How Obama Handles False Assumptions

This blog was originally published on Forbes as How Obama Handles False Assumptions on Friday, July 17, 2015.

“When did you stop beating your wife?” is the classic false assumption question because it implies that you have indeed been beating your wife. How do you answer that question without agreeing with the implication? How do you not answer without appearing evasive? The only way handle such a question is to apply the noted antidrug slogan: Just say, “No!”

That is, unless you are the President of the United States.

Barack Obama was asked just such a question by Major Garrett, the Chief White House Correspondent for CBS News, in this week’s press conference after the announcement of the nuclear treaty with Iran:

Thank you, Mr. President.  As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran—three held on trumped-up charges, according to your administration; one, whereabouts unknown.  Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation and the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?

Mr. Garrett (he is a Mister, “Major” is his first name, not his military rank) went on to ask a second question about another aspect of the treaty.

When the President retook the floor, he said:

I got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions.  The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails—Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better.

The President’s sharp rebuke immediately lit up the media and trended on Twitter, causing Mr. Garrett to defend his question. Appearing on CBS News’ streaming network, he said, “Clearly it struck a nerve. That was my intention. Was it provocative? Yes. Was it intended to be as such? Absolutely.”

Mr. Garrett was expressing his journalistic privilege to ask what is also known as the “gotcha” question. In a prior blog on Forbes, I wrote about how Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (who formally announced his candidacy for the presidency this week) complained about such questions. If he makes it all the way to the White House, he can scold reporters just as Mr. Obama did. In the meantime, Mr. Walker—and every other person running for public office or entering the public market of business—must be ready for the “qotcha” question and how to reply when it is asked.

After his rebuke, Mr. Obama dispelled the false assumption, “Nobody is content,” he said and then went on to state his case: “And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.”

After six years in office, the President is adept at handling false assumptions. But he was adept from the start. In my book, Presentations in Action, I described his first press conference as President. Three of the 13 questions in that session were false assumptions. His immediate responses to the each respectively were:

  • No, no, no, no.
  • I don’t think I underestimated it. I don’t think the American people underestimated it.
  • Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that consumer spending got us into this mess.

Just say, “No!” to false assumptions.

This blog was originally published on Forbes as How Obama Handles False Assumptions on Friday, July 17, 2015.