract good-natured attention from Washington to, sort of, Beijing. So if you’re Irish – and on this day that means everyone – have a good St Patrick’s Day.

Measuring influence in today’s world

January 30, 2011

Maybe you have heard of Justin Bieber, maybe you haven’t. So here’s a very short biography. He is nearly 17 years old. He is a singer. He has released one well-received album. He has a Twitter account with nearly 7 million followers. And according to some noise published earlier this month, he is more influential than Barack Obama. Actually, let’s tell the whole truth, according to the same survey Obama also lags behind Lady Gaga, who has just short of 8 million Twitter followers. You may be starting to get the idea: President Obama has a Twitter following of ‘only’ about 6 and a half million.

So what’s this all about? Are we just measuring Twitter followers and concluding that this must be the sole basis of power and influence? Well, not quite, but very nearly. This league table of influence was brought to us courtesy of the website klout, which describes itself as the ‘standard for influence’. In fact klout is one of those internet success stories, and it has suddenly caught on. According to its own website, this is what it does:

‘The Klout Score is the measurement of your overall online influence. The scores range from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence. Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.’

So let me reveal my own influence: according to klout, my score is 53. Let’s see how that compares with others. Well, the would-be next Taoiseach Enda Kenny beats me by one point and comes in at 54. But I am happy to report that he is the only Irish politician who is more influential than I am, and that no Irish university president or Scottish principal comes even close to competing with me. But I am not the most influential university president globally. Professor Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University is an exact tie with Enda Kenny, at 54 points.

What are we to make of all this? Should we just laugh at such nonsense and conclude it’s trivial? Or is there an argument somewhere to be made about the changing nature of influence in the new world of instant communication?

I wouldn’t spend two minutes worrying about whether Barack Obama really is less influential than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but I would point out that he is in this league table at all, which almost no other politician is. In fact, as we well know, this is entirely connected with his presidential campaign, which took off in part because he was smart enough to understand the political potential of the internet and social networking. We don’t yet see the Chinese president in any of this, but sooner or later, with the Chinese people’s voracious appetite for the internet, that too will come in some shape or form.

As for an academic dimension, some worry that the major source of modern day influence, Twitter, may actually be trivialising scholarship, forcing all academic knowledge into 140 characters and celebrating celebrity rather than vision or insight; this is the theme of an article by Professor Tara Brabazon (klout score: 50) in Times Higher Education. There is a hint in this kind of critique that if you can prompt someone to re-tweet your most recent 140-character thought then neither you nor the thought nor the re-tweeter can amount to much. I can understand why one might say that, but I believe it to be wrong. The message of scholarship doesn’t change, but the means for disseminating it do; if that were not so, we’d be publishing our work on hand-printed vellum.

I suspect that Stephen Hawking is not concerned that his klout score is only 50. But he is there on Twitter, and so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere. It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.

The importance of good (political) communication

January 25, 2011

Political careers have been made (and unmade) through good (or bad) communication. People who would struggle to name any of John F. Kennedy’s political achievements will nevertheless quote him saying ‘Ask what you can do for your country’, or ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ Barack Obama’s road to the US presidency undoubtedly began with his extraordinary speech to the Democratic Party convention in 2004. By the same token, Gordon Brown in part failed as British Prime Minister because, coming after Tony Blair, he simply could not match his predecessor’s ability to persuade with his oratory. And now in Ireland, Brian Cowen’s career ended after it became clear he could not or would not address the people to tell them what he was doing, and why, and how it would ultimately benefit them. It is too early to judge whether his policies really were failures (though right now that’s the consensus judgement), but we can certainly say that he failed dismally as a communicator.

Politics is only partly about finding the right policies for the time; it is in equal measure about persuading colleagues, supporters and the people that the policies are right. It is about setting a vision before the public and asking them to share it, and by that device to create a bond of common purpose. People generally will accept hardships and sacrifices if they know what the ultimate prize will be, and this requires skilled communication. If this is not a skill demonstrated by the outgoing Taoiseach, I would have to say that, as yet, I am not persuaded that the other party leaders have it in abundance either. The election campaign may tell us more.

