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Our incurious president

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He’s so exceptionally gifted that he’s been bored most of his life,” President Barack Obama’s Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett said in reference to the fact that the president can appear disengaged at times.

In response to this, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan stated:

It seems to me more likely an exceptionally gifted person would be exceptionally interested in and alive to the wonder and drama of things. I think (Valarie Jarrett’s) meaning was that only the most demanding and important of jobs would consistently arouse his engagement and focus. But he seems pretty bored as president.” {1}

Another way of interpreting Peggy Noonan’s interpretation is that one would think than an exceptionally gifted person would be exceptionally attuned to the small things that may bore the rest of us. One could say that it's the focus on the small stuff that separates the gifted from the exceptionally gifted. The naturally gifted basketball player is often delineated from the championship level basketball player by the term "gym rat". A gym rat is a player that spends countless hours focusing on the small stuff that gives him that edge over the naturally gifted, and their reward is usually a championship.

Listen to an unedited, not-made-for-TV interview of an exceptionally gifted athlete, author, or businessman, and you’ll hear them provide detail of an exceptional focus on minutiae that you and I would consider mundane and trivial. The president is, apparently, so gifted that he considers these aspects of his job as mundane and trivial as we do. This begs the question, if a“big ideas guy” is bored by the minutiae of carrying out exceptional tasks, can he truly be called exceptional?

Some may argue that that pull quote is purposely cut to provide a damning characterization of what Jarrett actually said, but others would say that the full quote — this Senior Advisor that appears to exercise such extraordinary influence that she is sometimes quietly referred to as “Rasputin” on Capitol Hill, a reference to the mystical monk who held sway over Russia’s Czar Nicholas as he increasingly lost touch with reality during World War I — is almost as damning:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. . . . So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. . . . He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”{2}

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” Otto von Bismarck once said. He was referring, of course, to the messy nature of backroom deals, the intimidation that can be involved in securing votes, and the satisfying of all of the political action committees and constituency blocks that are involved in the process. Bismarck was saying that some people may know some aspects of this process, but they probably don't want to watch it ... if they want to respect their lawmaker in the morning. For all the disgusting aspects involved in making sausages, there are just as many boring, mundane, and trivial aspects to its creation. The Netflix series House of Cards would have us believe that the passage of a law is dramatic, fraught with peril, and an exciting story that only those involved know well. Anyone that has been involved in the passage of a bill would probably tell you that they wish it were half that exciting.

The question those that elected, then re-elected, Obama to our most powerful seat, would love to ask him is what did he expect? Did he expect to make monumental decisions every day that would affect the lives of ordinary citizens’ every day, and what does it say about his thought process that he is so, apparently, bored by it?

What does it say about his process? When he involves himself in those briefings that help him eventually form decisions, does he ask pointed, and informed, questions of his advisors, the generals from his Joint Chiefs of Staff, department heads, Congressmen, and Senators? How engaged is he in the trivial and mundane aspects of the job? How often does he blindly follow the advice of his most trusted advisors —those more concerned with the minutiae and unintended consequences of legislation and military maneuvers— without exhibiting the autonomy we entrust to every man we elect to the most powerful position in the world.

This description of Obama —by one of his closest advisors— reminds one of a petulant teenager on a trip to the Grand Canyon:

“You gotta see this Joey?” a Dad says in breathy tones. “It’s incredible.”

“Seen it,” the bored teen says without so much as looking up from his handheld game.

“It’s the Grand Canyon Joey,” the Dad says.

“Boring!”

“It’s considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world.”

“BORING!”

As frustrated fathers have informed their gifted teenagers for decades, if not centuries, not everything that you will experience in life is intensely exciting on its face. It’s your job, in life, to make the mundane and trivial interesting in some manner. If you stubbornly cling to this disinterest, most people will subsequently characterize you as an incurious person.

The measure of a president’s intelligence used to be the level of his perceived curiosity. Way back when George W. Bush was president, the charge that he was incurious was used as a barometer of his intelligence. This agreed upon assessment was repeated so often, by so many talking heads on TV, that an unsuspecting viewer may have believed that the term incurious was one of Bush’s nicknames. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Christopher Hitchens called Bush, “Unusually incurious.”{2} Cenk Uygur, of the Huffington Post, took it a step further characterizing him as the: “The incredibly, unbelievably, stupendously incurious George Bush”.{3} When another president began exhibiting characteristics that could, at the very least, be called equally incurious, the agreed upon assessment was: “He’s just so darned talented that the mundane and trivial aspects of the job bore him.”

