This phrase, more than any other, personifies the disappointment that I’ve been reading online, and hearing in-person, from Chinese friends who watched the Obama Town Hall in Shanghai. It’s an awkward phrase, many miles from “I oppose censorship,” and really uncharacteristic of a President celebrated for his eloquence and his ability to inspire. It’s an overly calculated phrase, just as his performance at the Town Hall, was overly calculated to avoid offending his hosts in Beijing, rather than appeal to (the admittedly small number of) Chinese who might have been interested and inspired by this President (definitely not the same thing).
I don’t think it’s much defense, either, to claim that Obama’s hands were tied by the softball questions lobbed his way. Like any successful US candidate familiar with the town hall format, Obama was and is adept at answering the questions that he wishes were asked of him – not the ones that actually are. But, astonishingly, he never once veered from answering the questions put to him, never once – outside of his speech – suggested that there was anything pressing that he wanted to say to the assembled students, the online audience, the television audience. This is particularly startling considering that Obama’s advance team – by all accounts – fought long and hard to broadcast the forum to a national audience. But for what purpose? What on Earth did he want to say that required weeks of negotiations? That he’s “a big supporter of non-censorship?”
It pains me to write this (I’m an Obama voter and donor), but Obama’s performance this afternoon reminded me of nothing so much as an overly coached American businessman on his first trip to China, so concerned about what he should or should not say that he forgets what he wanted to say in the first place, and ends up going home with nothing but a hotel bill and empty promises.
Generally, the foreign media that covered the event seems to have come to a much more charitable interpretation, with the LA Times going so far as to suggest that Obama “chided” China on human rights. I’m not sure what Town Hall they watched; it wasn’t the one that my local friends and colleagues are shaking their heads at.
[UPDATED 11/19: I concede being a bit late getting to this, but here goes. My friend Jim Fallows disagrees with my assessment of the town hall, and points to the preceding speech - and the transcript of the meeting - to suggest "that he said just about as much on censorship and liberties as a visiting dignitary could say, in the circumstances." I'll agree to a point. The speech, I thought, was an excellent and eloquent statement of American principles delivered in the forceful tone that we've all come to expect from Obama. I was impressed by it on Monday, and I'm impressed, again, when I read the transcript. But here's where I part ways from Fallows. But if you put down the transcript, and turn to the actual video of the event, the confident Obama of the speech gives way to a tentative, carefully parsed President who seems more concerned with choosing his words carefully, than impressing anything upon the students who came to see him. In a sense, we have a reverse "Nixon-Kennedy." In that famous case, folks who listened on the radio believed that the articulate Nixon bested Kennedy; but those who watched on television favored the handsome Kennedy over the sweaty Nixon. Well, based upon Fallows post, and other discussions, I think the transcript comes off much better than the actual appearance. I've taken some heat for comparing Obama in the Town Hall to "an overly coached businessman." But I can tell you, among those who watched the actual performance (in person or on television) there were similar impressions. For example, this blog compares it to "a highly hyped English corner" - again, playing off the careful, un-confident Obama that none of us expected.]