Sunday, November 22, 2009

Visceral Has Its Value

The New York Times


November 22, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

Visceral Has Its Value



It’s easy to dismiss Sarah Palin.


She’s back on the trail, with the tumbling hair and tumbling thoughts. The queen of the scenic strip mall known as Wasilla now reigns over thrilled subjects thronging to a politically strategic swath of American strip malls.


The conservative celebrity clearly hasn’t boned up on anything, except her own endless odyssey of self-discovery. And she still has that Yoda-like syntax.


“And I think more of a concern has been not within the campaign the mistakes that were made, not being able to react to the circumstances that those mistakes created in a real positive and professional and helpful way for John McCain,” she told Bill O’Reilly.


Yet Democrats would be foolish to write off her visceral power.


As Judith Doctor, a 69-year-old spiritual therapist, told The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz at Palin’s book signing in Grand Rapids, Mich., “She’s alive inside, and that radiates energy, and people who are not psychologically alive inside are fascinated by that.”


Barack Obama, who once had his own electric book tour testing the waters for a campaign, could learn a thing or three from Palin. On Friday, for the first time, his Gallup poll approval rating dropped below 50 percent, and he’s losing the independents who helped get him elected.


He’s a highly intelligent man with a highly functioning West Wing, and he’s likable, but he’s not connecting on the gut level that could help him succeed.


The animating spirit that electrified his political movement has sputtered out.


People need to understand what the president is thinking as he maneuvers the treacherous terrain of a lopsided economic recovery and two depleting wars.


Like Reagan, Obama is a detached loner with a strong, savvy wife. But unlike Reagan, he doesn’t have the acting skills to project concern about what’s happening to people.


Obama showed a flair for the theatrical during his campaign, and a talent for narrative in his memoir, but he has yet to translate those skills to governing.


As with the debates, he seems resistant to the idea that perception, as well as substance, matters. Obama so values pragmatism, and is so immersed in the thorny details of legislative compromises, that he may be undervaluing the connective bonds of simpler truths.


Americans who are hurting get angry when they learn that Timothy Geithner, as head of the New York Fed before becoming Treasury secretary, caved to the insistence of Goldman Sachs and other A.I.G. trading partners that they get 100 cents on the dollar when he could have struck a far better bargain for taxpayers.


If we could see a Reduced Shakespeare summary of Obama’s presidency so far, it would read:

Dither, dither, speech. Foreign trip, bow, reassure. Seminar, summit. Shoot a jump shot with the guys, throw out the first pitch in mom jeans. Compromise, concede, close the deal. Dither, dither, water down, news conference.


It’s time for the president to reinvent this formula and convey a more three-dimensional person.


Palin can be stupefyingly simplistic, but she seems dynamic. Obama is impressively complex but he seems static.

She nurtures her grass roots while he neglects his.


He struggles to transcend identity politics while she wallows in them. As he builds an emotional moat around himself, she exuberantly pushes whatever she has, warts and all — the good looks, the tabloid-perfect family, the Alaska quirkiness, the kids with the weird names.


Just like the disastrous and anti-intellectual W., this Visceral One never doubts herself. The Cerebral One welcomes doubt.

On Afghanistan, Palin says, W-like, that the president should simply give Gen. Stanley McChrystal a blank check. But Afghanistan is a wrenching decision, and we do need the closest exit ramp. So the president should get credit for standing back and studying the issue, and for not rubber-stamping the generals’ predictable urge to surge. But the way he has handled the perception part has allowed critics — including generals — to cast him as indecisive.


McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus should have been giving their best advice to Obama — and airing their view against scaling down in Afghanistan — in confidence. Instead, McChrystal pushed his opinion in a speech in London, and Petraeus has discussed his feelings in private sessions with reporters. This creates a “Seven Days in May” syndrome, where the two generals are, in effect, lobbying against the president and undercutting him as he’s trying to make a painfully complex, life-and-death decision.


This time, Obama should adopt Palin’s straight-from-the-gut approach, call the generals into the Oval and tell them, “Your pie-holes you will shut or rise higher you will not. Because, dang it, the president I am!”

Nicholas D. Kristof is off today.



Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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