And now, as we ride the final, frantic roller-coaster days of the presidential election, as well as endure the last ragged gasps of the Bush-Cheney-Rove cachectic, withered administration, I’ve been reflecting about a potential new dawn in presidential intelligence preparing to rise over the national horizon. . .
Make no mistake, this will be a shock to Americans if Barack Obama is elected, not because he is African-American, a Democrat, a liberal, or in the eyes of some, the Anti-Christ, but because he is smart. That’s right, I said it plain and simple. Barack Obama is a smart person, well educated, and has an intrinsic capacity for deep analytical thinking. Now, you’re probably thinking that I am going to call George W. Bush an idiot. It’s tempting, but I don’t think that is the case. W. is intelligent, but for reasons I’ll leave to the presidential historians to analyze, his ability to actually turn his intelligence into critical thinking just seems to be lacking.
What is the source for my mulling over this stark cognitive contrast? If you remember learning about B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism in Psychology 101, you will recall the great debate over “stimulus-response.” When I was in college in the mid-1970s, Behaviorism reigned supreme, touted as the salvation of psychology against Freud and a host of others. My Psych 101 professor, however, was a Gestaltist and so while we were learning the canon of freshman psychology, he was also assigning us readings from Fritz Perls. By the end of that semester, we had learned as much of what was wrong with Behaviorism as what was right. I never recovered, fortunately. Rather than accepting the doctrine of pure operant conditioning as the basis of behavior, i.e.: S–>R, I was taught a more complex model: S–>[>X<]–>R. It was called the “black box” at the time, because it was the place in the psyche where the stimulus was processed before eliciting a response. This, along with “primal scream therapy,” was the topic of endless discussions in my undergraduate years (that, and which gas stations in town actually had fuel to sell and lines less than an hour long. Oh yeah, and girls, too).
My point? George W. Bush makes decisions as if he were “Exhibit A” for pure Skinnerian Behaviorism. His capacity to process information that might give him multiple solutions to guide his actions just does not seem to be present, or at least, is inhibited. His behavior suggests he’s missing the “black box.” He is not the “decider” but the “reacter.”
This is troubling all the more when you look at his inability to speak in simple, complete sentences. I think it is reasonable to expect the President of the United States to be able to stand in front of any audience and speak in an understandable and logical manner. I’m not talking here about the occasional gaffe anyone can make speaking publicly. You would also expect an individual who frequently speaks in public as a part of his responsibilities, to get better at it over time. President Bush remains the mush-mouth. The nagging question I have is if a person cannot speak clearly, is that individual thinking clearly?
My assessment of George W. Bush is that his “black box” is flawed. In some fundamental way, he does not process information in a manner essential for a person in a critically important political, or any other management, role. Such as the Leader of the Free World. The result for the American people, and to our peril also our relationships with both allies and enemies, is a president whose thinking and behavior is increasingly rigid, his inability to communicate increasingly ineffective. He portrays himself and therefore the presidency as anti-intellectual, disdaining critical thinking and the role of knowledge as a national resource, lacking insight into complex problems (such as the economic universe collapsing around us as we speak), lacking insight into his own limitations, and thoroughly unable to converse in a clear, logical and linear fashion what he is thinking, without depending on a small army of speech writers.
George W. Bush’s flaws have dumbed down the United States Presidency in a way that is likely unprecedented in the history of the Republic. What is disconcerting to the point of being frightening is that after nearly a decade, the American public and the world observing us has come to see W. as normative for the presidency. The man (and therefore the Office) is a flat, monolithic, muddled speaker, cognitively rigid, incapable of inspiring the nation he was elected to lead or the commanding the esteem of the world at large. It reflects upon every one of us; it may take decades for the American psyche to recover confidence in its true brilliance, as well as to repair the World’s perception of us as intransigent bullies.
It is not normative. If Obama is elected, the difference will be remarkable, even stunning. He is smart, possessing what Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, called “intellectual vigor,” when he recently endorsed Obama for president on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” It is normal for us, as citizens, to expect, even demand, that the President of the United States have well-above-average analytical, problem-solving and speaking skills. It will, however, be quite an adjustment for the nation to have a president who is smart.
The enticing prospect, if Barack Obama is elected president, is we will have to accept and adjust to a president who is articulate, can process the complex information flowing to him by virtue of his office, can create alliances with Congress and the World’s leaders, and has the capacity to apply his intellectual vigor to creative solutions. Obama speaks as one who can inspire us as a nation and command the respect of the world. He can do that. He can actually do that. There is nothing elitist here. No academic snobbery. He has an innate intelligence, sharpened by education, that will allow him to transform and reestablish the way the Presidency of the United States deserves to be perceived. And this great nation, too.
It will be a huge change. Like the first clear dawn after a dark, raging storm.