President Obama Wants to Talk to You

When Barack Obama made remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, saying there isn't much value in "national conversations" led by a president, it was an unusual kind of candor. After all, having a national conversation is a great way to not do anything about a problem—particularly one that seems nearly impossible to solve. (If there's a problem that's quite possible to solve but would require politically difficult steps, one appoints a commission to study it.) I thought of that watching his press conference today, when he was asked about the various surveillance programs that have come to light as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations.

After a somewhat rambling discussion of all the safeguards already in place to make sure nothing bad could possibly come of the government tracking your phone and Internet traffic, Obama said he's "looking forward to having a conversation" about these matters with all kinds of people who have an interest in the topic. A conversation!

In fairness, the administration is taking some tentative steps to introduce a little oversight and transparency to the program. But if Snowden hadn't come forward, Obama would have been perfectly happy if the programs had remained secret forever. This is one conversation he was forced into against his will.


The President said, "There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have." I don't disagree, particularly when the discussion is focused on a social issue where the people you most hope to reach are those most resistant to admitting that there is a problem - or, should I say, that the problem lies with them as opposed to with everybody else.

The "conversation" on NSA activities... it would be a bit different, first because (other than some occasional words that typically aren't backed up by meaningful action) the political parties are basically united on the issue. "... Because, national security!" Second, because it wouldn't really be a conversation, more like an explanation of the way things are and why we have to live with them.

I guess I'm not really arguing with the point that "there isn't much value" in national conversations, so much as suggesting why a politician might nonetheless proceed with such a "conversation" in certain contexts.

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