The Epistemically Closed President

I have no doubt that Barack Obama is a smart man–you have to be pretty smart to get elected president of the United States twice–but he doesn’t travel much outside his own intellectual comfort zone, and it shows in his thinking. Part of this has to do with the nature of the presidency itself; it is exceedingly easy to live in a bubble while also living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Presidents are repeatedly being told that they are the greatest things since sliced bread, and the very nature of the job means that presidents don’t understand or deal with the challenges and travails of ordinary Americans. So some epistemic closure goes with the territory, and is entirely to be expected.

That having been written, the degree to which this president lives in a bubble is particularly disturbing, as Ed Rogers points out:

The president said something recently that I believe was interesting and underreported.‎ At a Democratic campaign fundraiser, the president said he was “not a particularly ideological person.” Assuming he meant it, that was a remarkable thing to say, given that Republicans think of him as a classic liberal ideologue. How did so many get the wrong idea? The president doesn’t see an ideological bent in his actions; he sees himself doing what needs to be done without any ideological motivation. Interesting. ‎

During his brief time in the Senate, Obama was rated as the most liberal senator in the entire body in 2007. In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama famously told Joe the plumber that he was going to raise taxes because “when you spread the wealth, it’s good for everybody.” What could be more ideological than wealth redistribution? What is Obamacare if not an ideological drive for government control and wealth redistribution?  And let’s not forget that the president pursues pointless – some say punitive – environmental policies meant to shape Americans’ lifestyles in furtherance of the ideological embrace of liberal global warming orthodoxy.

The president’s belief that little of what he does is ideologically driven suggests he is living with a pampered, unchallenged mind. He has been told he is so smart for so long that he sees only clarity in his actions and unchallengeable reason in his conclusions. The president’s belief in his own intellect makes him think that whatever he does is simply the only thing a thinking person would do. Nothing ideological about that. And as president, he is constantly flattered, and his confidence that his analysis and conclusions are superior to others is readily reinforced. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett tells us that Obama has been “bored to death his whole life.” Perhaps she is onto something. I guess there is something ho-hum and tiresome about being right all the time.

It appears that President Obama believes that dissenting views are irrational or the result of clouded, lesser thinking.  Being blind to his own ideology makes him unable to respectfully deal with others who might readily embrace an ideological point of view. The president’s inability to effectively work with Congress, orchestrate Washington, or build strong alliances or even friendships overseas probably stems from his belief that others should defer to his clear thinking without many questions or objections. He doesn’t see politics as a great debate with multiple possibilities among equal voices.

This lack of self-awareness is more than a little shocking, and frankly, it should cause alarm bells to go off in the White House. How does this president not know that he is an ideological figure? How does he not know that there are different sides to the political/philosophical debates of the day? I don’t necessarily buy Valerie Jarrett’s claim that the president has been “bored to death his whole life;” that kind of comment appears to have been made solely to convey the message that Barack Obama is super-smart beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, thus presumably winning admiration for the president from those very lesser mortals. But the fact that the comment has been made–and the fact that it was made by one of the president’s closest advisers, to boot–is worrisome nonetheless. President Obama should insist on the presence of vigorous dissenting voices in intra-administration debates, if only to ensure that he and his team are kept honest. Instead, the president appears to have been surrounded by flunkies and yes-people. Again, a lot of this is inevitable in any administration, but in this one, the presence of flunkies and yes-people appears to be especially pronounced.

I’d like to think that at some point, someone will sit the president down and explain to him that everyone is ideological in his/her own way. Not everyone has to be a prisoner of ideology, and of course, it is a good thing if one is not a prisoner of ideology. But everyone has to be aware of their own ideological/philosophical leanings, they have to know that there are other people who adhere to different ideologies/philosophies, and they have to know how to talk to those other people. Right now, President Obama appears to believe that he is in possession of The True Set Of Facts, and that those who oppose him are in the grips of unproven cultish thinking. Maybe if he got out a bit more, he would realize that is not the case. And maybe if he had some aides who would actually be willing to speak truth to power, he would realize that his brand of thinking is not the only brand in town.