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An Hour With The President

Posted by Elwin Green on June 17, 2014 at 11:10 PM

I went into today's event at TechShop with a rough outline of expectations of how things would go with President Obama.

He did not follow my script.

He led with an announcement about the capture of Abu Khatalla, an alleged mastermind of the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.

After that came a surprisingly brief exposition about the resurgence of American manufacturing. As he spoke, I waited for a weighty moment, in which he would say something like, "Today I am proud to announce...." Because, you see, I had spent at least a couple of hours trying to craft The Best Possible Question to ask as a follow-up to The Announcement.



But The Announcement didn't come, at least not in the way that I expected. Yes, he mentioned giving more people access to federal equipment, and mentioned a commitment by mayors. But for me, it felt almost off-the-cuff.


Then he launched right into a Q & A from the audience, who seemed to be all TechShop members.


I was live-tweeting, and when The Announcement didn't happen the way I expected, I got confused about whether I should continue tweeting, or focus on re-crafting my question. I wound up going back and forth, and not doing either to my own satisfaction.


The theme of the day was not just that American manufacturing is coming back, but that the comeback comes in large part because more and more Americans are gaining access to manufacturing tools, an access exemplified by TechShop. The essence of my question was, "What does any of this mean for Homewood and neighborhoods like it?" But since he probably doesn't know Homewood from Timbuktu, I was trying to figure out to provide context for the question.


And while I was scribbling and scratching out, and trying to listen well enough to tweet well, my brain played an awful trick on me.


It went into Cynic mode.


You see, the further along we went into the event, the more Mr. Obama's answers to the questions being asked began to sound generalized, insubstantial and predictable. And my brain said,


"Even if you ask the perfect question, he will not give an answer worth believing."


And that stopped me. At least, it stopped me for long enough so that by the time I got my juices flowing again, someone else was already asking the last question.

And then he was gone, and Lindsay Patross, of IHeartPgh (whom I met at the National Day of Civic Hacking event at the Homewood Library) - Lindsay and I  talked a bit, and agreed that we had just witnessed fluff.

I wish I had more quickly quelled my inner cynic with the response that came later, that it's not my job to make Mr. Obama or anyone else give a credible answer. It's my job to get better questions, and their answers (credible or not) on the record.


Mr. Obama quoted TechShop's PR line about having access to manufacturing tools for the price of a gym membership. I could have asked, "What about those who can't afford a gym membership?"


But I didn't. The Cynic won, and I missed a chance to represent Homewood (and neighborhoods like it) at a higher level.


Man, I hate that. But, better functioning next time.

Mainstream media were out in force, of course. Here's the Post-Gazette's coverage, and the Tribune-Review's. I find this bit from the Trib especially interesting:


"The overall economic effect of the initiatives Obama announced is likely to be marginal, however, because advanced research and development jobs go to skilled workers, most of whom have college degrees and can find work, said Matthew Rousu, associate professor of economics at Susquehanna University.


'If you're looking at a jobs program, a far better program would simply be to spend a lot of federal money to fix Pennsylvania's bridges, for example,” Rousu said. “People working on bridges have a much higher unemployment rate than, say, the scientists who are more likely to obtain research and development jobs.'"

RELATED: Hail To The Chief


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Reply C. Matthew Hawkins
2:22 PM on June 18, 2014 
That wasn't your inner cynic speaking -- that was your inner realist.

I agree, however, with your journalistic voice of reason which lead you to conclude that your job is not to make politicians give credible answers; your job is to craft better questions and get the answer -- credible or not -- on record and allow your readers to make of it what they will.

But I also think that both you and Lindsay Petross were right in concluding that what you witnessed was politics as spectacle and an interaction of fluff.

I have witnessed several public events such as this, staged by national politicians. Each time a went away from them with the strong impression that we, the general public, were just props and extras in their play.

I'm glad you covered it and I feel that I have benefited from being able to read your candid first hand impressions of the event. I think this is a large part of what grassroots media is about.

You haven't failed. Your first hand account of your experience -- including your frustrations and sense of missed opportunity -- accomplished the mission of this type of media, both for your contemporary audience and for posterity.
Reply Elwin Green
3:46 PM on June 18, 2014 
Thanks, Matt. Maybe you're right in that it was my inner realist that concluded that I would not elicit a substantial response from Mr. Obama. But it was my cycnic who added, "Therefore, it's not worth trouble to ask anything."

But I did gain some personal clarity, and I get to tell you folks about it. So there's that.
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