Spending time with the decision-maker-in-chief

September 28, 2012

Really worth a read this: a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair of President Obama, by journalist Michael Lewis, who spent six months behind the scenes. In amongst the fascinating vignettes of Obama at rest, work and play (his weekly basketball games where anyone who ‘goes easy’ on the President isn’t invited back, Obama’s favourite place in the White House where he and Michelle sit whenever they can), much of the article focuses on the President’s approach to making decisions, in particular the decision to actively intervene in Libya. In the course of trying to understand Obama’s approach, Lewis makes a second attempt to ask how the current President would prepare someone else to take on a role that involves making hundreds of crucial decisions a day:

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

And then on another occasion the President tells Lewis:

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.


How do Americans learn what’s going on locally?

September 27, 2012

Interesting new survey findings from the Pew Internet & American Life research project, looking at how Americans in different types of community find out about what’s going on locally.

In summary of the summary – available here – it seems that most use a wide variety of both traditional and online news sources depending on which local topic they’re interested in, but that the mix varies depending on whether you live in an urban, suburban, small town or rural setting.

The blend of media is particularly rich for urban residents; suburban residents are more likely to rely on radio; small town dwellers the local newspaper; and rural residents… are generally ‘less interested in almost all local topics than those in other communities. The one exception is taxes.’

Wonder what these findings mean for how the presidential campaigns’ messages are getting through?

You snooze you lose?

September 26, 2012

The vast majority of people writing about US politics – any politics, arguably – have little or no clue as to what’s really going on ‘behind the scenes’, but that doesn’t stop them putting pen to paper. And at times of apparently momentous change, for example the recent and seemingly stubborn shift towards the Dems, the bollocks multiplies. Levels of interest rise, insight doesn’t.

A case in point: Arianna Huffington’s blog post last week entitled Is Sleep Deprivation the Reason the Romney Campaign is Blowing It? It’s hard to know where to begin: this isn’t a light, humorous piece, but a fairly detailed analysis of Romney’s mis-steps, arriving at the coup de grace…

So what is behind all these bad decisions? Here’s my theory: not enough sleep. And I have evidence (at least one piece)! While I was at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, a well-sourced journalist told me that senior Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom sleeps only three or four hours with his devices beside him, then wakes and checks his email, sends out replies, and then gets another hour of sleep. Or not. If Fehrnstrom’s habits are at all indicative of the Romney campaign operation at large, then voila — mystery solved!

And what, Obama’s senior people are taking regular catnaps? Sleep deprivation and politics go hand-in-hand, and whilst today’s neverending news cycle means things may’ve gotten worse, at some level it was ever thus. In his biography of LBJ Robert Dallek recounts how Johnson would work such long hours on the campaign trail he would have to be literally propped up at parties in the evening, able to barely raise a hand to greet wellwishers.

Little sleep is one thing, no sleep another matter entirely, however. One man with real access to a presidential campaign – unlike Arianna – is Jay Root, who this weekend revealed that Romney’s onetime challenger Governor Rick Perry did, in fact, have lack of sleep at least partially to blame for his botched showing. Following a couple of truly disastrous debates, the medics were called in…

After conducting overnight tests on Perry, they produced a rather startling diagnosis: He had sleep apnea, and it had gone undetected for years, probably decades. The ailment, which affects one in 10 men worldwide and becomes more common as people age, causes loud snoring and temporary lapses in breathing that disrupt normal sleep.

So when truth can be stranger than fiction, the problem we seem to be left with is which bollocks to believe?

Romney’s dad amongst the 47 per cent

September 19, 2012

Beautiful, rather touching irony this: as polls show swing states slipping away from the Republican challenger after he dismissed almost half the country as scroungers, a video of Mitt’s mum (mom, sorry) being interviewed in 1962, confirming both that the surreal practice of wives stumping on behalf of their politician husbands is as old as the hills, and that Romney Senior was ‘on relief, welfare relief, for the first years of his life’.

Wishful thinking, or will Obama really benefit from a global leftward trend?

September 17, 2012

In amidst news of infighting amongst members of Team Romney and a shift of that campaign (from ‘focused but ultimately ineffective’ to ‘unfocused’) I find it important to bear in mind the old rule of thumb: campaigns are rarely going as badly or as well as it seems.

And yet… goodness it’s tempting. Tempting to believe that the challenge facing Romney isn’t just a mad professor chief of staff doing three jobs or a Hollywood director who refused to be scripted. Tempting to think that the Republicans are running against the tide. That the President’s narrow lead has structural causes.

Especially when respected political commentators like E. J. Dionne (Jr.) suggest the flow may be a global one:

The movement in the presidential race reflects a broader trend visible in many nations. In the immediate wake of the financial crisis, electorates moved not toward parties of the left, which is what one might expect during a crisis of capitalism, but toward the right. Conservative-leaning parties won a long list of national elections in 2009 and 2010, including the Republicans’ midterm triumph here.

Since then, thinks Dionne, the centre-left has mounted a comeback, resulting in Hollande winning and Miliband leading. Can it be true that voters the world over eventually always come back to the middle of the road?

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