It is a well understood truth that many people who are truly gifted — not just well above-average, but savant-level gifted — in one particular area tend to fail in most other aspects of their lives. The troubled Vincent Van Gogh took his own life after many bouts with depression and mental illness. Many of this century’s best and most talented musicians have lived lives riddled with drug addiction, depression, and a surprisingly large number have committed suicide, sharing the fates of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf.
Although many different explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, the simplest explanation to my mind is that the savant both has difficulty relating to “ordinary” people and is bored by all areas of life other than his area of expertise. Whether this explanation is true or not with regard to savants in general, it seems certainly to be true with regard to Barack Obama.
By now we have all seen the clip of Obama passing the job of explaining his tax policy off to former President Bill Clinton mid-press conference. By far the more shocking part of the press conference was when, to the stunned amazement of the assembled press corps, he announced that Mrs. Obama had been kept waiting for a full 30 minutes, and therefore he was gonna split; however, not to worry: Clinton would stick around and finish the press conference for him.
As I watched the debacle unfold (through the miracle of YouTube), I was immediately struck by the question: Which idiot on the White House political team thought this bizarre press conference would be a good idea? The answer to that question, apparently, is “Barack Obama.”
According to the New York Times, Obama’s staff was almost entirely occupied with the White House’s annual holiday party, and no one knew before it occurred that Obama and Clinton would be holding their joint presser; and certainly no one knew Obama would bail during the middle of Clinton answering questions. Of course, this is not surprising; the seasoned political operatives who work in the White House certainly would have understood how horrible it would look for Obama to pass the job of defending his policies off to the former president, and even more for him to essentially announce midway through that he was bored and was going to go find something else to do.
I think that an honest assessment would have to conclude that Obama is a savant when it comes to campaigning. No one of less than once-in-a-lifetime skill could have convinced that many people to vote for him despite a demonstrated lack of meaningful experience or ability, as well as political roots and beliefs that were well outside mainstream America. People sometimes criticize Obama’s campaign for being non-specific and shallow, and a blatant appeal to the lowest common NKOTBSB-denominator. What people who make this criticism omit is that this was the only possible campaign Obama could have run that would have won.I fully expect that his next campaign will be fundamentally different, and that he will yet again be a formidable opponent, despite his current struggles.
While it is clear that Obama enjoys campaigning and is quite good at it (in my view, he is a savant at it), it is equally clear that the actual work of being president is neither interesting nor important to Obama. As has been noted painstakingly by liberal commentators, the signature accomplishment of Obama’s first two years in office — the passage of the health-care bill — was an accomplishment in which Obama could barely be bothered to participate. Over and over, the partisans on both sides of every issue within the context of that debate begged Obama to stake out a leadership position and exert influence on his party; over and over again, Obama was summarily absent from all these discussions. And it isn’t just the health-care debate; on every major policy initiative, Democrats have groused that Obama has been absent from the work of negotiating with and cajoling reticent members of Congress from both parties.
This failure was never more evident than during the course of the tax compromise that precipitated the now-infamous Clinton press conference. According to reports, Obama completely bypassed both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the course of the negotiations, leading to widespread Democratic backlash (which was what Clinton’s presence at the press conference was supposed to allay).
At every step along the way in his presidency, Obama has plainly demonstrated that, although he fought very skillfully and very hard to get it, his current job bores him and he does not want it. Unlike the campaign, his job doesn’t have stadiums full of people chanting his name or pictures everywhere showing the good side of his face, hopefully lifted to the sky.
I suspect that, although Obama seems to have found that being president is not to his liking, he will campaign for the job again in 2012. Campaigning, after all, appears to be the one thing he does enjoy, and if he quits being president, there really isn’t much else that he can campaign for. What ought to cause us all some real and genuine concern for the country is what Obama’s second term, if it occurs, will be like; when Obama sits behind the desk in the Oval Office and realizes that there will likely be no more campaigns, ever, and that he is stuck in this job that he hates for four more years nonetheless. If he approaches his job with disinterest and sloth now, how will he approach it then?