Obama's Failing: Too Much Head, Too Little Gut

Obama's Failing: Too Much Head, Too Little Gut

By David Paul Kuhn - November 24, 2009

Liberals have long sought the professorial president. But Barack Obama is starting to betray some of the vices of that virtue.

This president appears too much brain and too little gut. Prof-in-chief has his drawbacks. The decision to send the confessed Sept. 11 mastermind to the civilian criminal court system was defensible in the academy. But it should have failed any seasoned pol's gut check. This crime was, after all, taken as an act of war.

Originally, thoughtfulness on the Afghan-war was welcomed and justified. But there have been nine major meetings of Obama's war-council. It's been nearly three months. Even as the decision nears, the deliberation has begun to feel like indecision.

It's also how this president speaks to the public. "Most folks believe that we've now turned the corner," Obama said of the recession in September. "Jobs tend to be a lagging indicator."

Obama never had that gene, visible in other politicians, that allows him to convey the public's pain. Not in the deft sense of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Last month, it was telling that Joe Biden, not Obama, took up Reagan's line that, "when you're out of work, it's a depression."

During the campaign, there were clues that this professor carried some of the baggage common to his breed. That reference to Whole Foods arugula prices to Iowa farmers. Obama's remark to a group of liberal donors in San Francisco that small town folks in places like Pennsylvania "cling to guns or religion."

Pundits did reach for adjectives like "aloof" or "professorial" to describe Obama. And even The New York Times took up the discussion post-market collapse. "In a Time of Crisis, Is Obama Too Cool?" read the Times' headline. But running in the wake of George W. Bush's presidency, against John McCain's mercurial campaign and amid the financial crisis, Obama needed only to appear steady to be just cool enough.

W. was the polar archetype of the professor. He used too much gut, from gauging the Russian leader to his "bring 'em on" bravado that permeated even his approach to war. But distance from W. allows more perspective on the professorial presidency, including its negatives.

Those negatives consumed Teddy Roosevelt. The Harvard-man, who wielded a photographic memory, was obsessed with seizing the "strenuous life" to avoid what he saw as the pitfalls of zealous intellectualism.

No modern administration has had more Ivy Leaguers than Gerald Ford, roughly half of his team. But Ford's most important decisions came from breaking with top advisors and going with his instincts: the pardon of Richard Nixon and the use of those famous words, "America's long national nightmare is over." A decade later, Ronald Reagan would similarly disregard learned advisors and stick with the line, "Tear down this wall!"

Obama's intellect has been understandably celebrated. He was the only major candidate who refused to float a gas-tax holiday. From his race speech to his first public comments on the financial crisis to his speech in Cairo, his eloquence is a visible asset.

And yet, even that asset has been exaggerated. Obama's inaugural address did not ring or read like John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt's. Obama lacks Roosevelt's touch with the jobless and hopeless, perhaps because Obama lacks so-humbling an experience as FDR had with Polio.

This financial crisis' strongest speech came in an address to Congress. But it came not from Obama but an impassioned British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, when he spoke of the "irrepressible nation" in his March call to action.

The advantage of Obama's command of the complex earns outsized notice, however, because his predecessor was unusually inarticulate--for a president that is.

But there remains a tendency for those smart-guy dumb mistakes. Obama's recent bow to Japan's emperor was a powerful cultural gesture to the Japanese. But that bow came in the context of earlier controversies over Obama's smiling handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Obama's bow to Saudi King Abdullah.

Politics 101 teaches that creating jobs can also create votes. Yet Democrats decided not to create a new-New Deal. It would have visibly and proportionally focused job creation where unemployment is highest, among laborers. But the obvious move is often not the professor's move.

Democrats have, indeed, moved towards the professional class for decades. Obama was always the personification of two of the most important legs of the Democratic coalition, blacks and highly educated whites. Republicans won post-graduates by 2 percentage points in 1988. Two decades later, Democrats won the bloc by 18 points.

The political left came to, in Al Gore and John Kerry, realize the disadvantages of the overly brainy candidate. But Democrats still cherished the cerebral president. In the Bush era, many liberals found relief in "The West Wing" fictionalized presidency of Jed Bartlet, an Economics Nobel Laureate who spoke four languages.

But ever since one columnist branded Adlai Stevenson an "egghead" in 1952 it seems, many Democrats have proven unable to fully consider the substance of the charge.

Last year, the Daily Telegraph obtained a confidential letter from the British ambassador to the prime minister. It described Obama as someone who "can seem to sit on the fence, assiduously balancing pros and cons," with a demeanor that "does betray a highly educated and upper middle class mindset," a man who "can talk too dispassionately."

It was the sort of frank appraisal that thoughtful men should consider.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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