The aircraft was large, modern and considered among the world’s safest. But that night it was flying straight into a huge thunderstorm. Turbulence was extreme, and airspeed indicators may not have been functioning properly. Worse, the pilots were incompetent. As the plane threatened to stall they panicked by pointing the nose up, losing speed when they ought to have done the opposite. It was all over in minutes.
Was this the fate of Flight 447, the Air France jet that plunged mysteriously into the Atlantic a couple of years ago? Could be. What I’m talking about here is the Obama presidency.
When it comes to piloting, Barack Obama seems to think he’s the political equivalent of Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager and—in a “Fly Me to the Moon” sort of way—Nat King Cole rolled into one. “I think I’m a better speech writer than my speech writers,” he reportedly told an aide in 2008. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m . . . a better political director than my political director.”
Of course, it’s tempting to be immodest when your admirers are so immodest about you. How many times have we heard it said that Mr. Obama is the smartest president ever? Even when he’s criticized, his failures are usually chalked up to his supposed brilliance. Liberals say he’s too cerebral for the Beltway rough-and-tumble; conservatives often seem to think his blunders, foreign and domestic, are all part of a cunning scheme to turn the U.S. into a combination of Finland, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. I don’t buy it. I just think the president isn’t very bright.
Socrates taught that wisdom begins in the recognition of how little we know. Mr. Obama is perpetually intent on telling us how much he knows. Aristotle wrote that the type of intelligence most needed in politics is prudence, which in turn requires experience. Mr. Obama came to office with no experience. Plutarch warned that flattery “makes itself an obstacle and pestilence to great houses and great affairs.” Today’s White House, more so than any in memory, is stuffed with flatterers.
Much is made of the president’s rhetorical gifts. This is the sort of thing that can be credited only by people who think that a command of English syntax is a mark of great intellectual distinction. Can anyone recall a memorable phrase from one of Mr. Obama’s big speeches that didn’t amount to cliché? As for the small speeches, such as the one we were kept waiting 50 minutes for yesterday, we get Triple-A bromides about America remaining a “Triple-A country.” Which, when it comes to long-term sovereign debt, is precisely what we no longer are under Mr. Obama.
Then there is Mr. Obama as political tactician. He makes predictions that prove false. He makes promises he cannot honor. He raises expectations he cannot meet. He reneges on commitments made in private. He surrenders positions staked in public. He is absent from issues in which he has a duty to be involved. He is overbearing when he ought to be absent. At the height of the financial panic of 1907, Teddy Roosevelt, who had done much to bring the panic about by inveighing against big business, at least had the good sense to stick to his bear hunt and let J.P. Morgan sort things out. Not so this president, who puts a new twist on an old put-down: Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of financial capital.
Then there’s his habit of never trimming his sails, much less tacking to the prevailing wind. When Bill Clinton got hammered on health care, he reverted to centrist course and passed welfare reform. When it looked like the Iraq war was going to be lost, George Bush fired Don Rumsfeld and ordered the surge.
Mr. Obama, by contrast, appears to consider himself immune from error. Perhaps this explains why he has now doubled down on Heckuva Job Geithner. It also explains his insulting and politically inept habit of suggesting—whether the issue is health care, or Arab-Israeli peace, or change we can believe in at some point in God’s good time—that the fault always lies in the failure of his audiences to listen attentively. It doesn’t. In politics, a failure of communication is always the fault of the communicator.
Much of the media has spent the past decade obsessing about the malapropisms of George W. Bush, the ignorance of Sarah Palin, and perhaps soon the stupidity of Rick Perry. Nothing is so typical of middling minds than to harp on the intellectual deficiencies of the slightly less smart and considerably more successful.
But it takes actual smarts to understand that glibness and self-belief are not sufficient proof of genuine intelligence. Stupid is as stupid does, said the great philosopher Forrest Gump. The presidency of Barack Obama is a case study in stupid does.
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