Obama Buyer's Remorse

President Obama's disappointing performance has indisputably brought enormous buyer's remorse to many of his fans, the feeling that the "purchase" (i.e., voting for Obama) was a mistake. And while little can be done until November 2012, it may be useful to analyze why thoughtful people were seduced and, furthermore, learn to avoid future hoodwinking. In a nutshell, the American public was lead astray by conflating outward appearances -- "he seems so smart" -- with underlying substance -- "he is so smart." What we saw wasn't what we got.

Having spent four decades in top research universities, I questioned Obama's alleged stellar intellectual abilities from the beginning; he is smart, I said, but not that smart. Let me explain. These forty years of teaching and research has taught me that outward appearances do not necessarily signify exceptional intellectual talent. An "A" should never be given to students who just seem smart and faculty accomplishment is certified only by original research defended before knowledgeable peers. These are tough standards and professors regularly encounter seemingly promising students and job candidates who just can't get beyond clever glibness. Happily for over-matched student, however, tutoring or professorial kindness can push them toward a diploma, and when combined with their fine rhetorical skills, the diploma easily impresses non-expert outsiders.

Recall that Obama's demonstration of intellectual talent beyond a knack for self-expression never occurred. Skill at legislative logrolling, drafting well-crafted legal briefs, years of adeptly administrating an organization and similar traditional politically relevant skills were similarly never in evidence. His legislative record was virtually non-existent; at most he was an above average skilled Chicago political operative in a world of hundreds with similar talents. That Obama advanced the prestige academic ladder -- Columbia then Harvard Law -- without a public paper trail, moreover, only suggests help from affirmative action and sympathetic professors determined to help him to succeed. As for his two autobiographies, reasonable doubts exist about his personal contribution. The possibility of ghosting aside, however, even semi-literate celebrities can "write" books thanks to "as-told-to" co-authors hammering incoherent prose into shape.

This is not to suggest that Obama is a fake, an imposter playing at being smart. Rather, if a person wants to offer "being smart" as his principal qualification for high office, "sounding smart" is only a tiny part of the asset accounting. To repeat, top universities annually admit armies of verbally fluent graduate students and interview countless well-spoken faculty applicants, but only a tiny handful achieves notable distinction.

But, even if we concede Obama's verbal dexterity as a marketable asset, what might this indicate? Begin by recognizing that this facility is relatively unimportant in many fields supplying America's leaders. Especially in the military, "talking a good game" is far secondary to courage, sound decision-making under duress, tenacity, leadership, understanding human nature, and an ability to organize complex endeavors with limited resources. Career advancement requires displaying these traits, and here's the key: the exhibition is plainly visible. Dazzling Power Point presentation in Pentagon war rooms peppered with Peloponesian war asides counts for naught if one had previously screwed up an assault and hundreds of soldiers needlessly died.          

I recall President Dwight Eisenhower's televised press conferences. He would ramble on, coin odd-sounding new words (e.g., "finalize") and otherwise appear fuzzy-headed.  Only later did I appreciate his prodigious organizational talents, his prudence in avoiding quagmires (e.g., refusing the French US air support in Vietnam) and navigating the pitfalls of racial desegregation in the South. One of his remarkable gifts was convincing foes to underestimate him. Perhaps his "inarticulateness" reflected Ike's military training where one learns not to divulge secrets in loose talk. It is no accident that a book praising the Eisenhower presidency is called the Hidden Hand Presidency

A similar pattern holds in business: executives are judged by bottom line results, not rhetorical skill. To again return to the Eisenhower era, recall Ike's Secretary of Defense, Charlie Wilson, a gruff man who gave inarticulateness a whole new meaning but oversaw GM capturing a 50% market share. Today's equivalent might be Microsoft's Bill Gates, a man scarcely notable for personal charisma. Imagine if Gates had to run for election?     

In other words, being a "brilliant speaker" is only one talent of many, and not necessarily critical. It is also a gift that is one of the easiest to acquire via repeated practice, skilled video editing, relying on Teleprompters plus Hollywood-style props. Accomplishment, however, is more difficult to produce. I fondly recall Casey Stengel, "da Old Professa" who between 1949 and 1960 managed the Yankees to seven world championships plus two American League pennants and was famous for 30 minute press conference often consisting of a single rambling incoherent sentence. But try creating that baseball reputation with a Teleprompter.

Important lessons reside here. First, always remember that today's mass media enjoys great leeway in shaping a candidate's outward appearances, no small consideration as the mass media increasingly dominate elections. Media folk can just edit out off-the-cuff gaffes and present only what sparkles, and voilà, a well-spoken "intelligent" candidate appears. This power may far outshine slanting the news since it is hardly noticed. Think Ross Perot, a brilliant businessman rendered "an incompetent clown" by television. Second, not every politically important trait can be conveyed by sound bites or other outward signs. Try assessing "sound judgment" from a speech given to screaming college students. Richard Nixon supposedly called Dwight Eisenhower (a fellow skilled poker player) the most devious mind he ever encountered but you would never know this by his bumpkin-like public persona. Military and business leaders operate by command, not persuasion, and know they will be judged by outcome, not verbal polish. Those who spoke well but screwed up are long gone.

Third, better to insist on tangible accomplishment versus outward polish. Beware of all hat, no cattle, as they say in Texas. A skilled actor's rendition of the Gettysburg Address could bring the house down; that does not qualify him for the presidency.

Perhaps the most important lesson about America's buyer's remorse is to recognize the ease of seduction. This is the secret of successful con men: find out what the target craves, and supply it. Obama, or perhaps his advisors, grasped that the American people were tired of George W. Bush's awkward cadences and hungered after a spellbinder bedecked with elite credentials. In a sense, this resembles how Americans rushed to replace Tricky "I am not a crook" Dick Nixon with simple-but-honest Jimmy Carter.  As is so often the case in consumer choices, this on-the-rebound emotion-driven embrace of opposites guarantees remorse. Next time, we can hope, the American public will look a little deeper.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com