Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Getting a Bead on Obama

We’re always conjuring up, and acting upon, hypotheses about other people’s character. The process is usually pretty straightforward. When another person is positioned materially to affect our own well-being, we need to predict what he’ll do in order to look out for ourselves. To that end, we try to figure out what makes him tick. Insofar as his behavior confirms our best guesses about his character, we grow more confident that we’ve gotten a bead on him. When he disappoints our expectations, we either refine our hypothesis about his character to make it consistent with the behavior we’ve observed or we start rummaging around for a new hypothesis.

That’s not how highbrow journalist David Brooks operates when he’s talking about Obama. Brooks liked the cut of Obama’s jib (or was it the crease in his pants?) the first time he saw him. Hearing his thoughts on Reinhold Niebuhr convinced Brooks that Obama was a rare political specimen:  a deep thinker with the charisma to translate thought into public action. That made him just the guy to lead us out of what Brooks regards as a lamentable ideological impasse between small-government conservatives and tax-and-spend liberals. The only worrisome thing about Obama, from Brooks’s standpoint, was the whiff of hubris he got from Obama’s unbounded confidence that he’d surmount challenges that had defeated lesser politicians.

Now, like the rest of us, Brooks is coming to grips with Obama’s spectacular passivity in the face of a budgetary crisis at home and instability in the Middle East. To Obama’s political opponents (who always thought that he was more a dedicated follower of liberal fashion than an independent thinker) his passivity looks like a combination of cluelessness and political opportunism. You can’t blame Brooks for interpreting Obama’s reticence more sympathetically. But it’s still hard to square it with the idea that Obama’s a modern-day philosopher-king.

Yet if you think that Brooks would be turning in his original hypothesis about Obama for one that’s more in accord with the facts, think again. Brooks reconciles the discrepancy between his expectations and the reality of Obama’s performance, instead, by attributing yet another special power to the president. To hear Brooks tell it, Obama’s not only a deep-thinker, but a shape-shifter (my emphasis):
“All in all, President Obama is an astoundingly complicated person. During the 2008 presidential campaign, and during the first two years of his term, I would have said that his troubling flaw was hubris — his attempts to do everything at once. But he seems to have an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust. Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity. I have no confidence that I can predict what sort of person Obama will be as he runs for re-election in 2012.”
This sounds like nonsense to me. It takes a more discerning man than I am to understand the idea of “character” that Brooks is applying to Obama. We normally think of character as a general disposition to make certain kinds of choices in certain types of situations. We say that “character is destiny” because we acknowledge that, as a matter of simple logic, nobody can choose what kind of chooser to be. Brooks seems to be saying that Obama is a uniquely protean figure who can. Others mistake his passivity for cluelessness because they’re playing checkers while Obama’s playing chess.

What would make a smart and intellectually scrupulous guy like Brooks say something that, if not incoherent, is at least spectacularly improbable? I can only guess that it has something to do with the status anxiety accredited intellectuals are experiencing these days. It’s been a long time since their credentials conferred enough authority on them to make John Kennedy summon the “best and the brightest” to Washington and give them a relatively free hand in running things. A rough measure of the declining social status of intellectuals is the fact that it was an artful provocation for William F. Buckley to say over forty years ago that (I’m paraphrasing) he’d rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the phone book than the Harvard faculty. Now it’s a tired platitude.

Status anxiety among intellectuals goes some of the way toward explaining why so many of them, including some with conservative histories like Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, have such a psychological investment in the success of the Obama presidency. In their eyes, it isn’t Ivy League degrees, his presidency of the Harvard Law Review or being a best selling author that distinguishes Obama from other politicians—George W. Bush has degrees from Yale and Harvard and has sold a lot of books too. It’s the fact that, having been an ineffective community organizer, and then an undistinguished state and United States senator, Obama’s intellectual credentials are his principal qualification for the presidency. Bush and his supporters thought that the worldly experience he’d acquired in the business world and running Texas qualified him for the presidency. Obama is perfectly at home among people who think worldliness is something you get from reading Reinhold Niebuhr.

That makes Obama the spitting image of the guy intellectuals want to see when they look in the mirror: a better-looking version of themselves blessed with charisma. That doesn’t condemn Obama to a failed presidency. But it probably means that, if he does fail, the David Brooks's of this world will be among the last people to recognize it.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Mr. R. Brooks's thesis is nonsense. He's off the deep end and can't stand to see what Obama has turned into (or has always been).

For my part, having a president who has "an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust" is just plain weird. Adjust is ok but "self-observe?" Give me a break. Obama is seemingly incapable of governing and leading. Seems a lot more like cluelessness to me than any deep-thinking, shape-shifting going on.

Dave said...

You might just as easily have titled this post "Getting a bead on Brooks". The position he's taken in the above quotation is virtually incoherent.

But about Obama. It's more than a little surprising, and worrisome, that more than halfway through Obama's first term we're still so often unsure about who he is, what he stands for, and what his priorities are. Why does he so frequently leave it to us to piece together clues and tease out his positions? Surely he realizes it's bad politics to remain a cipher on so many issues.

Mean Voter said...

Ron I liked your post.

To commenter Dave - I think you touched on something very important in your comment. You say we're a bit more than halfway through Obama's first term and we're unsure about who he is, what he stands for and what his priorities are. I agree.

Obama has the power on a moment's notice to let us know - he can take over the airwaves, have a press conference, send out his minions and make it clear who he is and what he stands for, and what his priorities are. Yet he chooses not to.

I'm beyond wondering why. At this point, I now fear this unknown.