At this time we need what has been called ‘rhetorical leadership’, and it has been identified as perhaps the key ingredient in securing popular support during times of crisis [see for example Ryan Lee Teten, ‘We the People”: The “Modern” Rhetorical Popular Address of the Presidents during the Founding Period’, Political Research Quarterly 2007 60: 669-682]. During this terrible period of upheaval and failure, people need to be inspired and enthused. Let us hope at least some of our leaders are equal to the task.

I’m telling you, they’re out to get us…!

August 20, 2010

One of the fun but crazy aspects of modern life is the conspiracy theory. If there’s a major contemporary event, there’ll be some paranoid conspiracy theory about it – whether it’s JFK’s assassination, the not-so-dead afterlife of Elvis, the significance of fluoride in water, that kind of thing. Someone I knew once in Cambridge – an otherwise brilliant man – always told friends in hushed tones that ‘the sprays’ were out to get him; nobody ever knew what he was talking about, but everyone found it better just to nod sympathetically.

But perhaps the most active (and frankly, craziest) peddlers of conspiracy theories are the more extreme rightwing groups in America; there’s nothing to beat them. From their absolute conviction that Barack Obama is a Muslim, to their belief that the government is spraying chemicals into the air to poison or subdue them, there’s nothing so weird or so stupid that they cannot believe it. This website provides some further examples.

Maybe we need to polish up our own talents in these matters. Given recent Irish history, surely there must be fertile ground here for something zany.

Obama has another go at health

February 23, 2010

Public health and the availability of healthcare in an affordable and efficient way are top priorities for people in most countries. Governments respond to that by ensuring that they, too, are seen to prioritise healthcare. And yet it is a political graveyard, whatever country you may want to consider. The only politician that I can remember in my lifetime, in any country of which I have knowledge, making some political capital out of the health brief was Charles Haughey, when he was Minister for Health in Ireland in the late 1970s. He somehow managed to side-step the hot issues and dodge the usual bullets, and was admired and lauded; and for what? He offered every member of the population a toothbrush. Smart move.

Every other politician who has tried health has regretted it. Brian Cowen and Mary Harney in Ireland; Frank Dobson and many others in the UK; Hillary Clinton and, now, Barack Obama in the US. The problem is that everyone wants to be protected and cared for, but without big bills when disease or ill health strikes. And nobody knows how to square that circle. The only way to do it securely is through insurance that has been properly assessed on an actuarial basis, but unless there is some ‘risk equalisation’ (meaning that the cost of insurance is not related to the likelihood of illness) it becomes prohibitive; and if there is risk equalisation it becomes unprofitable for insurers. There is no way of winning in this game.

And yet, as civilised countries, we must find a way of addressing this, as we cannot go back to making people live insecurely in fear of the consequences for them and their families of serious illness. So we must continue to try, and more politicians will have to be offered up on this altar.

Let us hope that Barack Obama – whom the world needs to be successful for all sorts of reasons – is not one of these. After a lot of political jousting over the past year on the back of proposals made by his Democratic Party, he has now come forward with his own proposals for health reform. In the United States this is vital not least because of the large numbers who are currently outside any system of healthcare. If I read his plan correctly, he is hoping to achieve progress through compulsory insurance for all in a setting of a regulated industry with capped premiums (so presumably some risk equalisation). Whether this can work remains to be seen. But much more important right now than whether the figures might add up is whether it can work politically. There would be damaging consequences if this plan fails. So I am not thinking too much about whether this is a viable way of managing healthcare, I am just hoping it is accepted and is implemented, so that Americans can get proper cover and so that Obama’s political capital rises again. These are tricky times, and what happens to US healthcare may affect us all in unexpected ways.

Professorial abuse

February 16, 2010

Almost twenty years ago, and only a month or so after I had taken up my then new position as Professor of Law at the University of Hull, I was invited to take part in a local public meeting to discuss employment law. I gave a short presentation on the future of this branch of the law, and suggested that in the light of the political battles that had been fought over it during the previous 10 years of Margaret Thatcher’s term of office neither of the two main British parties had a sensible plan for it. This brought out a strong expression of outrage from a man in the audience. I couldn’t work out which side of the political divide he was on, but whatever else he might have been for or against he certainly hated academics: what business had I, he asked in a tone of real anger,  to lecture them about what political parties should do. Being a professor, he suggested, had clearly gone to my head and I was obviously now ‘some sort of prima donna’.

