Dumbing Down the POTUS

This post is not about George W. Bush.  Really.  Although he had a role in my thesis.  This post is about our current president, Barack Obama.  I don’t want there to be any confusion about that.

It finally struck me yesterday what the GOP is up to regarding the November elections, after four events, three of which were unusual, filled the majority of my day.

They were, in this order:

  1. I watched two hours of Fox News shows at the behest of my friend, Dr. John Bogen, who is politically as conservatively moderate as I am liberally moderate.  Many of the themes I discuss below were the primary topics of those shows.  (If you are a regular reader of Extreme Thinkover, you will remember John’s very fine posts last fall on the H1N1 Pandemic, both regarding vaccinations and his advice how to understand H2N1 H1N1 (thanks, John!).
  2. I read an article about how the White House allowed President Obama’s passport–yes the President’s passport–to be photographed to counter the ongoing idiocy of the so-called “birthers” who obstinately cling to the totally false accusation that Obama was not born in the United States.  The issue of people believing the President is a Muslim is so far off the scale of absurdity it doesn’t even get its own separate number.
  3. While wandering around a big box electronics store I started experiencing chest pains and deciding to err on the side of caution and went to my hospital’s urgent care.  All my tests came out negative, fortunately, but with my family’s history of cardiac artery disease I’ve earned a ticket to be the main attraction in my second stress test.  Thinking about one’s mortality is a sobering moment for anyone.  I also have health insurance.
  4. After I got home, I got to watch my favorite NASCAR driver, Kyle Busch, set a NASCAR record at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee by sweeping the three races of weekend.

It was during the race it hit me what the conservatives are doing to try to defeat the Democrats this fall and to discredit not only the president but the presidency in every way possible for their advantage. Why during the race?  Maybe it had to do with the vagaries of a car race, the strategies, and the ever-present reality that each driver and his car only has so much control over what is happening to them.  Someone else makes the smallest of mistakes and you can be out of the race with your car a pile of scrap metal in a fraction of a second.  Or maybe it was just dumb luck.

You will remember, quite painfully if you are a person with any capacity to carry on a civil conversation with someone you disagree with, the Cirque de Chaos we had to endure during the Congressional recess town hall meetings last August over the Tea Party and health care and carrying guns around in public like it was the Showdown in the O.K. Corral.  This year, there’s hardly been a whimper over this.  That’s because the new strategy is much more subtle and the Far Right learned one lesson: viewer fatigue.  By the end of August last year, the “scream at your politician” gambit had backfired; most Americans get fed up with toddler-type tantrums very quickly.  Simply put, the Far Right overplayed its hand.

The plan this summer is to make the president look dumb.  Also incompetent, if possible, but definitely dumb.

Why?  Because Barack Obama is probably one of the smartest presidents in the history of the nation in terms of sheer intellect.   So the way to attack him is to create, in this case, two exceptionally dumb fabrications about him: he wasn’t born in Hawaii, and he is Muslim, and then keep feeding those very stupid lies by constantly just hinting about them or have pundits “debate” the issue on TV and radio.

Dumbing Down the POTUS. Image Courtesy Motifake: http://www.motifake.com


This strategy works because there is no rational way to defend against it.  You can’t “put this one to bed” because there is no effective counter-strategy.  So the Republican leadership, now held hostage by the Far Right Wingnuts, can just keep the topic alive by continuing to feed their constituents who have bought into it.  And the way you do that is very simple: whenever the question is asked, you deny it, but ambiguously.

Last year, the Far Right tried shouting and threats of revolution.  It fell flat on its face.  This year they are trying lies and innuendo.  It’s a big gamble for the GOP because the Tea Party and other Far Right groups are much like a political multi-headed Hydra each with its own idea of who should be in control and what the outcomes should be.  But the Republicans lack a Hercules to control this beast.  Rep. John Boehner, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and RNCC Chair Michael Steele to a person lack the ability or imagination to keep these groups under control.  I suspect Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are hoping they can throw meat at the monster without getting eaten themselves.

