11 Jan 2013

Obama and the horse-sized duck: a fair fight?

Which would you rather fight: one horse-sized duck, or a hundred duck-sized horses? A new book reveals President Obama’s staff seriously debated the question after a no-holds-barred online Q and A.

Obama versus ducks and horses graphic

It was the tightest US election race for years: at stake, the most powerful job in the world. Yet a new book reveals that just weeks before America went to the polls, top Obama staffers spent hours discussing one question.

A question the president had – ahem – ducked.

Now, though, with the election a distant memory, it is generating some serious debate of its own. Political strategists, scientists and military theoreticians have all joined in. Is it better to fight a single horse-sized duck, or a hundred duck-sized horses?

The question emerged during a historic internet question and answer session back in August, when President Obama agreed to take part in an interview series run by Reddit, called Ask Me Anything.

Most immediately chose the 100 duck-sized horses. They would be easier to stomp on. Panic 2012 book

Buzzfeed has released an exert from its book, Panic 2012, the Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign, which reveals what was going on behind the scenes as the session unfolded.

“It was chaotically democratic and something of a gamble,” the book reveals.

In the event, Obama thoroughly enjoyed himself, staying 15 minutes beyond the half hour he had originally set aside, taking questions from anyone who logged on to take part. It broke all records for the site, with more than five million immediate hits.

But, reveals the book, although Obama had failed to spot the question about the horse-sized duck, in the days following, his team debated the answer.

“Most immediately chose the 100 duck-sized horses – they would be easier to stomp on. Who would choose to fight a duck the size of a horse? The beak. The wingspan. The ability to defend and attack in the air, on land, and in the water,” was one verdict.

Another official wondered whether you could break its legs, or snap a wing: “Maybe it tires easily. Hard to know.”

Which would you fight?

With a headline like that, it is not surprising that the dilemma has taken the internet by storm once again. A detailed piece in The Atlantic takes the issue very seriously indeed.

Writer Conor Friedersdorf interviewed an avian ecology expert at the University of California to mine his expertise about the capabilities of a supersized fowl. Along with a lot of statistics about wing-loading capacity, he was reassuring on one point.

“We don’t have to worry about the terror duck attacking from the air. It would be a landlubber,” he proclaims.

But the learned professor had more facts at his (wing)tips, putting the fear of God into anyone contemplating the idea of taking on a gigantic duck and hoping to walk away. Turns out they would be frighteningly strong, with enough stamina to outlast the hardiest human.

Perhaps, as Buzzfeed noted at the time, Obama was wise not to answer the question during that Reddit session. Even if it did get his advisors into a bit of a flap.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News