Saturday, November 06, 2010

Ego autem praeses 

An article posted yesterday on Politico entitled, "The ego factor: Can Obama change?" is worth reading in its entirety, albeit with a grain of salt. It is always difficult to attempt armchair psychoanalysis of a president with absolutely no first-hand knowledge, and the piece cobbles together a number of quotes from other articles or books published over the last few years.

One of the quotes that stood out to me was this:
In author David Remnick’s Obama biography, “The Bridge,” he quotes White House adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett: “I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. ... He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... So, what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. ... He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
(Bold emphasis added).

I do think that President Obama has talent and intelligence, because I know people who have met him, and I respect their opinion on this topic. Any politician running for high office has to have a healthy self-regard; often there is also religious faith that counterbalances that to help to keep the politician humble. That said, I would encourage President Obama to include people his circle of advisers who have respect for the office he holds, but are not shy about knocking him down a few pegs when he gets a little big in his britches. I don't know this as a fact, but my understanding is that he has that type of personal relationship with the First Lady's brother, who, after all, is a Princeton graduate, and was coached by Pete Carril, and therefore knows something about humbling experiences. Valerie Jarrett may be technically good at her job, but at this point in his presidency, Obama needs people around him who do not worship him in the fashion of Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle two summers ago:
Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

The unusual thing is, true Lightworkers almost never appear on such a brutal, spiritually demeaning stage as national politics. This is why Obama is so rare. And this why he is so often compared to Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to those leaders in our culture whose stirring vibrations still resonate throughout our short history.
Take away the New Age phraseology, and Jarrett's quote has the same tone, except she actually works in the White House.

Everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time, and everyone is fallible. Anybody who has stepped foot onto the campus of an Ivy League school or other elite institution has run across exceptionally smart and talented people. I was just an ordinary student at Princeton, but during my first day on campus as a student, I met my Resident Advisor for my section of the dorm, and he was clearly off the scale -- a decade later, he would win a MacArthur Fellowship for his work in genomics. I had friends and roommates on campus who were incredibly gifted and worked hard, but enjoyed the natural giving and receiving of humorous grief. Nobody was bored or thought they were too talented, because wherever you looked, there was someone who was just as smart or -- in my case, when I looked around -- much smarter. In my professional life, I reported directly to a number of presidents of companies, and I think the presidents valued the fact that I respected their position, but was never shy about questioning an assumption or correcting a fact on which they were basing a decision. The most effective leaders of organizations have healthy egos, but do not let that get in the way of sound decision making. They actually want people working for them who are smarter in their areas and who will challenge them.

President Obama is nearly at the halfway point of his term. If he is to have a good chance at a second term, he will need to throttle back the personal audacity lever and get at least part of a new team around him. There is a scenario where the economy recovers a bit and the Republicans don't field a sufficiently attractive candidate to both turn out their base and capture independents, and there is also a scenario where the floor of his support craters and his approve/disapprove figures get down in the neighborhood of George W. Bush toward the end of his second term.

If he would simply make an effort to engage in some quasi-sincere self-mocking or display some false humility, it might help to disarm the meme that is now out there, and bring back some disaffected voters.

A last ending quote from the Politico piece:
One veteran Obama observer was not impressed with the early signs at the Wednesday news conference, believing that the president seemed impassive compared with the magnitude of the setback.

“Where’s the guy who out-hustled Hillary Clinton?” asked former Des Moines Register reporter David Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “I don’t think he realizes the mess he’s in, that he’s staring into his political grave. I was watching that press conference the other day, and I’m thinking, ‘Does he really get it?’ Where are the heads that should be rolling? Where’s the acknowledgment things have gone really wrong? I know he wants to project confidence, but come on.”
I agree with David Yepsen (hardly a Limbaugh-esque critic of President Obama, it should be pointed out) that it's time for some new staff.


By Blogger Stephen, at Sat Nov 06, 10:22:00 PM:

I guess there are different types of intelligence. Obama certainly has some intelligence. What he lacks is wisdom. He is remarkably unintelligent in this respect.  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Sat Nov 06, 10:37:00 PM:

Well E81, if you only knew how much I would have loved to have been an ordinary student and Princeton or Stanford. Alas my parents both made marginal choices to that end, wonderful in their own way that they were. Had they each made a more thoughtful spousal decision my opportunities would have begun at a much higher level!

