Commentary Magazine


Topic: great president

RE: Why Isn’t He Better at Being President?

Jennifer asks a good question that is more and more on the minds of citizens and the punditocracy alike. Obama is so smart and so eloquent, and yet he has not, at least yet, succeeded as president domestically or in foreign affairs.

One answer, perhaps, is that being a successful president requires skills and attributes that Obama simply does not possess. Being “smart” is not among those attributes. Everyone who gets elected president is smart, for anyone who wasn’t could never make it through the world’s longest and most difficult political obstacle course. George Romney — no dummy by a long shot — came a cropper with a single ill-considered remark about having been brainwashed regarding Vietnam.

But being “supersmart” is not only no help; it is, I think, often a hindrance. Six future presidents were elected to Phi Beta Kappa as college undergraduates: John Quincy Adams, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Of those six, only Roosevelt could be considered a great president. Three of them, Adams, Taft, and Bush, were defeated for re-election, and Arthur couldn’t even get nominated for a second term. (His presidential reputation has been improving of late, however.)

And intellectuals, of course, are all too capable of thinking themselves into disaster. Remember George Orwell’s famous crack about “an idea so stupid only an intellectual could have conceived it.”

One might think that engineers, trained to deal with real-world forces, might make better presidents. But the only two engineers to reach the White House were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both terrible presidents.

So what makes for successful presidencies? It might be fruitful to compare what the two greatest presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had in common. Neither were intellectuals (Roosevelt hardly ever read a book as an adult), but both were very “savvy,” not the same thing as smart. Both were master politicians, able to assemble and maintain coalitions. Both had immense charm. Both were first-class orators. Both had a great sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. Both were comfortable in their own skins and not given to introspection. Both had an abundance of self-confidence but no trace of arrogance. In both, the inner man was inaccessible, and no one felt he really knew what made either man tick. And both had that indispensable handmaiden of greatness — luck.

How many of those attributes does Barack Obama have?

Jennifer asks a good question that is more and more on the minds of citizens and the punditocracy alike. Obama is so smart and so eloquent, and yet he has not, at least yet, succeeded as president domestically or in foreign affairs.

One answer, perhaps, is that being a successful president requires skills and attributes that Obama simply does not possess. Being “smart” is not among those attributes. Everyone who gets elected president is smart, for anyone who wasn’t could never make it through the world’s longest and most difficult political obstacle course. George Romney — no dummy by a long shot — came a cropper with a single ill-considered remark about having been brainwashed regarding Vietnam.

But being “supersmart” is not only no help; it is, I think, often a hindrance. Six future presidents were elected to Phi Beta Kappa as college undergraduates: John Quincy Adams, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Of those six, only Roosevelt could be considered a great president. Three of them, Adams, Taft, and Bush, were defeated for re-election, and Arthur couldn’t even get nominated for a second term. (His presidential reputation has been improving of late, however.)

And intellectuals, of course, are all too capable of thinking themselves into disaster. Remember George Orwell’s famous crack about “an idea so stupid only an intellectual could have conceived it.”

One might think that engineers, trained to deal with real-world forces, might make better presidents. But the only two engineers to reach the White House were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both terrible presidents.

So what makes for successful presidencies? It might be fruitful to compare what the two greatest presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had in common. Neither were intellectuals (Roosevelt hardly ever read a book as an adult), but both were very “savvy,” not the same thing as smart. Both were master politicians, able to assemble and maintain coalitions. Both had immense charm. Both were first-class orators. Both had a great sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. Both were comfortable in their own skins and not given to introspection. Both had an abundance of self-confidence but no trace of arrogance. In both, the inner man was inaccessible, and no one felt he really knew what made either man tick. And both had that indispensable handmaiden of greatness — luck.

How many of those attributes does Barack Obama have?

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Worth Studying

Richard Cohen in a bile-filled column asserts, “The Palin Movement is fueled by high-octane bile, and it is worth watching and studying for these reasons alone.” Uh, not exactly. It seems the bile is flowing from one side these days. Clue: it’s the crowd that refers to her as Eva Perón, Madonna, and “the empty vessel,” as Cohen does. (As opposed to Barack Obama, who was the blank slate upon whom voters could project their every desire.)

Cohen’s column uses the conceit that former President George W. Bush should be setting up an Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin. Well, let’s stipulate that something is worth studying here.

For starters, how does Palin induce Cohen and crew to adopt such loopy, self-defeating arguments? When Cohen howls at the prospect of her “meeting with the Chinese or, for that matter, conducting a protracted policy review about Afghanistan,” he’s not helping his case. I am confident that months ago, she would have sized up Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation and given the go-ahead after observing that not a single military commander (domestic or allied) disagreed with McChrystal’s take and that “light footprint” alternatives had been tried and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think it’s safe to assume that she wouldn’t be in the unfortunate position of having snubbed the Dalai Lama before a China trip, thereby signaling our abject weakness.

Now in fairness to Cohen, he gets one thing right: he thinks the McCain camp, which picked her, is deserving of scorn for having imagined they’d bottle her up and then embarking on a campaign of character assassination. But the rest of Cohen’s tirade is something to behold. Her selection, he pronounces, was the “exact moment important Republicans gave up on democracy.” I bet that escaped your notice. (Or maybe you thought the moment some folks gave up on democracy might have been when a campaign adopted creepy iconography and devoted followers started referring to their leader as a deity, not a mortal running for a constitutionally circumscribed office.) Whatever causes Cohen to go around this bend is indeed worth a seminar or two.

