You Get the President You Deserve.

September 7, 2009 at 3:04 pm (By Amba)

I’m going to say this quick because I don’t have a lot of time.

Is Barack Obama really motivated by a bone-deep statist agenda? Is he most motivated by his own political survival?  By a psychological need to reconcile conflicting viewpoints?  By idealism?  Or some combination of all of the above?

We don’t really know.  What we do know is that he’s the democratically elected President of the United States and we’ve got a minimum of three and a third more years of him.  (I hope that those of us who are still sane can all agree that a violent end to his presidency would be a catastrophe for this country we profess to love.) Rather than fantasizing about paralyzing him, or on the other hand, denying that he needs any improvement, how do we the people minimize the harm and maximize the benefit that we can get from these years?

It’s a truism of operant conditioning — a science of animal training that was applied to people in dolphin trainer Karen Pryor’s book Don’t Shoot the Dog, about which I once wrote a magazine article — that you get the best results by negatively reinforcing behavior you don’t want and positively reinforcing behavior you do.  (Another good tactic in some situations is “extinction” — getting rid of behavior by ignoring it, because some behavior is designed to get attention and is fed by even negative attention.  This might be the tactic of choice to apply to crazies at both extremes.)

Let’s be cynical and assume that Barack Obama’s deepest motive is his own political survival (although I don’t think that’s his only motive).  If that’s the case, he is teachable.  Never mind whether his coming to his senses about the Nancy Pelosi and Hugo Chavez agendas is motivated by a moment of illumination, a profound change of heart — we’re guessing his ideology is not much deeper than a chameleon’s skin anyway — or by a desire to stay in office (and we’ll cross that bridge in 2012).  Motivations don’t matter nearly as much as actions — doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is better than doing the wrong thing, and in fact motivations often fall in line with actions, because we don’t like cognitive dissonance.

My point is that we can get something closer to the president we want for the next 3.33 years, and the way to do it is, yes, by loudly shaming the behavior we don’t like (Van Jones is gone!), and also rewarding with praise the behavior we do — such as exhorting fathers to be fathers and kids to stay in school.  That may be part of what clever Newt, possibly because he knows a lot about animals, is up to, as he tweets about the text of the education speech:

newtgingrich Just read President Obamas speech to students.white House posted it. it is a good speech and will be good for students to hear

newtgingrich Remember that Presidents Reagan and Bush also talked to students nationwide. As long as it is non political and pro education it is good

By contrast, there are many on the right for whom this president can do nothing right from the get-go.  And distortion is the stock in trade of partisans of both sides, for whom their side defeating the other side is more important than the health of the country.  Cap’n Ed Morrissey at Hot Air does a word count on the text of the school speech and tries to paint it as an exercise in narcissistic self-promotion:

Update II: I’ve run the speech through a word frequency counter and found the following results:

  • 56 iterations of “I”
  • 19 iterations of “school”
  • 10 iterations of “education”
  • 8 iterations of “responsibility”
  • 7 iterations of “country”
  • 5 iterations each of “parents”, “teachers”
  • 3 iterations of “nation”

In other words, Barack Obama referenced himself more than school, education, responsibility, country/nation, parents, and teachers combined.  And to think that people accused Obama of self-promotion!

One assumes that many people will not read the speech but will take Rush’s word for it when he inevitably picks up this meme.  However, many of the “I”s in the speech occur in such innocuous contexts as “I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school,” or “I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia.”  In a 44-short-paragraph speech, there are 5 short paragraphs about Obama’s own story, focusing mostly on his single mother and absent father and how such circumstances don’t have to stop you.  Finally, there’s a little word that Cap’n Ed disingenuously “forgot” to include on his list:  “you,” and its variants “your” and “yourself.”  You find a word-count engine and apply it; I did a rough hand count.  It’s over 160.

So do you want the demon socialist president of your political fever dreams — because he’ll be easier to defeat in 2012 — or do you want a president we can live with till then?

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19 Comments

  1. wj said,

    It may be that President Obama’s primary motivation a year ago was his political survival. But I have to suspect that by now he has realized one salient fact of being President: you have hit the end of the political career path — there’s effectively nowhere left to go as a politician. (I admit to a suspicion that Obama was never enthused enough about being a legislator to take John Quincy Adams’ path after the Presidency. William Howard Taft’s post-Presidential path, perhaps — which would really set off the hysterics, but I think he might actually be good at it.)