What if he wasn’t so talented? How talented could he be? What could he accomplish? Where would the United States of America be right now, if their president wasn’t so bored by the trivial and mundane aspects of managing the affairs of state? If we were a subject matter that stoked his fire, would might have been able to top the .1% economic growth rate the Commerce Department just released for the first quarter of 2014? The president is, of course, not the lone force behind such an anemic growth rate, but imagine what a fully engaged president may have been able to accomplish if he engaged more citizens and created a general climate of optimism. Boring!

Would America’s standing in the world be improved if foreign affairs weren’t such a tedious exercise with so few immediate results? As any gifted child will tell you, fine tuning skills and talent is boring. It can be time-consuming, and arduous, and it’s often fraught with failure. Computer games are far easier, as they often provide instantaneous results, and when they don’t, the player can just hit a reset button, and start over with no penalty from the previous session.

As Obama has learned the hard way, leaders of other countries are not as easily impressed by presence or charisma as voters are. Other country’s leaders believe they have their own presence, and that their charisma drawfs everyone else’s. This appears to have provided a hurdle to the Obama process, and it has required him to undergo the tedious, time-consuming process of building relations, that can be fraught with failure. Searching for a reset button may seem silly in real life, but if you create one to bypass all of arduous, time-consuming efforts that diplomacy requires you could could … become just as silly.

If he weren't so bored by getting things done, imagine what he could get done.

One key component to a curious mind is to, at least, entertain the ideas of those that disagree with you. The curious mind may never sway to that opposing point of view, and they may never compromise their views in the least when crunch time rolls around, but the curious mind usually devotes some time to studying how their opponent’s think … if for no other reason than to better learn how to defeat them.

We cannot get into Obama’s head, and we’re not privy to most of the inner office dealings Obama has with Republicans, but listening to Obama’s speeches we can gather that he is not the least bit curious about what they think, how they think, or what drives them. At the conclusion of such meetings, he steps to the mike, calls them names, and informs the public that Republicans stand in the way of progress … his definition of progress.

One would think that if Obama proved unable to keep his enemies close, he should at least be able to keep his friends closer. Not so, say those Democrat Senators that pleaded with Obama to further delay some aspects of his signature piece of legislation Obamacare until after the 2014 mid-term election, so that their opponents wouldn't have the issue to run on. Obama basically informed them that he would visit their state, and give some speeches and stuff, to change the mood of their state’s view of Obamacare, instantaneously, and by the sheer force of his presence and charisma. Some of these Democrats openly wondered if that’s still enough.

Obama’s team declares that his “disengagement” is strategic and selective, and that he doesn’t want to be viewed as a “cable commentator commenting on the issue of the day.” And we’ve all seen this firsthand. We’ve seen him avoid becoming openly engaged in what some have termed the scandals of his administration, and we’ve seen him act dismissive of some concerns that others have characterized as substantial, but when a basketball team owner makes racist comments, Obama selectively and strategically makes himself available for comment. When March Madness nears, and ESPN comes calling to ask him to fill out a bracket, he is selectively and strategically there with bells on, and a marker in hand. When Kanye West makes a comment, and Obama is called upon for an opinion, he reveals his core philosophy and motivating beliefs on the issue. If I were a believer, someone that had the words “Hope and Change” in my adoring, and fawning eyeballs, I would be despondent with the idea that this is what it takes to engage him.

Those of us that do not agree with the direction Obama wants to take this country in are actually pleased to hear that he’s not fully engaged. If he can change this country in all the fundamental ways he has, without being fully engaged by it, we conservatives fear what could happen to the country that we love if he were. If I were a supporter, on the other hand, I can’t imagine how disappointing Jarrett’s comments, and the implications they suggest, would be to me. I can’t imagine being someone that believed in his hope and change message so much that I voted for him twice, only to find out that that which I could only dream about for much of my life now bores the one man that I believed could make it possible.

{1} http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304677904579536170749456890
{2}http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2011/1216/10-of-the-more-memorable-quotes-from-journalist-and-author-Christopher-Hitchens/Hitchens-on-George-W.-Bush
{3}http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cenk-uygur/the-incredibly-unbelievab_b_35882.html

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