I took it on the chin and made one or two polite comments in response, but I had noticed that one or two others in the audience nodded when he accused me of professorial arrogance. And so in the years that have followed I have noticed that, from time to time, I will encounter someone who believes that academic excellence is by definition objectionable, and that it indicates a state of mind that approves of social elitism and is guilty of snobbery. The highlight of this was, for me, when a politician once, in a tone of exasperation, suggested to me that ‘too much intellectual ability warps the mind’.

Clearly I am not alone in this experience. Some years ago the then British Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham berated an academic member of the UK’s House of Lords with the words that ‘excessive academic knowledge almost always produces a biased perspective’. The latest manifestation of anti-academic intellectualism is Sarah Palin’s reported criticism of Barack Obama as someone with a ‘flawed approach’ because he behaves not like a commander-in-chief, but rather like ‘a constitutional law professor’.

There is a peculiar tendency in some social circles in English-speaking countries to celebrate anti-intellectualism and to pour scorn on academic excellence. It is sometimes said (and I cannot say whether it is entirely accurate) that English is the only major language in which the word ‘clever’ can be and is used as a term of abuse. Those who are inclined towards this position often distinguish between intellectual argument and ‘common sense’, suggesting that the latter is a better way of assessing and responding to complex situations. Sarah Palin probably is the current high priest of this particular faith.

This, however, is where universities have a mission, and perhaps one they have not to date adequately addressed. They need to persuade the general population that the ability to assess, explain and develop complex knowledge is a huge strength and benefits society in countless ways. They need to show that this doers not just yield up interesting theoretical perspectives, but also very practical improvements and innovations. Scholarship and learning are not only hallmarks of a decent society, but also of a successful one. Anti-intellectual sentiments must be fought wherever they are found, but in a reasoned way. If the academic community cannot do this successfully, it may not have much of a future.

Having a party?

February 7, 2010

Here’s something from the United States that you may need to become familiar with, though I hope it won’t last long: the so-called ‘Tea Party Movement‘. I’ve been kind of aware of it for a little while, but for me it’s been one of those phenomena you know you’re not going to like if you try to find out more, so why not leave it in somewhere in the background while focusing on more congenial stuff? Well, Sarah Palin delivered a speech there last night, and as she has some entertainment value for me I decided to overcome my reluctance and find out more.

I decided to start by looking at their mission statement, and the first thing I was able to take away from it was that the Tea Party Movements likes capital letters at the beginning of Every Important Word. Here’s what they say they believe in:

Tea Party Patriots as an organization believes in the Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, and Free Markets.

But the Important Words do also reveal more – they are the buzzwords of the American conservative right. And so these folks are a movement that wants to portray the intellectual foundations of the United States as being concerned with free markets, gun ownership and low taxation; and to make that connection they have taken a name that is intended to suggest that they represent the true spirit of the American Revolution. Whether this has worked is another matter; on the whole the general view of them appears to be of fairly extreme right wingers with a slightly nutty approach to politics. Or at least, that is what some commentators are suggesting, and so maybe what these folks needed was a person who could reject such talk as the elitist, out-of-touch rantings of liberal intellectuals.

And so here comes the folksy Ms Palin, invited by the Tea Party guys to address their first convention, and with just such a message. Interestingly, she has felt the need to build up to the event by explaining why she is doing it, a kind of getting in her justification first. This has come via her Facebook page (and interestingly, Ms Palin’s main internet presence is there), via an opinion piece she wrote for the newspaper USA Today, and on her Twitter page.

And what did she say at the convention? I’ve read several accounts of her speech, and for the life of me I can’t work out what message she was trying to get across, beyond the charge that Barack Obama is no good and that the Tea Party people are Just Wonderful. So maybe the significance is what some have suggested it to be, that she has identified this particular movement as the base on which she will build her expected challenge for the presidency in 2012.

We shall have to wait and see. I do like the idea of her candidacy because of the sheer entertainment value it promises. But a little bit of me is terrified that we may find that this can gather a bigger group of supporters than we (or at any rate I) would like to imagine. Let us hope that Obama finds the perfect formula for success.