    So, as of today, I suspect that a combination of idealism, duty, and a desire to reconcile conflicting political views is what is driving him. Fortunately, I think that still means that he is teachable. Why? Because what I think I see is a pragmatic idealism. Pragmatic idealism is willing to take progress in steps, and seeing what steps work. As opposed to the theoretical idealists (e.g. most academics and most of the more extreme populists of all parties), who demand allegiance to a pure vision of some kind. If you are willing to accept that politics is messy, and that you will not necessarily get everything that you want immediately, you can be taught because you find out which things allow you to move forward and focus on those.

  2. Maxwell said,

    Of all the moronic, faux-intellectual trends to come out of the blogosphere, word frequency counts are quite possibly the stupidest. Their whole purpose for existing seems to be to give close-minded people one more excuse to avoid the trouble of actually reading statements they disagree with. Instead they can just rely on third-rate Freudianism mixed with a dash of numerological divination.

  3. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Hell, we’ve got a president we’re gonna live with for three-plus years. The bad news is that he does appear to be driven by some kind of malignant narcissism that requires him to prove himself, along with talents that have let him rise without becoming competent at much of anything except the skills needed to rise — something I’ve talked about as a multivariate Peter Principle. It leads to having someone in a job for which they’re really past their skill level and surrounded by people who aren’t giving him full information. See also the pictures of Obama-with-halo that even the White House Press Office is putting out; there really is a strain of thinking of Obama as a secular Savior lurking in there, and it’s creepy.

    On the other hand, he really is just a man. Ecce homo. What we’re really seeing is the brilliance of the system we have, as it pushes back automatically against too great a change. (Something Reagan experienced too.)

    Which means that the Obama Administration, and to a great extent Obama himself, is controllable. Trainable, as you say. As Newt says, the speech is now benign, even good; I’d bet a dollar that the original text was more like his speech to the unions today, because that’s far more consistent with the original lesson plan, but I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.

    So yeah, I think continuing to train him, teach him to heel, is a good idea; no, I don’t think the Two Minute Hate that otherwise reasonable conservatives seem to indulge in is very productive.

    I’m damned if I know what to do about it, though.

  4. Randy said,

    word frequency counts are quite possibly the stupidest.

    Selective word frequency counts posing as impartial statistical analysis to further partisan slander aren’t stupid, they are disgusting. As Amba predicted, that little gem went viral within minutes of being posted.

    So do you want the demon socialist president of your political fever dreams — because he’ll be easier to defeat in 2012 — or do you want a president we can live with till then?

    At some of the places I frequent the answer appears to be the former. During times like the last week, I am reminded just how close to the truth Megan McArdle’s post in 2003 about Jane’s Law is:

    The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.

    I’d bet a dollar that the original text was more like his speech to the unions today

    I’d take that bet, Charlie ;-) In fact, I’d be prepared to wager much much more that it is substantially the same as originally drafted. Politicians and speech writers have long known what is appropriate for a given audience and the amount of attention likely to be given to a speech. Even without the ginned-up controversy over the address itself, it is unlikely that anyone thought this speech would not be widely reported and analyzed.

  5. amba12 said,

    there really is a strain of thinking of Obama as a secular Savior

    Charlie, I suspect the people who see him that way are, not far beneath the surface, really seeing him as their savior from the wilderness of being the party out of power.

    I just wrote Icepick that even while I recoil from the extremes of tea party paranoia, I’m quite proud of a lot of it. People have demanded to be heard and have slowed down the juggernaut. As long as politicians need votes, with some courage and passion you can still be heard.

  6. amba12 said,

    Toby Harnden of the Telegraph shares my view on the “chameleon” point:

    I’ve never viewed Obama as a radical Leftist. I think he’s a political pragmatist in that he will do whatever he needs to get elected. Thus, when he represented Chicago’s Hyde Park he was much further Left than he was running statewide and nationally. But having the likes of Van Jones on his staff does make one wonder. If it’s part of a trend then Obama could be very damaged because he already has the likes of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in his background.

    On the other hand, Van Jones could also have been a tidbit tossed to that old base in an effort to keep them on board. Pretty stupid given that the center of the country is allergic to that kind of radicalism. I’m curious to see whether Obama is just too gradually losing his parochial Hyde Park lenses or . . . whether they’re just contact lenses or permanent implants, you might say.

  7. amba12 said,

    I also understand that the protest is being whipped to a frenzy by scare tactics with an agenda. But what did the Democrats expect, trying to ram through an insufficiently examined, hard-to-understand 1000+-page bill? That would activate any reasonable person’s paranoia. It cannot be justified, nor can the reaction be dismissed as a mere sheeplike response to propaganda, unless you really believe that you and people like you know best and should be running the world. (A delusion of educated elites shared by university progressives and think-tank neocons.)