Be that as it may, I doubt that what Obama lacks is a good staff. And my view is tainted by the notion that he is someone who proclaims things but does not make them. Unlike the Presidents you may have worked for, President Obama has never successfully managed much of anything of real consequence. People who actually construct and manage things understand and appreciate the contributions of talented lieutenants and for them lieutenants are valuable.

People who actually construct and manage things well do not think that the only good ideas are their own. They listen. They can step outside of themselves in front of criticism. They are open to the idea that their ideas are f&^%ed up. They can change and adapt. Change doesn't just mean doing things the way they wanted to in the first place.

What we have here, in my view, is someone who is in deep denial with respect to the efficacy of his ideas. The wisdom of those ideas are not, apparently, even open for discussion. If things are not going as planned there must be some other explanation. Some fungus affecting the silver tongue. Some failure to communicate the virtue of the ideas most people are not accepting, even though most people understand them and their consequences reasonably well.

In light of that it is annoying that the President may feel his way out is to learn to fake humility, or that his supporters would advocate that.

He is what he is, smart and talented for sure. But it is not very mysterious anymore. And I truly doubt it will ever be suitable for the challenges at hand.


By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Nov 06, 10:39:00 PM:

"If he would simply make an effort to engage in some quasi-sincere self-mocking or display some false humility, it might help to disarm the meme that is now out there, and bring back some disaffected voters."

I very much disagree, here. The public is not so stupid as to not be able to see through this, and they will react poorly to such transparent attempts at manipulation. People's characters don't simply change immediately like that.

The best thing would be to have a religious experience and be truly humbled, but if he can't manage it then trying to BS the public is a bad idea. They might have bought some bullshit of this regard a few years ago (they certainly bought a lot then). But no longer.  

By Anonymous astonerii, at Sat Nov 06, 11:58:00 PM:

Obama is not very smart. He has been told he is smart all his life. What people that you respect see in him is confidence that he is smart. He is the very first fruits of the liberal educational system. Give him a million dollar speech writer and a teleprompter and he is as brilliant as possible. Take that away from him and he is a blathering idiot. Maybe he has a 105 IQ. Smart enough for ordinary work. My old job coworkers devised a proof that as competency decreases promotion increases. Obama benefits from this flaw in human nature.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Sun Nov 07, 01:12:00 AM:

Obama is billed by his image makers as being brilliant and charismatic.

Regarding brilliance:

His school acceptance criteria and performance and his bar exam data intentionally are hidden from view. His employment experience is essentially a void. His associations have been with ideologues and political radicals rather than intellectuals. His voting record is mediocre. His novels were likely ghost-written. He cannot speak extemporaneously.

Regarding charisma:

He has no leadership experience, even on a small scale. He is aloof. He seems to have a penchant for misreading situations, speaking prematurely, communicating poorly and eschewing responsibility. Most of his most fervent supporters are cast aside, often shamelessly.

No...I do not think there is evidence of this man possessing extraordinary intellect or leadership ability. There is clear evidence that he has been GROOMED to appear that way for quite some time.

It almost worked.  

By Anonymous Gringo, at Sun Nov 07, 01:17:00 AM:

If he would simply make an effort to engage in some quasi-sincere self-mocking or display some false humility, it might help to disarm the meme that is now out there, and bring back some disaffected voters.

That’s not at his pay grade. The closest he came to it was at the Al Smith Memorial Dinner in 2008.
Quotes: “If I had to name my greatest strength, I guess it would be my humility. My greatest weakness? I guess it’s that I am a little too awesome.”

That has the feel of the truth masquerading as a joke.  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Sun Nov 07, 09:39:00 AM:

Re: Obama, ABC's Jake Tapper recently reported that Michael Bloomberg told Rupert Murdoch "I never met in my life such an arrogant man." Think on that for a moment.

I saw a quote attributed to Obama somewhere -- I think in Game Change and said to David Plouffe -- to the effect that Obama thought he could do any of the jobs in his campaign better than the person doing it. Think on that for a moment.

Obama is a Shithead in the strict Bronx meaning of the term: someone who thinks that they're smart but really isn't. I got called it a lot growing up.

Axelrod is supposed to be moving to Chicago to run Obama's 2012 campaign. What's that about? Obama's inner circle is now reduced to Big Sis Valerie Jarrett. There's a pattern. You can't tell Obama anything ... he won't listen.

