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Piercing the Bubble of Presidential Isolation

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Barack Obama seems to have a recurring nightmare. In it, he is president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, but cannot vanquish the one force that has bedeviled all presidents: The Bubble. It can swallow a presidency, isolating the chief executive from both the news he should know and the opinions he should hear, and ensuring that he goes through his day attuned to the comforting chirping of yes men -- the siren song that serenaded George W. Bush as he plunged us into the muck of Iraq.

Obama has often mentioned The Bubble. "This is a problem," he told ABC's Barbara Walters last month. "One of the things that I'm going to have to work through is how to break through the isolation -- the bubble that exists around the president."

Inside The Bubble, as Obama well knows, lurks a further danger: groupthink. Obama has used this Orwellian word himself. "One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink, and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views," he said this month.

Michael Boskin, a White House aide to the first President Bush, recalled in a recent New York Times article exactly what Obama has in mind. Boskin took business leaders into the Oval Office to warn George H.W. Bush of a dire economic forecast. Instead they spent their time praising the president for his handling of the Persian Gulf War.

Or consider what Lawrence Di Rita wrote on this page yesterday. The former Pentagon aide (2001-06) said that while Gen. Eric Shinseki might have told Congress that occupying Iraq would take "several hundred thousand soldiers," he never made that case to President Bush. The collected writings of Bob Woodward make a similar point. Under fire, our generals are brave men. In the Oval Office, they often salute and turn to mush.

For some odd reason, Obama has fastened on to his BlackBerry as an antidote to The Bubble. It won't work. When the BlackBerry is valued for e-mail, it is no different from staff. It will be only as candid as the people on the other end. The First BlackBerry will lie.

There is a remedy of sorts. It is called The Newspaper. It's somewhat antiquated and often awkward to use, but it will bring news to the president he does not want to hear. The paper is not written with him in mind. The paper does not set out to please him, and it is not seeking a job. The paper will give the president more policy options than his staff will, and more news as well. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower responded to a question at a news conference by saying, "You are telling me things about my administration that I have never heard." This is what a newspaper does.

A BlackBerry is of limited utility. You cannot have a hearty family breakfast with everyone gathered around the BlackBerry. But with a good newspaper, the president could read the hard-news section, the first lady could adhere to gender orthodoxy and read the softer sections, and the kids could chuckle at the comics. Just as in the old movies, papa could explain things, like what's the purpose of NATO anymore. (I'm dying to know this myself.) Not all newspapers have comic sections, but even those that don't usually have sports pages and business columns.

A high-quality newspaper is a repository of leaks. Presidents don't care for leaks, but like awful-tasting medicine, leaks are good for presidents. Leaks are an important way that one part of the government can communicate with another. An assistant Cabinet secretary cannot pick up the phone and call the president. His boss won't let him. His boss might block something the president should know. This is where leaks come in. The low-level guy leaks the information to a newspaper and the president reads about it at breakfast. This cannot happen with a BlackBerry.

I can appreciate how this column might be seen as self-serving. It is, of course. The newspaper industry is hurting, besieged by the Internet, mugged by a lousy economy and scorned by the twittery as snailish and too demanding. I concede also that newspapers sometimes can be wrong and occasionally -- as in the run-up to the war -- inexcusably brain-dead. But folded in the manner I learned as a paperboy and tossed with a proper arc, a newspaper can on occasion do what no BlackBerry can -- burst The Bubble.

I take subscriptions.

cohenr@washpost.com


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