Obama's 15 Seconds

Science, technology, and life.
March 27 2009 10:17 AM

Obama's 15 Seconds

The most interesting moment in President Obama's Tuesday night press conference is something you won't pick up from the transcript . You have to watch the video . Forty-six minutes in, John Ward of the Washington Times asks Obama about stem cells. Obama replies:

[I]t is very important for us to have strong moral guidelines, ethical guidelines, when it comes to stem cell research or anything that touches on, you know, the issues of possible cloning or issues related to, you know, the human life sciences. I think those issues are all critical, and I've said so before. I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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What the transcript doesn't convey is that after saying "anything that touches on," it takes Obama a full 15 seconds of stumbling, stalling, and groping before he finds the phrase "human life sciences."

Obama, unlike President Bush, knows his way around the English language. He doesn't stumble, stall, or grope for lack of words. He does it because he was about to say something but decided not to say it. The giveaway here is that he eventually settles on the phrase "human life sciences," which I've never heard before from a politician. Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research talk about "life sciences." Opponents talk about "human life." Neither side likes to focus on the other's magic word: human for pro-lifers or sciences for research proponents.

I think Obama settled on "human life sciences" because he was originally going to say "anything that touches on human life." And he decided at the last minute that he'd better not say that, because that would buy into the other side's framing of the issue and get him into trouble. The human-life frame, planted by Ward, was clearly in Obama's head, as evidenced by his next sentence: "I wrestle with it on stem cell; I wrestle with it on issues like abortion." But strategically, you're not supposed to accept the other side's frame . Once you group stem-cell research with abortion, you're giving away the fight. You're supposed to group stem-cell research with the Bush administration's deceptions about abstinence and global warming . It's all part of the " Republican war on science ." So, after his 15 seconds of groping, Obama splits the difference and comes up with the phrase "human life sciences."

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We saw the same thing two weeks ago, when Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. Most research proponents, including his own aides , stuck to the "science" message and didn't mention moral objections. But Obama  did mention them . His remarks sounded a lot like what he has said about abortion and other social issues : acknowledging moral disagreement while striving for consensus or at least compromise.

On Tuesday, after Obama's initial answer, Ward asked a follow-up: "Do you think that scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do?" Obama replied: "No. I think there's—there's always an ethical and a moral element that has to be—be a part of this."

Obama, like the rest of us, is grappling with how to think about biotechnology. We're all familiar with social, financial, public-safety, and health-care issues. But this is a new kind of issue: It's moral, economic, and life-and-death . To some of us, it's about life sciences. To others, it's about embryonic human life. It took Obama 15 seconds to put the two perspectives together in words. If it takes him eight years to put them together in practice, that'll be one hell of an achievement.

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