The question is can the Democrats find their equivalent of a Hercules to cut off the heads, politically speaking, of the Right’s Hydra?  President Obama, in my opinion, is more than capable, as we saw him campaign for the office, but now as Leader of the Free World, his focus should be on his job, not slaying dragons.  The same goes for Vice President Joe Biden.  Sen. Harry Reid, in addition to being in the fight of his career to keep his senate seat, is the epitome of milquetoast.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi has the fire, but in addition to being speaker of the House, is in her own campaign.  The DNC’s chair, Tom Kaine, is an excellent administrator, but has wisely kept out of the spotlight.

I’ve heard more than one pundit and politician say the Democrats are disorganized and not responding effectively to the attacks from the right.  That may or may not be true.  It may be the Democratic strategy is to let the Far Right, with all their fractures run their course, and when they begin to collapse, pounce with the equivalent with a sledge hammer against a glass window pane.  In reality it would not take much for the Republican Party to implode upon itself.  The GOP’s structure is much more precarious than they are letting on.

In the meantime they are going to attempt to make the president look dumb, out of touch, incompetent, a threat to the American Way of Life.  He is none of those things, so eventually the truth will out.  I continue to read the polls with a huge grain of salt.  Now I know what I’m looking for, I’ll be able to tell more clearly what is happening below the surface.  November 2, 2010 is still going to be a very interesting election day.

The World Still Has Hope in Us

This age of instant news, images flowed from my TV, of celebrations around the world: Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States.

One of the news reporters said that fireworks had been scheduled as part of the victory celebration at Grant Park in Chicago, but Obama had canceled them, himself.  America is at war, the economy is crashing about our heads.  Fireworks could come later.

Around the world, millions didn’t care.  They rushed into the streets celebrating.  From every continent, rejoicing that this very multi-continental man blended of race but utterly American would become the Leader of the Free World.  Despite what reservations they had harbored just a day ago, now there flowed an exhilarating rush of new hope from America and for themselves as well.  No government or regime compelled them to take to the streets, but they just couldn’t seem to restrain themselves.  And I thought if I awoke tomorrow and Kenya had applied for statehood, I would not be surprised.

Barack Obama.  He has not served a second in the office to which he has been elected.  But the world didn’t care.  As he stepped onto that Chicago stage, the world saw America stepping back onto the global stage with him.  The America they feared they could no longer trust; the America they feared had lost its way with belligerent disregard for the world itself behaving as a feral child lashing out in abject fear; the America they had relied on for hope even in the darkest hours of devastation wrought by tyrants or the earth’s unstoppable natural forces.  They feared that this fertile land of opportunity now suffocating under a glacier of paranoia and greed had been lost forever.

And perhaps we, too, shared those same fears.  With one exception.  For we know the power of one vote.  That is our heritage and our legacy, the flame of liberty lighting our path, each step we take as “We the People.”

I wondered.  I wondered what would those millions have been doing if John McCain, as honorable a Patriot as he is, had won the presidency?  Would the streets around the world been flooded with those exuberant crowds?  No, in all honesty, I believe the streets would have been empty.

I wondered.  I wondered what the most private thoughts of President George W. Bush were, watching on television the adulation for America’s decision bursting with joy and wild abandon from around the world?  Crowds cheering for the United States, jockeying for a moment in front of the cameras to praise America, waving our flag with pride as if it were their own.  What did he ponder, knowing that his name, indeed his presidency in those same places brought not celebrating crowds but angry hordes, wreaking havoc, tearing his effigy to pieces, calling America the worst terrorist in the world, and, burning the Stars and Stripes, words unable to express their outrage?

I know that the challenges Barack Obama faces when he takes office will be daunting.  As will they be to every citizen of the United States.  But for this moment, it’s good just to know the World still has hope in us.

Learning to Live with a Smart President.

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.