  8. amba12 said,

    Some gems received in correspondence from Icepick:

    I hope that those of us who are still sane can all agree that a violent end to his presidency would be a catastrophe for this country we profess to love.)

    The phrase President Biden should scare all right thinking people, even if they hate America.

    * * *

    So do you want the demon socialist president of your political fever dreams — because he’ll be easier to defeat in 2012 — or do you want a president we can live with till then?

    Doesn’t matter. Obama is both a hard core statist AND a political animal. And for all animals survival is the first imperative. There’s no way he comes out of the Chicago Machine without being a political survivalist.

    So we’re getting two main thrusts from his politics: The first is his push to remake America into a socialist paradise (count me among those that think Obama actually hates traditional American ideas on limited government and all that entails); and the second is his cozying up with the banksters and financial powerhouses of Wall Street and the Washington DC economic establishment. One of these is for ideals, and the other for survival. These sometimes conflict, but not as often as one would hope – both are quite comfortable with centralized control by a self-selected elite.

    Given these premises, nothing important Obama can do can possibly please those of us that fear large institutions of any stripe.

    For that matter, I have trouble agreeing with minor points. For example, I don’t care WHAT Obama says in his speech tomorrow/text today. (What a world! What a world! We’ll have digested the speech and passed it through our intestines before he even gives the damned thing. By the time he speaks it will be working its way through the political sewer system.) The President should stay the hell out of the classroom. (That goes for prior Presidents as well.) At best it represents another photo-op in the President’s (any Presidents) ongoing efforts to win votes. At worst it is cheap propaganda. And there is a very tiny difference between the two. More importantly, doesn’t he have something better to do? I seem to recall hearing something about an economic crisis. Quit wasting time and get to work, you damned self-aggrandizing shill!

    Actually, I’m probably happiest with him doing this kind of crap. What the US really needs is a massive deleveraging and the less money spent by the government the better. But that’s not happening anytime ever. The days of the Republic are long gone – now we’re just another democracy voting ourselves into the poor house.

    * * *

    Also, as I wrote a few days ago, why should the children work hard when the bankers don’t have to?

    http://theoreticalblingbling.blogspot.com/2009/09/this-is-so-wrong.html

    Plus, the UE numbers are showing that college grads aren’t doing much better than high school grads right now. You can graduate from high school without breaking a sweat, if you can just conform to the norms. (That’s why a dropped out.) So why work hard? If I hadn’t gone to college I’d be much less in debt right now, and I don’t need a degree to be unemployed!

    But the Prez will get up and spew the normal party line, telling the child’en to study hard and work hard. And in other speeches he will continue to tell them to become engineers. Although you can bet he will make sure his daughters go to law school. He won’t leave them to suffer through the ongoing boom and bust cycles of engineering employment – they’ll be part of the new ruling class. At the very least he’ll make certain they end up with a hedge fund somewhere, ala Chelsea.

    That’s Icepick, reminding me that I’m still way too naïve.

  9. wj said,

    Just a couple of point in response to Icepick’s comments:

    – Whatever the relative economic benefits of a college education, there is no question that there is a big difference between those who finish high school and those who do not. Which is what “stay in school” has meant every time I have encountered it.

    — I would think that emphasizing taking personal responsibility (which the speech apparently does fairly strongly) would be the opposite of what someone who believes in a statist, socialist, approach to society would do. At least, all of the far left folks that I have ever encountered (and I’ve known a lot of them) all emphasized that the government (or society) should be responsible for everything, and the individual should not be held responsible for anything. It’s those of us of a relatively conservative view who emphasize personal responsibility. But perhaps Ice has met a different brand of leftist….

  10. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    In fact, I’d be prepared to wager much much more that it is substantially the same as originally drafted.

    As I say, I doubt either of us will ever really know, but there is counter-evidence in the original lesson plan: it’s hard to imagine writing a letter on how you’re going to help President Obama achieve his goals if the goals are just the duck-billed platitudes that quack to stay in school and wash your hands often.

  11. wj said,

    It has been my experience that people with a statist, socialist, far left agenda (and I have known quite a few) do not talk much (or, more accurately, at all) about personal responsibility. Quite the contrary — everything is about what the government’s responsibility is, or what society owes to the individual. It is the conservatives who keep harping on personal responsibility. But perhaps Ice has had a different experience.

