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Some say we finally have a President who is a thinker. Do we?

Obama the Thinker?

An “open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual”—this was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s laudatory description of America’s new president. Kristof, echoed by a chorus of similar commentators, was expressing hope that Obama might help combat a growing anti-intellectual climate in America today.

Obama seems to fit the bill. Citing as evidence both his technological savvy and the fact that he is actually well read, some affectionately hail him as our first “geek” president. And his eloquence as a speaker is certainly indisputable.

But Kristof and others like him refer to something different when heralding Obama’s intellectualism. Their evidence is not Obama’s book knowledge or his wit, but his basic approach to ideas. Unlike those who, as Kristof puts it, ignore the “uncertainties” and “contradictions” inherent in human life and “become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity,” Obama embraces uncertainty and the existence of gray areas. Obama is identified as an intellectual, in short, because he subscribes to skepticism—the theory that teaches that truth, knowledge, and certainty are not possible, and that one can only answer the questions of life in approximate shades of gray.

This enlightened strategy supposedly distinguishes Obama from his less cerebral predecessors. He is held in direct contrast to George W. Bush, who once said of himself, “I’m not a textbook player, I’m a gut player.”

Yet if one compares Obama’s positions with Bush’s, it’s the similarity in their intellectual approaches that is striking. Both make decisions on the basis of pragmatic, momentary considerations rather than an intellectually defined standard. Just as Bush employed a seemingly random grab bag set of strategies, going with his “gut,” so Obama is already switching positions on policy after policy.

For example, Obama had promised throughout his campaign to “immediately” begin withdrawing the troops once he became president. Then he changed his tune by maintaining that he would “refine” this policy based on advice from commanders on the ground. Liberal and conservative pundits alike observed that his position on Iraq had become well-nigh indistinguishable from McCain’s.

So too with Obama’s healthcare plan. He had adamantly opposed Hillary Clinton’s proposal of a mandate forcing every American to get medical coverage; later, Obama’s campaign adviser announced that Obama was “not opposed to the idea” of an individual mandate and will consider implementing it as part of his own plan.

Other examples of Obama’s “flip-flops,” as the media calls them, abound. From his changing position on corporate taxes and immigration, to his measured opposition to gay marriage, Obama operates on the same see-what-works, “seat-of-the-pants” basis as Bush did (and McCain would have done)—and thus is equally unpredictable in his ever-shifting policies.

In action, Obama is clearly not an intellectual. He, like Bush and other politicians, is a pragmatist—the exact opposite of an intellectual. Issue after issue, including taxes, the Iraq war, and the environment, reveals that Obama has made decisions, not with reference to firm principles derived from a careful and scholarly investigation of the facts, but by trying to find some middle ground in a landscape of competing opinions.

What is different about Obama is that he self-consciously knows and proclaims his approach. But what’s so significant about that, if the approach itself is anti-intellectual? Obama openly embraces the view that it is impossible to use the intellect to ascertain the right way to handle the war or deal with the economy, and so he adopts the tack of just trying things and seeing what happens. Consider Obama’s claim that his “core economic theory is pragmatism, figuring out what works” (“Obamanomics,” NYT, 8/20/08). How is this any different from prior, allegedly non-intellectual politicians, other than that those politicians didn’t happen to be explicit about their methodology?

However much Obama seems to sport the trappings of an intellectual—and clearly he does—in practice, his policy consists in shooting from the hip, making short-range decisions without adherence to any firm set of guiding convictions.

To commit to certain principles and act on them consistently—be it a pro-free-market or pro-big-government principle in economics, for example—would be to claim that one principle is superior to another and can be counted on to ensure better results. Obama’s alleged intellectualism is precisely what does not permit him to make such claims. Instead, it leads him to treat every issue as a playground of conflicting viewpoints among which he must strike a compromise—and then hope for the best. This is a rejection, not an embrace, of conceptual thinking.

Obama explicitly grasps and endorses the postmodern disdain for principled action. But this type of “intellectualism” does not actually guide him in making wiser, more informed decisions than his nonintellectual counterparts. On the contrary, it deliberately blindfolds him to any knowledge or principles that might inform his actions. As accepted wisdom proclaims, shrewd and sophisticated is he who knows that he knows nothing—and acts accordingly.

Kristof is right in wanting a more cerebral President. Neither America as a nation nor her individual citizens as human beings can survive for long without some form of real intellectual guidance. As we have seen over the course of several administrations, and as anyone knows who has tried to apply the “gut player” mentality to his own life, he who shoots from the hip is liable to miss.

Obama, however, is not the President to provide that guidance. What we need, if we want to rekindle a respect for the intellect as a practical tool, are not “intellectual” role models who act out of blind, spur-of-the-moment pragmatism, but a new kind of intellectual—one who reaches conclusions methodically and scientifically, on the basis of acquired knowledge and expertise, and then applies those conclusions with bold certainty to his actions. Such an intellectual would choose an economic position, for instance, on the basis of sound principles that he formed by rigorously examining the evidence of history and human nature. He would then adhere to those principles unbendingly, because he would be certain of their truth and of their efficacy in action. Such a leader, not unlike this nation’s Founders, would be an intellectual in the truly worthy sense—for he would apply his knowledge and intellect to the achievement of real, practical values.

Gena graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University in 2008, earning a BS in psychology and philosophy. She currently works as a clinical interviewer and research assistant in the Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatry department, and intends to enter a PhD clinical psychology program in Fall of 2010.

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