By Peter RoffSenior Fellow Institute for Liberty former Senior Political Writer, United Press International
The White House has a problem.
A technical malfunction at a St. Patrick's Day event, in no way the resident's fault, has nonetheless focused attention on what some news organizations have called Obama's "overreliance" on the TelePrompTer. This, in and of itself, might not be such a bad thing except that it conflicts with his reputation for being a compelling speaker possessed of a broad command of the issues.
In reaction to the attention generated by the St. Patrick's Day flub the White House has, for the moment, nuked the TelePrompTer. During the President's press conference earlier this week it was nowhere to be seen, leaving Obama to make his opening remarks from memory -- aided by a 52-inch large screen television placed strategically at the back of the room. At his online town hall meeting on Thursda, Obama had only a notebook work from. The notebook was spread across the top podium. But, if you watched carefully, you could see him steal glances while answering some of the questions submitted by e-mail.
It is not so much an issue of the President relying on notes or technology when making remarks - other presidents have done it, although some more expertly than others. Again, it is that the use of electronic supports, when making remarks in public, conflicts with the image of presidential competence that the White House is trying to project -- it also undermines the idea that the president is a brilliant communicator.
The actions the White House has taken since the St. Patrick's Day incident, as well as any they may be considering, raise the issue of where the management of the president's remarks-- as it relates to his image-- should stop.
In its April issue, The American Spectator - a conservative journal of news and opinion -- reports that the White House is now "looking into how to hide video screens in podiums the president uses." Technological improvements such as these would allow aides, the magazine says, "to scroll speech texts, messages, and even statistical data or quick points to be made by Obama in answering press questions." This, of course, would allow the president to "wow" the press corps with his command of the facts during every press conference. But would that be fair, to the press or to the public?
Recall, in the strange way that life eventually begins to imitate art, "Broadcast News," a movie about the news business in Washington. In a pivotal scene the character played by actress Holly Hunter guides newsman William Hurt's character through a breaking news event. The film has already shown the audience that Hurt is clearly not qualified as an anchor-- and now, during a breaking news event, critical questions are given to him through his earpiece. Hurt's character, clearly flying above the level of his competence ---obviously, it's better to be pretty than to be smart --- eventually becomes the network's national news anchor. He's rewarded with the coveted position, in part, because of his on-air performance at a critical moment, a moment which Hunter's character guided him through so brilliantly.
The idea of developing the technology needed for, let's call them "electronic cribs notes," in the arena of presidential politics would be even more dishonest than the "Broadcast News" scenario -- and in two important ways.
First, the give and take between the press corps and the president is an important part of the political process. In these situations the president is tasked with explaining what he intends to do, why he did something, and then must stake out a position. Often, he makes a mistake that effects the way the public sees him and views his administration. A presidential press conference is, after a fashion, a test of sorts. Having top aides update the talking points as needed during the give and take is akin to writing the answers to a test on a shirt cuff or sneaker bottom.
Second, rather than leading to a better informed public it would help the White House present a distorted image of the president and his competence. The American people deserve better, or at least that's what we were told after left-wing bloggers started raising questions about the possibility that electronic assistance was secretly given to George W. Bush during his second debate with John Kerry in 2004.
In politics, just as in Hollywood, image matters. But, unlike Hollywood, it's no substitute for competence. The people need to be able to trust what their leaders say in a way they don't have to when they listen to celebrities. The idea that the leader of the free world is being fed his lines when he faces the press would cheapen the presidency, not enhance it.
Peter Roff, a former senior writer at United Press International, is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, an organization that advocates for educational freedom and reform.