Obama is a kinda smart guy who had a vey narrow -- and even perverted -- upbringing. He's actually quite narrow intellectually -- that'd be the real tell in his Columbia transcript I suspect. He has some serious personality issues.

This was all there to see three years ago, if you only looked. Bill Clinton even tried to warn us. Why didn't we look? Think on that for a moment.


Sarah Palin could beat Obama in some scenarios, Mitt Romney too. But who says that Obama will be the 2012 nominee?

There's a buzz in NYC around Mike Bloomberg running for President. He's up to something. Whether or not intended by Mike, the effect would open the door for Hillary to challenge Obama for the nomination (the Party will have to ask her first, of course!) This echoes how Eugene McCarthy opened the door for Bobby Kennedy to challenge LBJ back in 1968. Developing?  

By Blogger Carolyn, at Sun Nov 07, 09:55:00 AM:

I watched a YouTube clip of Obama stumping for Barbara Boxer just before the election, and it had the same magic he worked in stump speeches during his own campaign. I could feel the persuasive power of his words even though I KNEW that his assessment of Boxer's strengths and the promises he made for the future were wildly exaggerated. It was far more effective than most of his speeches since he came into the Presidency. Perhaps he really is happiest being an ad man.

On Valerie Jarrett's observation that Obama has been bored all his life: does anybody else think that sometimes Obama appears to be bored in the presidency? He seems to spend a great deal of time on the golf course or on vacation. I think he would be much happier heading up a foundation like Jimmy Carter's or as head of the United Nations - where he could be seen as one of the rare, historic "philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order" rather than as someone who has to deal with administering a government faced with real problems.

During college, President Obama had a reputation for being able to get people on both sides of a dispute to think he agreed with both of them, but also for being a fierce competitor who loved to win - characterizations which don't exactly dovetail easily. The "winner" side of his personality seemed to come the the forefront once he won the election as he pushed his agenda through Congress, while the ad man became less effective. It's hard to keep up the illusion that you are on everybody's side when you have to take real positions on real issues.

Which brings me to Shelby Steele for an explanation of what the President was trying to sell during his presidential campaign (not that he was particularly clear about what he was selling): "Our great presidents have been stewards, men who broadly identified with the whole of America. Stewardship meant responsibility even for those segments of America where one might be reviled. Surely Mr. Obama would claim such stewardship. But he has functioned more as a redeemer than a steward, a leader who sees a badness in us from which we must be redeemed. Many Americans are afraid of this because a mandate as grandiose as redemption justifies a vast expansion of government. A redeemer can't just tweak and guide a faltering economy; he will need a trillion- dollar stimulus package. He can't take on health care a step at a time; he must do it all at once, finally mandating that every citizen buy in.

. . . . People now wonder if Barack Obama can pivot back to the center like Bill Clinton did after his set-back in '94. But Mr. Clinton was already a steward, a policy wonk, a man of the center. Mr. Obama has to change archetypes."

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 07, 10:11:00 AM:

I read a great article, that I wish I could locate, saying that certain personality types and professions tend to focus on, and assess success, in terms of inputs not outputs. Obama is clearly in this Input mindset.

From his perspective, a 2000 page Health Bill was probably 100x more successful than a 20 page bill would have been even though the latter would be more understandable and less likely to have frozen the population with uncertainty. Or just input spending of 800 billion in Stimulus makes it a success regardless of the Output/Results.

A 2000 page bill also gives the political Pencil Pushers a lifetime employment in making up new Regs and Enforcement. Which further freezes the economy. And puts the political class (not a market) in charge of auctioning off access and success and makes Business pay Lobbyists to avoid getting screwed.

In the Real World, it's outputs that count.

The intellectual dishonesty that comes with measuring inputs also leads to metrics like "jobs created or saved". What BS.

Obama is the kind of intelligent that can make a 2000 page bill and get a giant woody about the Implementation details.

This is behind what the post-mortems view as the Dems' failure to communicate the Benefits of what they gave us. What benefits? In their mind it was "hey, 2000 pages!!" of input, but in the Voters' minds it was "Where is the putput?" If you look at the Red/Blue graph of America this is the cognitive dissonance. Out here we don't know what our taxes are next year! The economy is primed to recover if he would stop the bashing and inject some certainty. But he may just be too stupid to do that.

It actually requires way way more intelligence to KISS. Keep it simple Stupid.