  12. amba12 said,

    When I mentioned on Twitter that if he did nothing else good as president, Obama could urge staying in school for poor kids and staying with their kids for dads, someone said, “Well, it’s liberals’ fault in the first place that they didn’t.” So I said, “Well then, liberals should do something to rectify it.”

  13. amba12 said,

    There are definitely people who do not want to see Obama succeed at anything, or do anything right, or who do not believe that he can. Same thing on the other side, though, as Democrats sought to mount an investigation of Bush 1’s talk to schoolchildren.

  14. michael reynolds said,

    He’s “teachable.” Good lord, the arrogance of the ignorant.

    He just schooled the right wing. We’ll get 80% of what we want on health reform, and we’ll get the rest in a year or two.

    He’s the Tiger Woods of politics. And you guys are going to teach him? Yeah. Then I’ll go teach Tiger how to sink a putt.

  15. amba12 said,

    Yep, he’s (hopefully) “teachable” regarding where the center of gravity of the country he’s leading is. He’s driving a much bigger vehicle now and he has to get the feel of where its weight is. Its negative manifestation is inertia, its positive manifestation is stability. That sucker hugs the road and if you try to yank it too far left OR right you get a whale of a correction. His election was a correction, not an epiphany. The arrogance of those who think otherwise will intensify the correction in 2010.

  16. Icepick said,

    Whatever the relative economic benefits of a college education, there is no question that there is a big difference between those who finish high school and those who do not. Which is what “stay in school” has meant every time I have encountered it.

    I could be just as unemployed without a high school diploma as well. One point is, the dumbass should get out of the classroom and spend his time DOING HIS FUCKING JOB. You know, the job he wanted as a consolation prize for not getting to be Mayor of Chicago. You know, the job he spent more money to get than anyone has ever spent getting any job. You know, the job he took an oath to do – which has nothing to do with mouthing platitudes at school children.

    I would think that emphasizing taking personal responsibility (which the speech apparently does fairly strongly) would be the opposite of what someone who believes in a statist, socialist, approach to society would do. At least, all of the far left folks that I have ever encountered (and I’ve known a lot of them) all emphasized that the government (or society) should be responsible for everything, and the individual should not be held responsible for anything. It’s those of us of a relatively conservative view who emphasize personal responsibility. But perhaps Ice has met a different brand of leftist….

    This is why I rarely bother with comments anymore. WJ, were you being stupid, careless or dishonest with this comment. (I can’t believe anyone is this ignorant, but I suppose it’s possible. Or you could have been drunk.)

    Do you really mean to say that statists don’t believe that individuals also have responsibilities? Really? I seem to recall that Stalin and the other Soviets really stressed the idea that the Soviet Man and the Soviet Woman had responsibilities to the State. At least in part this was because the State did provide everything. EVERY government makes certain demands on its citizens*. And EVERY government provides those citizens with some measure of benefit. Every government structure from street gangs to the most complex civilizations ever created has done this. At the very least, governments provide protection from the other, and those protected have to provide something in return – food, taxes, sex, even conscription. It’s a simple concept – TANSTAAFL.

    In fact, the more the government provides, the more likely it is to make more demands on the citizens. (I can think of a few exceptions, but their circumstances have been, see if you can follow this, exceptional.) Thus the Soviets demanded everything from their citizens.

    And even in the speech Obama gave, he placed a heavy burden on little Johnnie and Janie Snotnose:

    We need every single one of you to develop your talents and your skills and your intellect so you can help us old folks solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that — if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country. [emphasis added]

    So you see, it was about the state after all.

    * Or at least one those individuals the government deems productive.

  17. Icepick said,

    I would think that emphasizing taking personal responsibility (which the speech apparently does fairly strongly) would be the opposite of what someone who believes in a statist, socialist, approach to society would do. [snipped for brevity] It’s those of us of a relatively conservative view who emphasize personal responsibility.

    Are you really trying to tell me Obama is now an conservative? Out-fucking-standing.

  18. michael reynolds said,

    Annie and Icepick:

    I can’t think of a time when either of you has been right about Obama.

    But it’s boring making that same old point. It’s like when I keep having to explain to publishers that their business model will be dead within 5 years. Beyond a certain point, why bother? Reality will be the corrective. The old and slow will be replaced, that’s the way the world works. So what’s the point of shouting warnings to the dinosaurs?

  19. amba12 said,

    Yes, time will tell. But you won’t know if I was right ’cause you never listened to what I was saying. Fingers in ears and “la la la la la.” Just assume it’s indistinguishable from Glenn Beck.

    Dunno what happened to you, Michael, you used to be kind of an independent.

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