Why The White House Needs To Liberate Some Desk Space

“Who the White House needs to fire” I said yesterday while taping a radio segment, “is the person who tried to schedule the president’s jobs speech to the joint congress on the same day as the Republican debate.” I was all set to continue that thought with Sean Yoes, the host of the WEAA AFRO/First Edition political show, by sharing an image that had been on my mind for the last week and a half—“and the president should fire that person who bumbled the scheduling of his speech the way I used to be fired. No warning, no time to clean out my desk, just a curt “Mr. Broughton, you can pick up your personal items after four o’clock”—but our conversation veered in another direction.  

This morning I discovered, while reading today’s edition of POLITICO Playbook, that the guilty culprit in the jobs speech scheduling snafu was none other than Bill Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff. The reality for people in positions like these is, even when they should be handed a cardboard box and get directed to an exit, getting rid of them is often more problematic than suffering through their tenure. Whether Daley is the right man for the job or not, at this juncture in the Obama presidency, he will have to do.   

I don’t usually find myself in agreement with James Carville, but in his CNN opinion piece yesterday I think he just about hit the nail on the head when it came to giving the Obama Administration some advice. Carville’s prescriptions boil down to four bullet points—fire some people, indict some people on Wall Street, make your case like a Democrat instead of a Republican, and stick to your story. These are things this White House can do without dealing with the GOP controlled House of Representatives. Carville’s penchant for animated language and overt political messaging often seems to oversimplify more complex issues, but in this case, where the White House could use all the help it can get to telegraph to the American public that it is listening, this Democratic consultant is right on the money.   

If Daley is the chief whip cracker in the West Wing, then he needs to pick a few people and make them clean out their offices. There is nothing like the smell of freshly liberated desk space in the air to get the rest of your employees who are still on the job to rediscover their sense of purpose. Having the Justice Department indict someone on Wall Street is the most effective way this side of pulling a million jobs out of a hat to begin regaining the president’s public appeal, and a lot more doable.

The third and fourth areas where Carville feels the Obama Administration could improve fall squarely on the Oval Office. If President Obama can stick to his story on the jobs bill he is pushing for the rest of the year, instead of giving us variations on a theme, it will be a first step in the right direction. Making his case like a Democrat may be the hardest thing for the Obama Administration to commit to doing. But if Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, all of the president’s Republican lite talking points will be off the table, so it might best for President Obama and his surrogates to start getting some practice in now.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.