Monday, July 16, 2012

Job Interview Questions

Democrats, while George W. Bush was president, took great delight in complaining that Bush refused to admit he had ever been wrong about anything. I thought that was a silly complaint then, and I think it's a silly complaint now.

That's why I'm having problems getting worked up about Barack Obama's answer to CBS News about his worst mistake:
When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well. The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.
Via John Sides, who contends that "Obama’s comments better reflect how easy it is for presidents to buy into the myth of their own rhetorical power."

Well, maybe. Or maybe it's just the least-bad answer to that kind of question, the way that the least-bad answer to questions about a biggest fault in a job interview is generally some cleverly disguised version of "gosh I just work too darn hard."

I don't know. It's certainly possible that Obama believes that he's just not doing a good enough job of "tell[ing] a story," and that if he improves on that everything will go better. It's just as possible, however, that it works like this: he can't deny he's made any mistakes, because that sounds arrogant and out of touch and, even worse, Bush-like. He doesn't want to admit any substantive mistakes, because more or less across the board he's pushing the same policies now as he was then, so he obviously doesn't think they're wrong, and even if he does (in cases where the policy has shifted some, such as Afghanistan) he likely doesn't want to point to policy mistakes that still have bad consequences. That doesn't leave a lot. One option is the "too late" gambit; he might say for example that his policies were correct in Egypt but that he could have been quicker to adopt them. He could talk legislative strategy, but that's incredibly boring for normal Americans.

So copping to being a bad salesman is in most cases the best job interview strategy for an incumbent president.

Again -- he may really believe it, which wouldn't be a good thing. But we have plenty of evidence, including the Ronald Reagan quote which John uses, that presidents learn pretty quickly that "tell a story to the American people" doesn't actually do much.

So while I'd love to hear the president say that his biggest mistake has been in spending too little time on administration and implementation, or failing to place a high enough priority on judicial and executive branch appointments, or in failing to throw everything possible at Judd Gregg to get him out of the Senate and replaced by a Democrat...well, I'm going to suspend judgement on what he actually said until we get a little more evidence that he really means it.


  1. Here are some of the things I wish I had the balls to say:

    -"My awesomeness is intimidating to mere mortals"
    -"My biggest problem is that I'm not very good at tolerating stupid questions. You know, the kind of questions that have no good answer and seem designed more to waste time than to find out about the other person? Yeah, those kinds of questions."
    -"Parallel parking."
    -"Wow, that's a toughie. Between my poor work skills, low intelligence, negligible motivation, and odious personal habits--including grooming--I mean, there's just nothing about me that makes me a good hire."
    -"I don't take rejection very well. Were I to be rejected for something, I think I might very well stalk and kill everyone I thought responsible for that decision."

  2. He could talk legislative strategy, but that's incredibly boring for normal Americans.

    Yeah, but "boring" would have worked just fine here, wouldn't it? It's not like he's trying to make news with his answer. It's a difficult but ultimately pointless question - but it's asked all the time, if only to see how the interviewee thinks on his feet in responding to difficult but ultimately pointless questions. A few words about the complexities of navigating the legislative process would have done the trick, I think.

  3. Obama is a politician, not an analyst equipped to explain this with the sophistication it deserves. But I wouldn't jump so quickly from his remark about telling a story to poli-sci boilerplate about the myth of the bully pulpit. I grant you that what the president says has limited power to make people believe things. The Drew Westens of the world (referencing the previous post) are generally wrong about that. But people do think in stories, politics is ultimately all about competing stories, and the president isn't just a storyteller, he's also a main character. If you expand "telling a story" to include reinforcing rhetoric with action (and vice-versa), then I think there's a lot to be said for Obama's point. What story was he not just telling, but crafting, in 2009-10? Was it crafted well? For instance, was it made clear enough, aptly reinforced in both words and actions? And, importantly, was it the "right" story, i.e. one that people were prepped for and likely to respond to? (Because that's another thing: the president isn't just a storyteller and a main character, he's the "artistic director," the person who decides which drama the administration is going to try to stage.)

    I think this is all still poorly understood, and I'm all for being cautious about it and not assigning the president some kind of magical powers to move opinion. Obviously, his opponents are out there telling stories too, and in our system he can't just take any action he wishes (although he has a lot of scope for advocacy even on issues where he might "lose"). All that said, though, I think Obama actually did answer the question put to him correctly, albeit in shorthand. He probably really did come into office not understanding that the presidency isn't like a seat in a legislature, it's about leading a party and therefore articulating -- again, in actions as well as words -- a broad political philosophy in ways that ordinary voters will understand.

  4. @ Jarvis, the real answer you would want to say is "Well a lot of the time instead of working I read political blogs, that probably my worst trait. For example, I will work on these TPS reports but only after I show Couves why they are wrong. Also sometimes I spend a whole day reading SCOTUS dissents and counting broccoli citations instead of filling out the new time sheets with the correct number of job codes I worked on today."

    I do like that Reagan quote, it reminds me of all the efforts Bush the younger put into trying to re-sell the war in Iraq to the American public as our efforts there sank deeper and deeper into the muck and mire. Think of all those speeches, all those interviews, all those press offensives and articles from conservatives to "re-brand" the war. It was largely all for not as the America public at large simply disproved more and more.

  5. This would have been a great excuse for some Congress/Congressional Republicans bashing:

    - "My biggest mistake was believing there were some Republicans in Congress who care about the country over partisan advantage."
    - "My biggest mistake was letting the Senate waste time trying to come up with a bipartisan health care bill."
    - "My biggest mistake was letting the Senate hold up my nominees for partisan and other petty reasons."
    - "My biggest mistake was letting Republicans hold the economy hostage by refusing to pass a clean debt limit increase."

    etc. etc.


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