Obama: the most videoed president in history

August 22, 2013

Did you know that President Obama has an official videographer? I found out today, thanks to this NPR article.

Arun Chaudhary spent the entire 2008 campaign and the first two years of the administration filming Obama behind the scenes.

“We are definitely talking about thousands and thousands of hours,” he says, “and that’s just … my camera.”

Chaudhary and his successors have filmed Obama on the basketball court, in the Oval Office and palling around with Elena Kagan seconds before he nominated her to the Supreme Court.

How cool is that? The problem, it transpires, is that the sheer volume will, given the format, make it a nightmare for future historians to navigate:

While the material will go to the National Archives and eventually to the Obama presidential library, Chaudhary says there are crucial differences between official and casual events that make his material much harder to search.

“I could put the text of a speech into a file or something next to the video of the speech … and then when you’re searching for a specific line, it can come up,” he says. “But to actually have someone transcribe every casual conversation the president had with anyone while I was filming, I can tell you would take a long time.”

Those transcripts don’t exist, and nobody plans to create them. The behind-the-scenes footage is labeled by date and place. But beyond that, the contents will remain a mystery until someone combs through and catalogs them.

In the meantime, here’s a really fun compilation clip:

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A puppyish Congress

May 3, 2013

I really enjoyed this incisive and powerful opinion piece by Obama’s former chief speechwriter Jon ‘not that one’ Favreau. In it, Mr Favreau reminds us how deeply entrenched – politically and constitutionally – is Congress’ ability to derail positive change even when the vast majority of voters support it, and asks the American people to remember they too have an active part to play. Read the whole thing, it isn’t lengthy. This passage made me chuckle:

This Congress has so profoundly disappointed the American people that I suppose the real news would be if they ever did anything that even remotely reflected popular will. At this point, getting angry with Congress for failing to legislate seems as useful as yelling at a puppy for peeing on the floor: neither of them knows any better.


Watching Lincoln

February 2, 2013

Finally got round to watching Lincoln last night – finally in the sense that it’s been available to moviegoers across the water for months and has generated an unavoidable hype. Expectations were high, and were largely met. Daniel Day-Lewis is just as astonishing as he’s said to be, simply an incredible example of an actor allowing himself to disappear into a role. The dialogue is sparkling and surprisingly for a film about such a momentous time there’s plenty of laugh-out-loud humour. Tommy Lee-Jones overacts with Pacino-esque brio, and the supporting cast swarms with brilliance: Jackie Earle Haley as the Vice President of the Confederacy and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant were my personal favourites. The person I watched the film with was distracted from fully similar enjoyment by the schmaltz, which was fairly frequent – stirring music, dramatic lighting, portentous tones – what you might call ‘West Wing 39 moments’: the point a minute from the end of almost every episode of Sorkin’s series when things would take a turn for the patriotic and soppy. There’s no pleasing some people.


Nate Silver on sport v. politics

January 11, 2013

Undisputed king of the 2012 US election analysts Nate Silver (who, can I just point out, I was trumpeting at least as far back as last January) followed Obama himself in taking part in a Q&A on Reddit. The quality of conversation was high – check out the full transcript here – and I particularly enjoyed Nate’s answer to the question ‘which do you find more frustrating to analyse, politics or sports?’:

Politics. I don’t think its close. Between the pundits and the partisans, you’re dealing with a lot of very delusional people. And sports provides for much more frequent reality checks. If you were touting how awesome Notre Dame was, for example, you got very much slapped back into reality last night. In politics, you can go on being delusional for years at a time.


Waiting for Lincoln

November 18, 2012

If I was already pretty darn excited about seeing Spielberg’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, then reading the passage below in an article about the film in The New Republic has left me even more convinced that this will be a cinematic event to be savoured equally for its authenticity as its other qualities. But why on earth are British movie-goers being forced to wait until January, thereby missing out on the frisson of drawing parallels with the politics of today?

The cred­its admit to use of Doris Kearns Good­win’s book, Team of Rivals, not just as a way of claim­ing bona fides, but in sug­gest­ing that the words used—cir­cum­lo­cu­to­ry, deco­rous but pun­gent, and far more elu­sive than most movie dia­logue—come from doc­u­ments and mem­oirs.


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.


Paul Ryan for VP: a storm in a tea (party) cup

August 15, 2012

Mitt Romney’s appointment of Tea Party darling, congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential candidate has provided a welcome boost for the commentariat who were finding the war of attrition between the Obama and Romney camps increasingly dull. Whatever the general opinion on the merits of the choice, the firm consensus is that we’re in for a lot more fun now that we have, essentially, Sarah Palin with brains on the GOP ticket. Even if the evidence gives little indication that the name of the man below the name of the man-who-would-be-president will have any real impact whatsoever.

If the hacks are to be believed, excitement will be confined to the Republican base and will quickly turn to dismay as Romney finds himself increasingly shackled to Ryan’s extreme views (the ever-authoritative Nate Silver on the NYT FiveThirtyEight blog has Ryan as the most conservative GOP congressman to have been picked for VP since at least 1900: closest to Michele Bachmann in political hue). And a POLITICO survey of Republican insiders suggests they’ve basically thrown in the towel, taking a stance best summed up as ‘I love Paul Ryan but…’.

Over at openDemocracy, Magnus Nome echoes many of the same criticisms of the decision, but suggests we may be giving Romney too little credit:

Something here that should worry Obama: Romney has plenty of experience taking calculated risks, is obsessed with thorough research and has become very rich based on these skills. Wise or not, it’s not a Hail Mary pass like McCain’s.

So let’s take Mr Nome up on this invitation to look, as we are led to suppose Mitt may’ve done, at the evidence about Ryan’s likely impact. Three nuggets in particular caught my eye:

1. Voters don’t yet know how extreme Ryan’s views are. Whilst he has relatively high levels of name recognition for a VP candidate, polls suggest few know about his ‘famous’ budget reform proposals or asked-for cuts to Medicare. So as Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic, this means Democrats and Republicans have the chance to fight to define him in the minds of voters (a battle that’s already well underway, naturally).

2. Initial reaction to Ryan as VP is less positive than normal. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last Sunday shows that whilst more Republicans are excited about Ryan than were about Palin, the choice has received a more negative reaction from the electorate as a whole than any VP-pick since Dan Quayle in 1988. So Ryan, and the Romney campaign as a whole, have more ground to make up.

3. It’s all about the top of the ticket. When all is said and done, this will probably be a storm in the Tea Party’s cup. As Associated Press writer Josh Lederman points out in this piece in the Washington Post, a string of nominated vice presidents including Al Gore, Dick Cheney and John Edwards seemed like game-changers at the time they were announced, but almost certainly didn’t have a big impact on the outcome. And indeed the Gallup poll bears this out: just as in every election back to 1988, roughly two-thirds of people say the man or woman on the bottom of the ticket will have no effect on their vote.


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