If Obama is a stock I am still short. He's down from 500 P/E to 200 P/E, but he still doesn't have any E and until he focuses on the denominator of Outputs he has (much) further to fall.  

By Blogger Carolyn, at Sun Nov 07, 11:02:00 AM:

Brilliant, Anonymous.

Obama's not the only one with the "input" mindset. Many post-60's liberals seem to be more interested in intentions or promises ("input" ), than by results ("output"). Otherwise, how could anyone explain Obama's Nobel Prize before he actually engaged in any "peacemaking" activity?  

By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Sun Nov 07, 12:23:00 PM:

The Shelby Steele piece is insightful.

The input/output distinction has application to our federal government, granted. But we shouldn't be lured into thinking that Obama is a Do Nothing Guy. He's a Man With a Plan -- he wants to be a Transformative President.

I'd take the bet that Obama's favorite law professor at Harvard Law was Roberto Unger. Obama took both the Unger upper-level courses that were on offer. Unger is Brazilian-born and has been quite active in its progressive politics. Unger was once part of the Critical Legal Studies movement (crazy left-wing Ivy League law professors), but ultimately found them too crazy stupid ... "It's such a fine line between stupid, and clever" -- David St Hubbins, famous 20th Century Philosopher.

Unger is more a political theorist and a social philosopher than a law professor. If John Rawls floats your boat, you'd love Unger. Here's a comic book summary of Unger:

1) There are no bad people, only bad governments driven by bad constitutions.

2) The USA is pretty good, but not good enough. We need to deliver on the promise of "life, liberty and happiness." To do so, every citizen needs to be guaranteed adequate food, shelter, medical care and education, else the promise of the Declaration is hollow.

3) We need a constitution and implementing laws to make this so, and enlightened leaders to make it happen.

Sound familiar? It's why Obama's so much into comprehensive legislation with long phase-ins.

I'd love to live in Unger's Utopia, but my cynical side says it'll never happen.

1) People suck. Organizations of people often suck more. See George Orwell.

2) Sounds great, but no one will volunteer to be the janitor. Typical thinking for spoiled faculty brats.

3) This kind of wishful thinking necessitates centralized control, which inevitably leads to tyranny. See Hayek.

Obama was also shaped by the dark forces of Saul Alinsky and his acolytes, ACORN, and Black Liberation Theology ... along with his own fucked-up personal back story.  

By Blogger Carolyn, at Sun Nov 07, 05:43:00 PM:


You're correct when you say, "The input/output distinction has application to our federal government, granted. But we shouldn't be lured into thinking that Obama is a Do Nothing Guy. He's a Man With a Plan -- he wants to be a Transformative President."

He definitely has a Plan. I see his Plan as heavy on "input", no matter how big and Transformative it is. Even "input" type bureaucrats can be quite aggressive sometimes in promoting the importance of their input.

Obama seems to want to be the Big Idea guy, not the guy who actually worries about the details of the 2,000 page "comprehensive legislation with long phase-ins", much less about how the legislation affects the country in the short-to-medium term. Perhaps he thought that he and other enlightened leaders could bring the people gradually to an understanding of the brilliance of his plan for a transformed country. But at the same time, he often remained rather vague (and sometimes misleading) in his statements about the developing legislation.

He allowed his staff and Congress to shape much of his Transformative Legislation. And he seemed to distance himself from the tawdry aspects of the "wish list" projects in the stimulus, etc. His belief in the over-riding importance of the legislation made the details which angered the populace unimportant to him.

An interesting little detail about what Obama learned as a community organizer: He gave an interview years ago in which he said that he disagreed with one point in Saul Alinsky's plan for community organizing. Alinsky wanted the community organizer to stay in the background, pushing the "community" to take on active (even leadership) roles. Obama said that this didn't work when he was a community organizer. He thought that community organizing required a "strong leader".

Too bad he doesn't recognize some of the other flaws in utopian plans, including his own. Some of his early efforts to improve the quality of life in the worst areas of Chicago turned out badly, but he always seemed to move on to bigger positions where he would not have to face the "output" - the long-term results - of his beautiful ideas.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Nov 07, 06:37:00 PM:

By defnition, anyone who is liberal is an idiot. Liberalism has failed time and time again and anyone who keeps pushing that agenda isn't observing facts, isn't learning, so isn't very smart.

Someone calling a liberal "smart" either doesn't have an understanding of intelligence, or is one of those poor people overwhelmed by ivory league degrees and fast talking.  

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