Yesterday, David Brooks wrote a typical David Brooks column. It was thoughtfully focused on the intersection between psychology and public policy, specifically on how Barack Obama’s personality will effect what policies he advocates in his possible second term. Brooks, as we all know, reads and synthesizes lots of social science research. He’s interested in how our brains mitigate or prohibit political and social possibilities, often in ways that we are not even aware. This is a big thing for Brooks: we have all kinds of cognitive biases and affective prejudices of which we simply ourselves don’t understand. The tip of the mental iceberg obscures all the stuff way below it–but that’s the stuff that defines our politics, our mate preference, our entire world view.
So it is odd to read Brooks writing about the one person on earth who can transcend all of these unconscious tendencies–president Obama. Brooks is, as always, worried about debt, deficits, and entitlements. He thinks that unless the next president fixes this, a debt crisis will be “imminent.” (That he is wrong about this gives him no pause–one social scientist whose work Brooks doesn’t seem to follow or understand is the Nobel Laureate opposite him on the Times op-ed page). So it’s all up to Obama. As Brooks writes:
Leading the country through this will require the intelligence, balance and craftiness that Obama has demonstrated. But it will also require indomitable inner conviction and an aggressive drive to push change. It will require a fearless champion who will fight all the interests that love the tax code the way it is. It will require a fervent crusader to rally the country behind shared sacrifice. It will take an impervious leader willing to spread spending cuts everywhere and offend everybody all at once. There will have to be a clearly defined vision of what government will look like at the end.
And this is where I don’t know what David Brooks is thinking. David Brooks thinks that Obama can not only master his own reflexive and unconscious prejudices and limitations. He thinks that he can, also, exhibit a Promethean power of self-creation which leads to national recreation. According to Brooks, Obama must be “indomitable”, “fearless” and “impervious” in order to change the sclerotic institutions of American government.
But, most of the rest of the time, David Brooks tells us that we can barely can master what food we order at McDonald’s–sure, we order, but there are so many variables about which we have no conscious clue. So why the Big Mac, rather than the fish fillet–none of us know! Yet Obama must overcome the massive structural impediments of our governance–and, if he does not, the failure must be his.
In Brooks’s terms, this makes no sense. And Brooks hasn’t even kept up with the latest social science syntheses, one that almost every other Washington based or centered writer has been talking about this week. In the New Yorker, Ezra Klein argues that, according to the political scientist George Edwards and several of his colleagues, presidential persuasion is, simply, a myth, a fetishization thru which we imbue presidents with a power to alter the partisan and political landscape which they simply don’t possess. Klein gives us several examples of how delusional the belief in the great communication skills of a president is. It doesn’t work with the general public–presidential approval polls or support for presidential positions don’t go up after a big White House “messaging” push. And big speeches and, often, even private bi-partisan meetings don’t lead to legislation being passed thru a Congress controlled or obstructed by the opposition party. George W Bush, a president very different than Obama, yet a very willful one, failed utterly to get a Democratic Congress to go along with his plans to privatize social security. In fact, the opposite occurs–as Klein writes, the research demonstrates that “…Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress.” In short, when Obama proposes something, Republicans are even more likely to oppose it than if, say, a Democratic Senator did so. Why? It’s a matter of incentives–what’ good for a Democratic president is bad for a Republican Congress.
Brooks doesn’t acknowledge any of this in his column even though he had ample time to read Klein’s article before he wrote his column. Instead, he employs the hoary cliches of hortatory uplift–We can be saved, but only if Barack Obama displays all the transcendent power and brilliance of an Ubermensch.
And this is coming from a guy who spends the rest of his time diminishing the significance of the conscious and willful application of values to politics (which is more of what you’d expect from a conservative–after all, in this view, human agency should yield to transhistorical verities and habits of mind). In summary, for Brooks, none of us know much about how to live our lives, yet Obama somehow is the exception to that rule. And not only the exception to that rule, but the exception to the structural limitations of a presidential system of government which creates dual sources of political legitimacy during times of divided government–and thus brings even a superman of the Oval Office down to earth. Which is exactly the kind of social science analysis we expect David Brooks to be completely conversant with, and ruefully mindful of. Yet Brooks doesn’t at all integrate his own well honed arguments about human nature into this column. And he doesn’t even integrate the very relevant social science research du jour on this very same subject–presidential persuasion–into the column, either.
All of this kind of makes me wonder if Brooks is only right in a limited, but profoundly personal sense: Yes, maybe it’s true that we really don’t have sufficient control over our preferences and patterns of thought. And the perfect case study for this theory would seem to be the work of David Brooks.