Press

Is Obama Too Thoughtful?

The following is an excerpt from Mike Signer’s column published this weekend in the Daily Beast:

“[W]e need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” That’s what Sarah Palin told Tea Partiers in Nashville last weekend, triggering uproarious cheers. A few weeks earlier, she had dismissed Obama’s State of the Union as “quite a bit of lecturing, not leading.” Meanwhile, John McCain just borrowed the “lecturer” line to attack Obama in the Financial Times.

Palin and her partners seem intent on turning one of Obama’s strengths—his thoughtfulness—into a liability. Such broadsides threaten to dominate political and policy debates not just in November’s mid-term elections, but the 2012 presidential election as well. The administration should take note and pivot quickly. The fact is that voters often need a bolder narrative, one whose plot turns on actions and victories, not just the calls to civil discourse and contemplation that have come to mark Obama’s presidency.

The intellectual has always held a hallowed, fraught place in American politics. In Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, set in the 1950s, Bellow’s slightly ridiculous poet-hero Von Humboldt Fleisher showers praise on Adlai Stevenson, the “great souled” intellectual Democratic nominee for a president whose “chief of staff would know Thucydides.” “Intellectuals are coming up in this country,” Humboldt says. “Democracy is finally about to begin creating a civilization in the USA.”

The mirage of a “great-souled man” who can help “create a civilization in the USA” still promises water in the desert, particularly to progressives. It played a significant role in Obama’s stunningly inspiring 2008 campaign. But this vision also rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Since our nation’s beginning, many Americans have viewed overt intellectuals with suspicion and disdain, as memorably documented by the historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1963 volume, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

We all know that Obama was a law professor. He deeply believes the lawyer’s idea that a thesis, brought into conflict with antithesis, will result in synthesis: truth. As president, Obama has demonstrated unheralded courage in his repeated attempts to use politics to help lead toward truth, rather than just a win. You might call this the “philosophical model” of the presidency, and it dominated his State of the Union address.

One example was a passage meant to make people reflect on their own responsibility to counter pessimism with a sort of voluntary optimism. Obama said, “As one woman wrote me, ‘We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.’ … It is because of this spirit—this great decency and great strength—that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. . . . And tonight, I’d like to talk about how together, we can deliver on that promise.” Note that he says, “I’d like to talk about.” It’s as if Obama is inviting us to reason together. This is what Palin attacks as a “lecture.”

Read the full column at the Daily Beast.