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Nichols: New president needs to communicate directly

POSTED: October 27, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The current economic crisis has demonstrated that we have a major disconnect between the people and our president, senators and representatives. We desperately need some leader to break out of the sound bites and spin control of statements that makes them mostly empty.

President Bush's approval rating is so low that it really does not mean much whether or not he is clear, or confused. He might have become irrelevant to the crisis, unable personally to have any major influence to make the crisis move toward some kind of resolution.

His treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, speaks economic jargon. Anybody who is not a trained economist might have difficulty understanding what Paulson is trying to say.

The crisis has engulfed Europe, Russia and some Asian countries. We seem to be calling for coordinating our various rescue plans, different for different countries, but with banking failures spreading like wildfire, and stock exchanges dropping like in the days of the great depression. It is clear that the crisis is global. And deeply complex.

So we will have a new president elected on Nov. 4. That person will have so many problems to consider that he can easily be overwhelmed by details. For the first several months of his first year in office, the manager of the president's appointment calendar will be the most important and influential person in Washington, D.C., because he or she will control who has access to the president.

When I was a civil servant, I discovered an agency in D.C. that had a new head and people in that agency were forbidden to even try to contact the new chief for about six months. The time of the new chief was being managed as if he were a new rock star. Details can overwhelm, but to understand capabilities you have to have a firm understanding of the background of the subject being considered.

That new chief was learning all about the history and operations of that agency before he met with those who would work for him.

I get depressed when I read arguments that the president should not have on-the-job training. The truth of the position is that nobody knows in advance what being the president is like with all that power and responsibility. Every president we have ever had has learned on the job. Only a president beginning a second term in office does not need to learn how to act as president.

Our next president should return to President Roosevelt's fireside chats for inspiration. FDR took the job in a major economic crisis and he used his power to communicate to guide a number of reforms through Congress. When he turned to the radio for his regular fireside chats, the streets of my home town were deserted. People gathered in their homes around the radio, usually in a living room, to hear his calming explanation of what he thought we needed to do as a nation to bring the Great Depression to an end.

We now have the Internet. With so many young people involved in the campaigns, we have a new younger audience that is very knowledgeable.

The next president could use the Internet to explain the problems facing the nation. He could gather questions about one topic for a program of interest to our seniors, or baby boomers, small business middle Americans, young people, or any other group of our citizens.

He could institute a regular Internet chat by our President with the People program. With careful presentation with an introduction that is clear and factual, the president could easily become our nation's main communicator as he answers questions from the people e-mailed, texted or blogged to him.

We need to be told the truth, even if it is unpopular. We need transparency. We need to hear the president's take on why something happened. We need to be told what should be done to make the problem not repeat in the future.

The president could have some official select a variety of questions from one group of citizens. The name of the author of each question should be given. Americans would be excited at the prospect of being able directly to ask our president a question about something that we are concerned about.

The president is president of all the people. Such an Internet "Chat with the President" would make politics to be personal to every citizen.

This idea would work well with either John McCain or Barack Obama. We would all feel directly involved with our own government if the president continued to contact the people after the election is over.

We need to feel important. We need somebody to explain in easy to understand terms the complex issues facing us as a people. I hope this suggestion might warrant some discussion.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly.



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