Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Nice Is It to Finally Have a Smart President?

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

The week that has passed since Election Day has been a blur. There was worldwide joy over Barack Obama's victory. There were also many words of caution that if Obama and the Democrats didn't play their cards right, things could turn ugly very quickly (some guy named Mitchell Bard wrote such an article the day after the election).

But now, with some time having passed, my ability to focus is slowly returning to normal. The first realization that has emerged through my election-induced fog has been: What a nice change it will be to have a president who is smart and cares about competence. See, no matter what happens in the future, whether the Obama presidency is a roaring success or gets stymied in enacting its goals, we will still be able to point to our president and say, "Yeah, we elected a really bright guy." Which is a huge improvement over the last eight years, when we had to look at our president and say, with a groan, "Did he just say that? Is he back on the bottle?"

For me, the first jolt was Obama's press conference on Friday (you can watch it and read the transcript here). As I watched, I smiled at finally being able to see a president speak with knowledge, intelligence, subtlety and depth of thought. Again, regardless of political ideology, whether you think Obama's policies are exactly what America needs to get back on track or a one-way ticket to disaster, Obama's intellect is what you would hope for in a president, especially after eight years of a "decider" mangling the English language (not to mention every issue he tackled).

The press conference offered many moments that made me happy. Obama's well publicized answer to a question about the family's impending puppy acquisition was funny and illuminating, and his tone and thoughts on the problems facing the country were of a level we haven't seen since the Bush brood took over the White House.

But one passage of his introduction stood out to me as a great example of how nice it is to have someone with intelligence in charge. Obama discussed aid to the automobile industry in a way that not only demonstrated a command of the issue, but that also showed the tact and skill to be absolutely clear on his position without being unduly harsh on those who would disagree. And, of course, in doing so, he made it far more likely that he could actually get something accomplished. Obama said:

"I would like to see the administration do everything it can to accelerate the retooling assistance that Congress has already enacted. In addition, I have made it a high priority for my transition team to work on additional policy options to help the auto industry adjust, weather the financial crisis, and succeed in producing fuel-efficient cars here in the United States of America."

Translation: We're not throwing money away on loans and grants to an industry that is stuck in the past -- aid that will only prolong an inevitable death -- but if the industry wants to modernize and change course to be a positive force as part of a forward-thinking energy plan, then we absolutely will help. In an nutshell, there is money for modernization and retooling, but none to maintain the status quo.

In style and substance, it was the perfect statement. The auto industry is a tricky problem to take on. Politically, Democrats have to be supportive or risk votes in what has been an increasingly reliable blue state. And the industry is responsible for providing millions of jobs at a time when unemployment is on the rise. At the same time, high oil prices, increasing oil demand, and foreign policy and environmental concerns have conspired to place urgency behind finding alternatives to oil as an energy source, something the auto industry has not been willing to address. And the American car-makers have been on a long, slow slide for some time now, with its executives unwilling or unable to do anything to reverse the tide.

Obama handled this complicated, contentious and difficult problem in a graceful and effective way. Republicans who accuse Obama of being beholden to traditional liberal special interests (like unions) can't say he was toeing anyone's line in this case. But at the same time, those on the left who demand energy reform will have to be behind this kind of initiative, even if it rankles the union constituency. And Obama delivered his stance with a positivity that looked to find a solution, not to call out an industry that has failed miserably in adjusting to the new realities of world energy production and consumption (a future that has been inevitable for decades).

I was so impressed with how Obama handled the issue, and I was even more impressed that he brought it up himself, rather than wait for a question from the press.

Quite a change from Bush's simplistic pronouncements like, "They hate us for our freedom," no?

And it's not just Obama, but the people who surround him. The new anti-anti-intellectual wave (yes, I meant to write that) that Obama is carrying with him to Washington was apparent as I watched his transition team member and long-time friend Valerie Jarrett on Meet the Press on Sunday (you can read the transcript of the show here). Tom Brokaw, knowing that many viewers didn't know much about Jarrett, began the interview with a quick "Meet the Press version of a baseball card" of her. The mini bio noted that she graduated from Stanford University and the University of Michigan Law School (and her daughter is at Harvard Law School), worked as a deputy chief of staff for the mayor of Chicago, and currently serves as the CEO of a real estate development company.

As I watched Jarrett speak with knowledge and insight on the Obama family, the transition, and potential members of the new administration, I was struck by the difference between the people Obama has surrounded himself with and the parade of unqualified and under-educated cronies and ideologues that made up the Bush administration. I immediately flashed back to Bill Maher's "new rule" in April 2007 about the importance of competence, and how Bush's anti-intellectual, political, competence-disdaining approach to staffing was epitomized by Monica Goodling, who was the number three person at the Justice Department before she resigned as part of the U.S. Attorney scandal. As Maher pointed out, Goodling was 33 and had no prosecutorial experience, even though she was charged with overseeing the performance of the more than 90 U.S. Attorneys around the country (who, in turn, managed thousands of lawyers under them). It seems Goodling's qualification for the job was that she attended Pat Robertson's law school, Regent University School of Law, which is ranked in the last tier of schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Maher reported that 150 Regent graduates were hired by the Bush administration.

Goodling was emblematic of Bush's sea of crony appointees. There were so many embarrassing appointments, but these three jump out at me: He put Michael Brown, the judges and stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, in charge of FEMA, with disastrous results after Hurricane Katrina; he tried to appoint his buddy Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, even though she was a commercial litigator with a law degree from Southern Methodist University (nothing to be ashamed of, but not a resume for a Supreme Court justice); and he placed the overmatched political lackey Alberto Gonzales in charge of the Justice Department, resulting in the least independent, most politicized Justice Department in modern history.

And now, here was Jarrett, on top of her game, and the contrast was unmistakable. And the qualifications of the numerous names kicked around for cabinet posts in an Obama administration were equally impressive when weighed against Bush's choices.

George Monbiot wrote an article in the U.K. paper the Guardian last week that sought to explain why the U.S. has such an anti-intellectual streak to its politics, despite producing some of the greatest universities and research institutions in the world. When I read the article for the first time this morning, it crystallized all that had made me angry about the Bush presidency, and it helped accentuate what a breath of fresh air listening to Obama has been in comparison.

For the last eight years, I have bemoaned the growing idea in the United States that presidential candidates can be "too smart." I was sickened by the idea that the electorate seemed to demand mediocrity as a way of ensuring that a president could understand its concerns. As I wrote after the vice-presidential debate, I don't want a president who is "just like me," I want someone better. Watching Barack Obama this week, it occurred to me that, just maybe, America has decided to value intelligence over relatability, and competence over fear mongering. And that makes me very happy, no matter what the upcoming months and years hold for the new president.