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Is America ready for a smart President?

April 1, 2009

Jonathan Alter has an article entitled “Caught in the Act of Thinking” which specifically deals with the complexity of President Obama’s long term strategy for battling the present economic crisis while laying down the foundation for long-term growth. An interesting theme of the article, and a sensitive topic politicians, journalists and anyone else who must deal with the public has to confront is this: are we, the people, sorta dumb?

From the article:

Clinton’s onetime strategist, [Mark Penn] compared [Obama] to his fellow Illinoisan, Adlai Stevenson, in order to discredit the upstart as an effete intellectual. Penn failed, in part because Obama won’t refute the charge by dumbing down his language or playing the plebe (as George H.W. Bush did by eating pork rinds) or otherwise pandering to those with less bandwidth in ways he knows are inauthentic. When Stevenson was running for president in the 1950s, a woman approached him and said, “Governor, you have the support of every thinking American.” Stevenson replied, “That’s nice, but I need a majority.” Obama is less cynical about the public. He seems perfectly content to be caught in the act of thinking in prime time.

In doing so, I’d venture that he was making news in a larger sense. He was signaling that he actually trusts people to stick with him through a complex, long-term argument. This is a radical idea and a helluva bet for an American president.

It strikes me that it is just far too easy to dismiss the “public” as a homogeneous mass too busy, disinterested and informationally challenged to be expected to follow, and support, complicated public policy. Though the large and fanatic following for TV’s American Idol may not bode well for the proposition that the American people are capable of understanding and embracing an intellectual President and his agenda, the blogosphere, full as it is of lowest common denominator content, also contains the best proof that there is a high level of interest, knowledge, energy and complexity being brought to bear by the American people in support of a President with complex solutions to important challenges.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. john permalink
    April 1, 2009 9:30 am

    America has a long and checkered history of antagonism to intellectualism. From Ben Franklin to Walt Whitman to Ernest Hemingway. Even more basically democracy is inherently antagonistic to intellectualism and the elitism it implies.

  2. April 1, 2009 10:30 am

    This isn’t a new debate, obviously. Everything from the original method of appointing Senators to the existence of the electoral college points to a deep distrust of the people by the founding fathers. But I think the obvious connection of the northern, liberal, economic and intellectual elite to Barack Obama–contrasted with some of those unfortunate McCain/Palin rallies in the midwest like the famous one at which an older woman claimed Obama was a “an Arab”–brings the issue back into stark relief. I think you’re right that the promise of egalitarianism in our founding documents is often at odds with the elitism of our institutions. And I think the current President, coming on the heels of a “regular guy” like Bush, heightens our awareness of the difference.

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