Why Stand to Give a Speech?

Callum Borchers writes for the Washington Post. According to his bio, his assignment is to cover “the intersection of politics and media.” He appears to do this for Chris Cillizza’s little niche called “The Fix.”

Last night, Barack Obama made only the third public address from the Oval Office of his presidency. Apparently, The Fix needed to have a “hot take” reaction to the speech and Mr. Borchers drew the short straw.

That’s fortunate for the rest of us because now we can discuss the vital question of why the president chose to deliver the speech in a standing position rather than seated behind his desk. As Borchers so astutely points out, “It’s not as though he keeps a dais parked in front of the desk all the time.”

You see, if we were to discuss the substance of the president’s speech, that would be the purview of foreign policy, immigration, and terrorism experts. But we’re concerned with the “the intersection of politics and media.” And this requires reporters who are staring at their own belly-button to write about reporters who are staring at their own belly-button, in some kind of infinite regress…ad infinitum…forever…until someone claws their own eyeballs out.

Borchers does ask the most important question, I guess. When the president and his advisers decided to wheel in the podium…

What were they going for? And did it work?

A careful review of the article reveals, however, that Borchers never even attempted to answer the latter question: “Did it work?”

Now, as to the former question, the administration was probably responding to the criticism The Fix leveled at him prior to the speech.

Obama’s critics consistently call him weak on terrorism, which was part of the reason he spoke Sunday night. Standing up is a simple, unstated way for him to project strength.

More important to the president, however, might be what standing up does for his own comfort level. As we at The Fix noted before the speech (and before we knew Obama would be at the lectern), he seemed stiff and uncomfortable in his two previous Oval Office addresses, when he took the more traditional seated posture.

So, the real way that politics intersects with the media is that politicians take media advice from Washington Post media columnists.

Also, the most important takeaway from the speech last night was that the president was responding to his critics who say he is weak. In a way, there would have been no speech at all if it weren’t for this criticism, so the thing to do is to speculate about whether or not simply deciding to stand while talking was able to neutralize the nay-sayers.

Of course, we have no way of really knowing the answer to that question, at least not by deadline, so Borchers gives us a science lesson, citing a Scientific American article to argue that standing gives you an “extra jolt of testosterone to take on the terrorists.”

So, just maybe, the president did something right last night. Could be that he’s wrong about ISIL and Muslim-Americans and Syrian refugees and how to craft a plan to end the violence in the Middle East, but he made sure to maximize his testosterone level by standing up to deliver his remarks.

Alas, the president can never do anything completely right. He always screws something up.

Still, I think Obama lost some of the Oval Office impact by using the podium. If you didn’t know in advance that he was in the Oval Office (or if you tuned in a few seconds late and missed the slow zoom from the original wide angle), would you have picked up on the setting? There were flags, drapes and some family portraits in the background, but, for most of the 13-minute telecast, there was no desk.

It’s the desk that really signals to the viewing public that this is where the president works; this is where he makes key decisions. The desk is the most important prop on the Oval Office set, and Obama didn’t use it.

In many situations, there are benefits to standing. But in the Oval Office, Obama was trying to have it both ways.

And, so now, having read this piece on the “the intersection of politics and media” I think you can see how the media aren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

There’s something a little difficult and suspect about the whole genre of media criticism, but it’s possible to add something of value to the national conversation even when you’re engaged in some blatant navel-gazing. I don’t think Callum Borchers accomplished this.

I can see how there is a story here, mainly about the president using a different medium than he and other presidents have in the past to deliver remarks to the nation. I get that standing up sends a message that he won’t take terrorism “sitting down.”

But, first, writing that kind of piece doesn’t have to be an exercise in nitpicking the president over his style and comfort-level when the topic at hand is pretty damn important.

Second, there are many much more interesting ways to explore “the intersection of politics and media” in a case like this. For example, how does the media’s choice to turn every mass-shooting or act of terror or outbreak of Ebola into 24/7 wall-to-wall panic affect the kinds of pressures and choices that our politicians have to make? Does hysterical media coverage drive hasty, panicked political reactions? And isn’t that what President Obama was trying his level-best to counteract last night?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.