Politics and Public Opinion

Puzzled by Obama (Dana Milbank Edition)

Dana Milbank—the Washington Post’s version of Maureen Dowd, minus all the dry policy analysis—writes:

When I covered George W. Bush’s White House, my job was made easier by the simplicity of the subject. The president had a few defining mantras—Cut taxes! Rally the base! Terrorists hate freedom! With us or against us!—and most of his decisions could be understood, even predicted, by applying one of the overarching philosophies.

With President Obama, there is no such luxury. The political right is befuddled as it tries to explain him: First, Obama was a tyrant and a socialist; now he’s a weakling who refuses to lead. The political left is almost as confused, demanding to know why Obama gave away so much on health care and in budget negotiations. Nearly everybody puzzles over Obama’s ad hoc responses to Egypt, Libya and now Syria, grasping for a still-elusive Obama Doctrine.

Then, “seeking a template to understand the enigmatic president” Milbank goes off to talk to some psychologists about President Obama. And as you can already tell, Milbank concludes that the problem with Obama is he’s just too smart for the job. This is an echo of a constant liberal refrain in American politics: Liberals are just too smart, too sensitive, too complex, too open-minded for the rough and tumble of politics.

Meanwhile, the conservatives have no such disadvantage. Sure, they have opposable thumbs and can dress themselves. But beyond that, they’re idiots. They can be meaner, tougher, rougher in politics because, cro-magnons that they are, conservatives built up the emotional scar tissue that comes with hunting and killing cute animals with clubs and rocks.

(This might come as a surprise to some as we watch the Democratic Party, from the president down, dishonestly insist Representative Paul Ryan wants to send America’s seniors to the salt mines and gladiatorial arenas.)

Anyway, what would be more interesting than hearing Milbank recycle this ancient trope would have been for him to ask the psychologists what they think about Milbank.

Could it possibly be that Obama is less of a cipher than Milbank (and the experts) think precisely because they cannot contemplate the possibility that Obama’s not as smart, not as nuanced, not as complex as everyone proclaims? Perhaps “complexity” is what liberals like Milbank call stupidity by Democratic presidents? And perhaps “stupid” is how the same sort of analyst describes complexity in Republican ones?

I’m not saying that Obama is dumb or un-intellectual. Nor am I saying that Bush could hold his own with Obama in a debate about Reinhold Niebuhr (that’s never been near the top of my list of things I look for in a commander in chief anyway).  There’s obviously some truth behind Milbank’s “templates.” But it’s just as obvious—to me at least—that Milbank’s templates say more—a lot more—about Milbank than they do about his subjects.

Of course covering Bush was “easy” for Milbank, because Milbank already had his template in place. Obama’s harder to cover precisely because Obama is defying the liberal template of divine-yet-lovable super-genius.

I mean, it’s funny, isn’t it? Obama the philosopher-king has, piece by piece, adopted nearly the entire edifice of the Bush strategic enterprise—precisely the suite of policies Obama derided as the most counterproductive and mule-headed of the Bush presidency. Did Obama do this because he’s become a simpleton or did Bush implement those policies because he was actually capable of sophisticated thought? Intelligent people will differ on such questions, but we know we’ll get no closer to the answer from consulting Milbank’s column.

10 thoughts on “Puzzled by Obama (Dana Milbank Edition)

  1. “Perhaps “complexity” is what liberals like Milbank call stupidity by Democratic presidents?”

    I’ll be chuckling about this line all day… and repeating it to my friends.

  2. Yikes, Jonah! Good but tough piece – some might say that you should be ashamed of yourself for picking on a mentally handicapped person like Mr. Milbank.

  3. As a psychologist two items about the Milbank nonsense are striking. One, no psychologist or psychiatrist ought to voice opinions (diagnoses) on the psychology of someone he or she has not assessed and evaluated. Two, the opinions Milbanks’ clinicians offered anyway should have been appended with “or perhaps he’s just not that smart and is overwhelmed by the complexity of his job.”

    I will add this generalized truism, for which one needn’t an MD or Ph.D in psychiatry or psychology: It matters little how fast one’s boat sails, it isn’t much use without a rudder.

  4. “I mean, it’s funny, isn’t it? Obama the philosopher-king has, piece by piece, adopted nearly the entire edifice of the Bush strategic enterprise—precisely the suite of policies Obama derided as the most counterproductive and mule-headed of the Bush presidency”

    But not before decrying these policies in the harshest terms around the world, and suggesting the USA BO (Before Obama) is not worthy of its place in history.

  5. PS. While writing my earlier post I was overcome by the thought that the intervention in Libya is just the thing to boost the standing of a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

  6. Milbank really lost it when he called Neville Chamberlain “complex” but Winston Churchill “simple.”

    Chamberlain’s description of WW2 as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing” is probably the single stupidest sentence uttered in the 20th century.

  7. I had to facepalm this part:

    “…most of his decisions could be understood, even predicted, by applying one of the overarching philosophies.”

    Uh, YEAH! Providing predictable leadership should be THE GOAL. Providing predicable leadership is what allows people to plan and allocate resources rationally and efficiently. You would have to be an ADHD idiot to consider that a defect.

  8. In all fairness, you have to be a pretty complex thinker to come up with justifications for such horrible policies. Simple won’t cut it.

    But fine, let’s admit we’re not worthy, avert our eyes from his brilliance, and let the president move on in 2012 to lead people who actually deserve him.

  9. When the conventional wisdom is that a politician — heck, any public figure will do — is so smart and sophisticated, and you just can’t figure out what everyone else sees in someone you consider mundane and conventional, simply remember the cutting wisdom of the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ — and aim to be that little child by speaking, in the case of Obama, truth to power.

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