Tags: us | president | spock

Is Obama Another Mr. Spock?

Tuesday, 01 Dec 2009 12:21 AM

 

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WASHINGTON -- He shows a fascination with science, an all-too deliberate decision-making demeanor, an adherence to logic and some pretty, ahem, prominent ears.

They all add up to a quite logical conclusion, at least for "Star Trek" fans: Barack Obama is Washington's Mr. Spock, the chief science officer for the ship of state.

"I guess it's somewhat unusual for a politician to be so precise, logical, in his thought process," actor Leonard Nimoy, who has portrayed Spock for more than 40 years, told The Associated Press in an e-mail interview. "The comparison to Spock is, in my opinion, a compliment to him and to the character."

Until now.

Obama's Spock-like qualities have started to cause him political problems in real world Washington. Critics see him as too technocratic, too deliberative, too lacking in emotion.

Obama's protracted decision-making on a new war strategy in Afghanistan, for example, prompted criticisms that he's too deliberate. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and other conservatives faulted Obama for "dithering."

While it's the slow decision making that has conservatives upset, especially when it comes to national security, it's the science content of the presidential agenda that have the geeks insisting he's gone where no nerd has gone before.

Obama was a lawyer, organizer and author before he turned politician. So his interest in science wasn't as obvious until he reached the White House. Now, privately he's known to relish the ability to call smart people, especially scientists, to come to the White House to talk about their fields. The more obscure and complicated the field, the better to feed the inner science geek.

Out in public, Obama turns the Bunsen burner up a notch, playing a combination of high school science teacher and math team cheerleader.

Last week, for example, the president announced that the White House would hold an annual science fair as part of a $260 million private push to improve math and science education.

"We're going to show young people how cool science can be," Obama said. "Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models."

That was just the latest in a science-heavy fall semester at what sometimes seems to double as the White House Institute of Technology.

One October evening, 20 telescopes and an inflatable dome with a three-dimensional tour of the universe were set up on the White House lawn. The occasion was a star party for 150 middle-schoolers that also showcased moon rocks, a couple of astronauts, several astronomers and even two science teachers dressed as Isaac Newton and Galileo.

The president's science adviser, John Holdren, said the party showed that Obama "is genuinely and intensely interested in science and technology in a way that goes beyond their practical relevance to meeting national goals."

Also in October, Obama gave medals to a dozen scientists, toured a lab at the bastion of science-and-technology, MIT, and visited a solar energy manufacturing plant in Florida.

"This is kinda cool," Obama told reporters as he wandered through an MIT energy lab demonstration.

In his first 10 months in office, the president made more science oriented trips than military ones. The White House even turned the annual Easter egg roll into a makeshift science lesson by asking experts to set up a science of eggs exhibit, complete with microscopes.

"I keep being amazed at how much attention he's spending on science policy," said science policy and journalism blogger Chris Mooney, author of the book "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."

"The nerds are happy," Mooney said. "They like Spock."

While some science policy experts don't quite see the similarities between the president and the fictional Vulcan from television and movies, "Star Trek" experts do.

Nimoy said he ran into Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign in a Los Angeles hotel: "When he arrived and saw me he said, 'They told me you were here.' And gave me the split fingered Vulcan sign."

Roberto Orci, the screenwriter and producer behind the latest "Star Trek" movie, said Obama "has a Spock-like aura about him: calm in the face of great adversity and looking for a logical middle ground." Obama, himself a big "Star Trek" fan, screened the movie at the White House during its opening weekend.

"We knew he was a Trekkie," Orci said in a telephone interview. He said he watches the White House regularly for insight on the Spock character.

"To have a case study like that on the news every night makes my job a lot easier," he said.

Orci said James T. Kirk, the "Star Trek" captain, was "based on a young new president, John F. Kennedy, and that the Obama administration is part of a 1960s-type revival. Except this time, Kirk isn't in charge. Spock is.

In the movie, however, Spock was in charge of the USS Enterprise before he decided to hand over command to the more gut-driven Kirk. Spock's reasoning that Kirk was better suited to command seems to echo some Obama critics who contend he lacks the emotional connection people want in their president.

Obama's science emphasis often is contrasted with his predecessor's perceived treatment of science, especially when it came to global warming.

"The current administration seems to be more science-friendly than the immediate past," said Alan Leshner, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest science society in the country. "That's not a statement about Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have been very good to science over time."

That's not fair, said former Bush science adviser Jack Marburger, arguing that Bush did much of what Obama is doing.

The trouble is the media "simply didn't see Bush as the kind of president who did these things, and his many science and tech related activities were not covered and not well-known," said Marburger, a Democrat.

"The Obama campaign played the science card superbly and the Obama administration continues to do so," Marburger said. "I don't see anything wrong with that. ... It may encourage greater public appreciation for the importance of science, and that is good."

Rep. Vern Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who's also a physicist, said he's noticed the special science and technology affinity from the president. Obama, he said, needs just one more thing: "A sort of science club in the White House."

___

White House correspondent Jennifer Loven and Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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