It’s never a good sign when a leader is applauded for “surrounding himself” with smart people. Similar claims would not instill confidence under other circumstances. Medical patients don’t boast that their surgeon understands his limitations but speaks with some older men who are really good at operating. Yet, in the case of Barack Obama, a version of this sentiment has been continuously peddled as a form of reassurance. So, we might as well ask: Anyone seen these geniuses around?
Is Eric Holder one of them? The first black attorney general took the opportunity of his first speech to chastise America as “essentially a nation of cowards” who “do not talk enough with each other about race.”
Is Timothy Geithner one of them? The president’s “indispensable” Treasury secretary popped up for a much anticipated bank plan rollout, but at the last minute decided the plan was . . . dispensable.
When it came time to compose a stimulus, instead of calling on one of those university economic luminaries who flitted about the Obama campaign, the president gave the job to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – maybe those two are the geniuses we’ve been hearing about.
In military affairs, the president is dealing with actual talent. But David Petraeus and Robert Gates are two accomplished experts from George W. Bush’s inner circle, not Barack Obama’s.
A few months ago, Michelle Obama said of her husband:
He surrounds himself with experienced people because he knows what he doesn’t know. He can learn it fast. But, he also wants the best and the brightest, the smartest people around the table. I think he’s built a great campaign because of that.
She was wrong on more than one count. Barack Obama was able to build a great campaign because of the dazzling candidate at the center of it. Building a great administration is another story.
The truth is we have no right to be surprised. During the campaign, the whole time we were hearing about the brain trust surrounding Obama, the only people we ever knew him to have meaningfully interacted with were a crooked businessman, a paranoid preacher, a domestic terrorist, and a gaggle of Hollywood benefactors. The names of a few scholars were tossed around, but as a wily candidate Obama spent more time strategically distancing himself from one theoretician or another, depending on his audience. The idea of Obama as the eye of an I.Q storm took hold because there was really little else to say about a candidate with so slim a record.
But the question “Where are all the experts?” is only half the problem. The other half comes in the answer: “Who cares.”
When George W. Bush made his initial run for president in 2000, his keeping company with experts was largely lambasted as evidence of his own personal ignorance. Karl Rove, so the story went, had to call in an army of famous minds just to tutor the Texas governor into being a viable candidate. Bush’s critics might have been craven, and they never much cared for confronting facts, but on this, they had a point. There’s something suspicious about a leader who has to rely on a chorus of scholarly opinion. And to Bush’s great credit, he agreed. The former president was at his best when he bucked the all-knowing tide. When this study group or that think tank would issue a new plan for defeat in Iraq, and the New York Times would praise it to the hilt, Bush stood firm because he knew he had to live up to a higher standard. “So long as I’m the president, my measure of success is victory — and success,” he said. It became another funny Bush quote, but it has a certain Yogi Berra eloquence and, more important, what American today wouldn’t be thrilled to hear something so definitive, if tautological, from President Obama? What American wouldn’t love to find out what Obama’s own measure of success is?