Monday, February 14, 2011

Obama and the Intellectuals

From the moment he stepped onto the national political stage as the Keynote Speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama had his way with intellectuals. Even those who rejected his left-of-center politics routinely acknowledged his ample personal virtues. Once you left matters of ideology aside, what was there about Obama not to like? The breathtaking eloquence? The commanding intelligence? The even temperament? The tactical dexterity? The relentless self-discipline? You know the litany as well as I do.

But notice something about the logic of attributions of virtue. A virtue is a person’s disposition to respond to a certain type of situation in an admirable way. So you can’t begin to know whether someone has a virtue without having seen him respond to a decent-sized sample of situations. Judgments about presidential virtue early in a president's first term are like believing that a rookie baseball player belongs in the Hall of Fame because he had a good spring training and a hot April.

Granted, Obama’s eloquence was pretty conclusively demonstrated early in his presidential campaign. But all the talk about his extraordinary intelligence, temperament, self-discipline, etc. could only have been a series of unreliable snap judgments. The zeal with which intellectuals jumped to flattering conclusions about Obama said less about him than about their own will to believe.

In hindsight, some of those judgments are pretty funny. Take the speech on race that Obama gave during the campaign in the heat of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Within days, a certifiable intellectual heavyweight like Gary Wills was comparing it to Lincoln’s famous speech at the Cooper Union.

Pop quiz:  can you remember a single scrutiny-bearing idea or a memorable turn of the phrase from Obama’s race speech? Me neither. And I’ve noted before that some of Obama’s more memorable lines, (like the bit about how he can no more renounce Wright than he can renounce his grandmother), are pretty transparently bullshit. Not that we should hold Obama’s occasional bullshitting strongly against him. We all know that bullshit is the grease that allows the wheels of any presidential campaign to turn and tolerate it insofar as we think it’s being deployed in a good cause. But we shouldn’t forget that, since we’re constantly evaluating presidents on the basis of insufficient data, the difference between presidential wisdom, wrong-headedness and empty-headedness is always going to be largely in the eye of the beholder.

In an ideologically divided polity like ours, presidents will always have supporters anxious to tell you about their surpassing wisdom and opponents anxious to bend your ear about their wrong-headedness. But the spreading perception of empty-headedness does an administration in.  George W. Bush could survive a lot people thinking before the 2004 election that he'd made a bad mistake by invading Iraq, but his presidency couldn't recover from the perception that set in by the summer of 2006 that he was prosecuting a war without having a plan.

That’s why I take Niall Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek seriously as much for its appearance as for what it says. He’s everybody’s idea of a heavyweight public intellectual and the new regime at Newsweek has given him a prominent platform to disparage Obama. And Ferguson has used it to propound the thesis that Obama isn’t just wrong-headed, but empty-headed (my emphasis):
“I can think of no more damning indictment of the administration’s strategic thinking than this: it never once considered a scenario in which Mubarak faced a popular revolt. Yet the very essence of rigorous strategic thinking is to devise such a scenario and to think through the best responses to them, preferably two or three moves ahead of actual or potential adversaries. It is only by doing these things—ranking priorities and gaming scenarios—that a coherent foreign policy can be made. The Israelis have been hard at work doing this. All the president and his NSC team seem to have done is to draft touchy-feely speeches like the one he delivered in Cairo early in his presidency. . . .

“Grand strategy is all about the necessity of choice. Today, it means choosing between a daunting list of objectives: to resist the spread of radical Islam, to limit Iran’s ambition to become dominant in the Middle East, to contain the rise of China as an economic rival, to guard against a Russian “reconquista” of Eastern Europe—and so on. The defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy has been not just a failure to prioritize, but also a failure to recognize the need to do so. A succession of speeches saying, in essence, “I am not George W. Bush” is no substitute for a strategy.”
That hurts.  Intellectuals tend to run in herds and Ferguson is the kind of guy who could start a stampede.

3 comments:

Lady Liberty said...

We all want Obama out of the White House, and there is no Republican nominee who can beat Obama. Except Paul. The only way to beat Obama is to steal his votes, and the only who who will do that is Paul. Obama only won the election because he got the Independent vote- it was anyone other than McCain/Palin. Independents and Democrats alike love Paul.
This is a serious situation. We can't just wait until 2016 when any old Republican is a shoe in. I fear the economy- and the dollar- will not last that long. It's time we stop worrying about the reputation of the Republican party (who will be their puppet) and start worrying about the future of this country.
Please, don't give up on Ron Paul. Reconsider what you think you know about him- the media has not done a fair job. He was completely ignored in the 08 election.


"Ron Paul is one of the outstanding leaders fighting for a stronger national defense. As a former Air Force officer, he knows well the needs of our armed forces, and he always puts them first. We need to keep him fighting for our country."
-Ronald Reagan

Anonymous said...

Yes, intellectuals are herd animals. They loved Obama because he has the kind of credentials they pride themselves for having and his presidency feeds their sense that no other credentials are worth having. Intellectuals will turn on Obama as a class (just like they turned on Carter) when they start sensing that he's making them look bad.

Ron Replogle said...

Apologies to Lady Liberty whose comment got caught up in the spam file for reasons that escape me. I need to check it more often.