During this presidential season you’ll see Democrats arguing that President Obama didn’t get things done in his first term because Republicans blocked him in Congress. Republicans will counter by saying that an effective leader would be able to overcome obstacles. Several of you pointed out that my presidency will have the same problem: Our hyper-partisan and corporate-owned Congress will block me at every turn. Allow me to explain how I will make Congress my bitch. (Hey, I think I just found my campaign slogan!)
President Obama is doing it all wrong. He seems to think he can convince Republicans of the wisdom of his ideas, or perhaps he thinks his speeches will get the public on his side, and that in turn will pressure Republicans. Obviously that approach doesn’t work in today’s polarized world. And President Obama is lucky if the press reports more than a few sentences from his speeches.
As president, I would define my role as orchestra leader for the free press. I would make it my job to publicly guide the press toward useful coverage that provides voters with context. For example, if I propose copying Finland’s system of handling a particular problem, I’ll give a speech asking the free press to study how well it worked in Finland. If one particular news outlet does an especially good job of showing both sides of the debate, I’ll point the public in their direction. That’s a huge incentive to get it right. A president can generate a lot of traffic to a website.
If a news outlet is deliberately deceptive, or lazy, I’ll expose them to public ridicule. But if a news outlet’s legitimate research shows that one of my ideas is worse than I thought, I’ll publicly thank whoever did the good reporting and change my position. And I’ll remind the public that flip-flopping is what rational people sometimes do when they get new data.
Our current model of government holds that the free press is a watchdog to the office of the President. That function needs to remain. But the free press needs accountability too, and it’s not reasonable to expect an industry to police itself. Part of the president’s job should be to make sure news organizations are doing a credible job of informing citizens.
The risk in my approach is that a president will be tempted to praise any news outlet that agrees with his or her position. Confirmation bias would also be a problem. To remain credible, a president would need to sometimes modify his views based on what the media learns. And during my presidency, if different wings of the media reach different conclusions, I would call the reporters in for a public debate – Judge Judy style – and let the public watch me interrogate the reporters to figure out who is more credible. At the beginning of any cycle of debate on a particular proposal, the news outlets would be encouraged to interview the President. After the news media has time to do its research, the President should grill reporters to find out what they learned and why some of them have come to different conclusions. And the process should be done publicly, probably over a number of days.
I realize the President shouldn’t be in the business of promoting particular news organizations. But helping the public stay informed is a legitimate function of government. I’d try to find a balance.
This would all be part of my larger drive to make decisions based on data instead of dogma. Realistically, voters get their opinions from the news. When voters are better informed, they should form natural majorities that will influence Congress. And on issues where the facts are not sufficiently influential for voters to form a clear majority, perhaps the government should stay gridlocked. That’s not always a bad thing.