Now here’s a killer argument: the fine folks who run the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal wouldn’t hire her as an editor but would want her as president, Cohen snorts. Yes, because we all know that what it takes to be a great president is exactly what it takes to put out a good magazine or newspaper. Really, if you can’t cut a 3,000-word column by a third, how are you going to balance the federal budget? (Cohen does know that politicians hire people to write things for them, right?) This is what happens when critics become irrational — they make arguments that confuse “editor” with “commander in chief.”

And then Cohen meanders over to the “death panels,” shouting “Demagogue!” Well, the provision for end-of-life-counseling panels was stripped from the bill once Palin issued her Facebook critique, and her argument on government-induced rationing was a prime mover in generating opposition to ObamaCare. But Cohen’s on the side of rationality, and Palin’s the demagogue, so let’s not let facts get in the way.

What’s important to keep in mind is that she’s a salesgirl, a celebrity starlet (“Like most celebrities, she is a vehicle for the sale of something: a book, a magazine, a TV program or a diet regime”). And this is why Cohen concludes that her popularity among Republicans is evidence of hatred: “What they mean is that she will act out their resentments — take an ax to the people and institutions they hate.”

Axes? Hate? My, it seems there is a group of the unhinged marauding around the political landscape. But it’s rather apparent that it isn’t the “Palin Movement.” (Does she have a movement all to herself?) Whatever you think of Palin, you do have to marvel at the frenzied antagonism she induces in her critics. And yes, that’s worth looking into as a political and social phenomenon — and, as people like Cohen’s colleague Kathleen Parker (another victim of Palin-induced rage) remind us, we really are short on civility these days.

Richard Cohen in a bile-filled column asserts, “The Palin Movement is fueled by high-octane bile, and it is worth watching and studying for these reasons alone.” Uh, not exactly. It seems the bile is flowing from one side these days. Clue: it’s the crowd that refers to her as Eva Perón, Madonna, and “the empty vessel,” as Cohen does. (As opposed to Barack Obama, who was the blank slate upon whom voters could project their every desire.)

Cohen’s column uses the conceit that former President George W. Bush should be setting up an Institute for the Study of Sarah Palin. Well, let’s stipulate that something is worth studying here.

For starters, how does Palin induce Cohen and crew to adopt such loopy, self-defeating arguments? When Cohen howls at the prospect of her “meeting with the Chinese or, for that matter, conducting a protracted policy review about Afghanistan,” he’s not helping his case. I am confident that months ago, she would have sized up Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation and given the go-ahead after observing that not a single military commander (domestic or allied) disagreed with McChrystal’s take and that “light footprint” alternatives had been tried and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think it’s safe to assume that she wouldn’t be in the unfortunate position of having snubbed the Dalai Lama before a China trip, thereby signaling our abject weakness.

Now in fairness to Cohen, he gets one thing right: he thinks the McCain camp, which picked her, is deserving of scorn for having imagined they’d bottle her up and then embarking on a campaign of character assassination. But the rest of Cohen’s tirade is something to behold. Her selection, he pronounces, was the “exact moment important Republicans gave up on democracy.” I bet that escaped your notice. (Or maybe you thought the moment some folks gave up on democracy might have been when a campaign adopted creepy iconography and devoted followers started referring to their leader as a deity, not a mortal running for a constitutionally circumscribed office.) Whatever causes Cohen to go around this bend is indeed worth a seminar or two.

Now here’s a killer argument: the fine folks who run the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal wouldn’t hire her as an editor but would want her as president, Cohen snorts. Yes, because we all know that what it takes to be a great president is exactly what it takes to put out a good magazine or newspaper. Really, if you can’t cut a 3,000-word column by a third, how are you going to balance the federal budget? (Cohen does know that politicians hire people to write things for them, right?) This is what happens when critics become irrational — they make arguments that confuse “editor” with “commander in chief.”

And then Cohen meanders over to the “death panels,” shouting “Demagogue!” Well, the provision for end-of-life-counseling panels was stripped from the bill once Palin issued her Facebook critique, and her argument on government-induced rationing was a prime mover in generating opposition to ObamaCare. But Cohen’s on the side of rationality, and Palin’s the demagogue, so let’s not let facts get in the way.

What’s important to keep in mind is that she’s a salesgirl, a celebrity starlet (“Like most celebrities, she is a vehicle for the sale of something: a book, a magazine, a TV program or a diet regime”). And this is why Cohen concludes that her popularity among Republicans is evidence of hatred: “What they mean is that she will act out their resentments — take an ax to the people and institutions they hate.”

Axes? Hate? My, it seems there is a group of the unhinged marauding around the political landscape. But it’s rather apparent that it isn’t the “Palin Movement.” (Does she have a movement all to herself?) Whatever you think of Palin, you do have to marvel at the frenzied antagonism she induces in her critics. And yes, that’s worth looking into as a political and social phenomenon — and, as people like Cohen’s colleague Kathleen Parker (another victim of Palin-induced rage) remind us, we really are short on civility these days.

Read Less




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