Professorial Problems

Some time ago, Apollo offered a theory about what was wrong with Obama:

We know this guy. He’s that college professor who never personally said anything outlandish, but when students spoke up in class and said outlandish things, he’d respond with something like “That may be right,” or “there’s some truth in that” instead of the more appropriate “that’s wrong and off topic.” Therefore more people felt free to raise their hands and say outlandish things, and those of us not interested in such nonsense stopped participating in class because it wasn’t worth it. Obama is the “that’s a valid point” professor, so he respects equally my anti-abortion point of view, and his pastor’s government-created-AIDS point of view. They’re all valid.

Jonah Goldberg has refined and expanded it somewhat:

A Hidden Cost of the Health-Care Summit

It seems that I wasn’t alone in finding Obama increasingly un-charming as the event unfolded yesterday. Even Dana Milbank notes that Obama ultimately came across as a bit of a condescending, well, jerk. Here’s Michael Gerson: “President Obama, as usual, was fluent, professorial and occasionally prickly. Some are impressed by the president’s informed, academic manner. Others (myself included) find an annoying condescension in Obama’s never-ending seminar.”

Obama’s habit of deciding what is a serious point and what are mere “talking points,” started out seeming like an attempt at fairness but ultimately revealed itself to be one of the more grating aspects of his personality and his philosophy (It’s worth noting that many points become talking points because they are such good points!). After awhile, it seemed Obama deemed many talking points to be illegitimate simply because they were inconvenient to his argument.

This is not news to certain people who have greater immunity to his charms. Obama has a very thin skin when it comes to disagreement. He has a Fox News obsession. At campaign-style events, Obama has insisted that he doesn’t want to “hear any talk” from the people who “created this mess” or some such. Remember his call for a “new declaration of independence not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry.” Translation: Ideological objections to what I want to do are akin to bigotry and stupidity.

I think one of the great explanations for the mess the Obama administration is in — the whole cowbell dynamic — is that he, his advisers, and many of his fans in the press cannot fully grasp or appreciate the fact that he is not as charming to everyone else as he is to them (or himself). Hence, they think that the more he talks, the more persuasive he will be. Every president faces a similar problem which is why, until Obama, every White House tried to economize the deployment of the president’s political capital. The Obama White House strategy is almost the rhetorical version of its Keynesianism, the more you spend, the bigger the payoff.

The hidden cost of this strategy is that the more he talks the more pronounced or noticeable this tendency  becomes for the average American. Eventually, it could come to define him. Presidents — all presidents — get caricatured eventually because certain traits become more identifiable over time. That’s one reason why parodies of presidents on Saturday Night Live get more convincing and funnier at the end of their terms — everyone can recognize the traits and habits by then. The more instances where Obama grabs all of the attention while acting like an arrogant college professor — particularly as memories of Bush fade — the more opportunities the White House creates where people can say, “Hey, I finally figured out what bugs me about this guy.” Not long after that, it becomes a journalistic convention, a staple of late-night jokes and basis of SNL parodies.

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