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"When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?"


Sooner or later every human being on the face of this planet is confronted with tough questions. One of the toughest and most common is the infamous loaded question, "When did you stop beating your wife?" which implies that you have indeed been beating your wife. How do you answer without agreeing with the implication? How do you not answer without appearing evasive?

Courtroom dramas often include a scene where an antagonistic prosecutor points his finger at a defendant and asks accusatorially, "Why did you kill your partner?" implying that the person -- who has pleaded not guilty -- did kill the partner. Or "What did you do with the gun?" implying that the person did possess the murder weapon.

This is known as a false assumption and there is only one way to handle such a question: Just apply the noted anti-drug slogan, and say, "No." The defendant should say, "I did not kill my partner." The business person should deny the false assumption. And if anyone ever asks you when you stopped beating your wife, simply rebut the fallacy by saying, "I never started."

In Barack Obama's first press conference last February, less than a month after he took office, three of the thirteen questions asked of him by the reporters were false assumptions. At the time, I wrote a blog about how Obama handled those questions and several other presentation factors but, given the storm of extreme charges, counter-charges, and accusations that continue to be fired back and forth between contending parties in the political -- and business -- arena, a revisit of Obama's responses to those three questions is in order.

The first was from Associated Press reporter, Jennifer Loven, who referred to Obama's statement earlier that same day that the economic crisis might be irreversible, and then asked him, "Do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?"

Obama's first four words were, "No, no, no, no."

Caren Bohan of Reuters then asked, "Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington worked?"

The president replied, "I don't think I underestimated it. I don't think the American people underestimated it."

Chip Reid of CBS News asked the third false assumption question, "You talked about that if your plan works the way you want it to work, it's going to increase consumer spending. But isn't consumer spending, or over-spending, how we got into this mess? And if people get money back into their pockets, do you not want them saving it or paying down debt first, before they start spending money into the economy?"

Obama said "no" again. "Well, first of all, I don't think it's accurate to say that consumer spending got us into this mess. What got us into this mess initially were banks taking exorbitant, wild risks with other people's monies, based on shaky assets."

In each case, Obama demonstrated his trademark cool demeanor, lightly contradicting his interrogator, and then moving on to correct the fallacy by stating his own position on the given issue.