How necessary is technological know-how to the presidency?
President Obama’s pals in the media are at it again, this time cheering Team Obama’s command of the latest technology. One outlet is entranced by the Obama campaign’s use of Google+ to conduct “the first completely digital interview from the White House.” A mobile technology news site declares that “President Obama’s decision to use Google+” and “embrace of social media…enhances his reputation as a tech-savvy commander-in-chief.” Another media outlet gushes that the Obama campaign represents “the first national political adoption” of mobile credit card readers. Yet another marvels at how “President Obama has Twittered, Googled and Facebooked millions of American voters.” Fast Company expects Team Obama “to storm into new digital territory in the upcoming race,” thanks to the Obama campaign’s hiring of “uber-hipster and tech rebel Harper Reed as the organization’s chief technology officer.” Calling Obama “the Google-style candidate,” The Financial Times adds, with a sense of fait accompli, “Mr. Obama’s campaign Facebook page already has 24m friends.” Translation: Why even bother trying to challenge our tech-savvy, with-it, and above-all, hip commander-in-chief?
This all calls to mind some of the nonsense said early in the Age of Obama.
A Computer Weekly column, for instance, praised “Obama’s technology presidency,” declared the new president a “technology-savvy leader” and applauded Obama for “leadership by example” in the area of information technology.
Perhaps worst of all was a piece penned by Anna Quindlen mocking John McCain because he “doesn’t text-message or have a BlackBerry or use e-mail.” The next president of the United States needs to be a “techie,” she declared, because “Americans cannot afford” a president who is “out of it”—and because America’s national security depends on it. “If Osama bin Laden beat us with a laptop,” Quindlen queried, “shouldn’t we at least have a president who is reasonably conversant with one?”
The short answer was then—and remains today: “Not necessarily.” Being a “techie” is not a prerequisite for being president.
By Quindlen’s logic—and the logic of her media brethren who confuse technological acumen with governing competence—presidents should have a working knowledge of everything that the U.S. government and its enemies use to pursue their respective objectives, as well as everything average Americans use in their daily lives. Of course, we know that’s not possible or necessary.
After all, Jefferson didn’t sail the length of the Mississippi or captain a sloop of war. But he knew the Louisiana Purchase was a good deal, and he knew the nascent U.S. Navy could take care of the Barbary pirates.
TR didn’t circumnavigate the globe, but he constructed a great naval fleet that did. FDR never worked in a factory, yet he built an “arsenal of democracy” that armed Britain and then destroyed the war machines of Hitler and Tojo.
Reagan probably never sent a fax and certainly never fired a Stinger missile, but he used both to win the Cold War—the fax machines in Poland, the Stingers in Afghanistan. Moreover, it seems unlikely that he ever surfed the Web, but he understood enough to realize that the Information Age, which began during his presidency, would revolutionize communications, commerce, industry and life itself.
In the same way, the president doesn’t have to Facebook or blog or text or be glued to a BlackBerry to govern in this Digital Age—just as he doesn’t need to know the Constitution by heart to “preserve, protect and defend” it; or self-scan his groceries to know the cost of living is going up; or do his own taxes to recognize that the Tax Code is too onerous; or search for a job on Monster to realize that the Great Recession is far from over for millions of Americans; or put a home up for sale to know how much Americans have lost since 2008; or draft Social Security actuarial tables or Medicare eligibility requirements to understand that these programs are in dire shape; or pump gas or drill oil wells to know that it’s time to exploit more of America’s own petroleum assets; or speak Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin and Spanish to conduct foreign policy; or wear a Kevlar vest to grasp the dangers U.S. troops face each and every day; or know what DDoS means to get a sense of America’s vulnerability in cyberspace.
To be sure, connecting with voters in and through a variety of technology platforms is important on the political side of the presidential ledger. But wanting a tech-savvy person in the Oval Office just because he is tech-savvy is a trivial—if not utterly meaningless—matter on the governing side of the presidential ledger. America doesn’t need a “techie-in-chief,” to borrow Quindlen’s silly term. America needs a leader.
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