The Obama Watch

President Spock

Obama's lack of emotional intelligence -- is the President dumb?

By 12.15.09

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It is with the heart that one sees rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince

Why would a president do the following?

* Scare Americans to death by pushing a health care reform plan that looks to be constructed by Rube Goldberg with all the bureaucratic sympathies of a Kafkaesque novel.

* Back a Cap and Trade energy proposal that is so drastic in its results it would deal yet another wound to a staggering American economy.

* Take the notorious Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the master-mind of the murderous 9/11 and the first captured 21st-century war criminal to rank with Hitler on a scale of evil -- and skip the usual and traditional military tribunal in favor of a civilian trial in the middle of New York City.

* Pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, home to the most virulent strain of jihadists on the planet -- and transfer them all to a mainland federal prison. Then admitting an inability to do so by the stated deadline and firing the White House Counsel who said it was a good idea.

* Gift the visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a pack of 25 DVD's of American movies -- that cannot play on British DVD players. After which the eighty-something Queen of England is given an iPod containing, among other things, videos of Obama speeches.

* Go abroad repeatedly and deliver speeches apologizing for American conduct in the world.

What would ever in a thousand years make an American president do these kinds of things? 

Ideology, you say? Well, sure. Doubtless some of these things -- health care, Cap and Trade, what to do with captured enemies like KSM and America's role in the world, draw forth the left-wing tendencies of today's American liberals. But the gifts to the British Prime Minister and the Queen? The Goldbergian nature of the health care proposals? The haplessness of the Guantanamo Bay fiasco?

There's something else at work here in the Obama mind well beside a leftist ideology. A something else that has been displayed before in the American presidency. For that matter, chances are fair-to-good you have seen this somewhere along the traveled road of your own personal life.

Barack Obama, you see, is really Mr. Spock -- the legendary first officer of Star Trek's USS Enterprise.

Spock? Why Spock?

If one is a Star Trek fan, one knows that the Vulcan Spock was quite famously a creature of logic -- and that was about it. Very bright, Mr. Spock. Respected to the max for his intelligence -- but as was repeatedly demonstrated, it was precisely his dependence on logic, on what was presumed initially as a superior intellectual capacity, that repeatedly caused problems for Spock.

What Mr. Spock lacked -- big time -- was what author Daniel Goleman called in his bestseller of the same name Emotional Intelligence. The telling subtitle of Goleman's book zeroes in precisely on Spock's problem -- and Obama's: Why it can matter more than IQ.

We have all met Spocks in real life. Frequently they are to be found nesting in academia (the President, of course, prides himself on having taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago), but in fact Spocks are everywhere. The boss who has a new fangled marketing plan that is so complex no one charged with executing it understands what he's talking about. The minister who gives impassioned sermons about the state of the world but can't figure out how to turn down the church thermostat. The bureaucrat who comes up with a 300-page document telling government employees how to buy a toilet seat for the office.

Spocks can be absolutely brilliant -- if in fact the definition of "brilliant" rests solely on intellectual IQ. But in reality they can be dumb as a post because they simply are unable to read the human personality, have little capacity for empathy, cannot understand at a visceral level the power of emotion. They exist, in short, in their heads, completely unable to understand real human beings in any practical sense. Awash in a world of what appears to be crisp logic and theory -- they are clueless to the call of the very real world around them.

This Spockian trait is entertaining in the movies. Mr. Spock, much beloved by audiences and his friend Captain Kirk, is, after all, a Hollywood confection. But what happens when a real-life human being of the Spockian mindset ascends to the White House?

Trouble is what happens, big time. And Barack Obama is not the first to play out the role of a President Spock, running his White House by strict rules of seemingly peerless logic while an enthusiastic Spockian media hails the great leader for his intellectual brilliance.

At least three American presidents of the 20th century fit this description -- and things ended badly for all three.

1. Woodrow Wilson: A progressive Democrat, Wilson spent his pre-political life in academia, gaining renown as the president of Princeton University. If one were to judge by intellectual IQ Wilson would surely rank near the top if not at the top of all presidents. But unfortunately, the real world does not exist in this fashion -- then, now or for that matter, ever. In fact, in retrospect it is more than apparent that Wilson's Emotional Intelligence, as opposed to his Intellectual Intelligence, was severely lacking. This problem surfaced repeatedly in Wilson's presidency, but was perhaps most vividly on display in his drive to shape the peace at the end of World War I by creating the League of Nations.

Sitting amidst the astonished diplomats of Europe at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson casually observed of his determination to set up a League of Nations:

"Why has Jesus Christ so far not succeeded in inducing the world to follow his teachings in these matters? It is because He taught the ideal without devising any practical means of attaining it. That is why I am proposing a practical scheme to carry out His aims."

Put aside the Messianic self-reference (that is -- hmmmm -- eerily Obamaesque). There were others aplenty -- most importantly in the U.S. Senate that would have to confirm any American entry into the proposed League -- who simply saw things differently. Wilson was completely incapable of working practically with his arch-rival Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, or of understanding the glaring real-world, everyday problems that the Treaty of Versailles would present succeeding generations. All of what Wilson did was perfectly logical in his head -- a President Spock at work. Wilson was utterly unable to grasp the human emotions of his European counterparts. Historian James David Barber reports in his classic book on Presidential Character of Wilson snapping that he had a headache because of "bottled-up wrath at Lloyd George." So convinced was he of his own logic and reason that "he insisted on going into conferences alone -- no secretary, no aides, no advisors." On another occasion as he pushed for the League he scolded an audience that "The facts are marching and God is marching with them." It was all logical to Wilson.

In the end, there was disaster. Not only could Wilson not convince his fellow Americans of the need for the League, he signed onto a treaty that sent the world on a route to the global horror of the Second World War. Every step Wilson took at the time seemed perfectly logical to him. So predictable was this reliance on his own logic that when it was suggested to Senator Lodge that he would have trouble defeating Wilson on the League, the canny Senator responded with what amounted to a clear understanding of the President's Spockian ways: "We can always count on Mr. Wilson. He has never failed us." And indeed, he did not. Lodge won. 

2. Herbert Hoover: Hoover was a progressive Republican, by background and education a man who had become a tremendous success as a mining engineer -- a field built entirely on a devotion to logic and mathematics. So self-involved in his logical thinking was Hoover that it was said while dining in the White House he "would sit in complete silence, sunk in concentration." So absorbed was he that he repeatedly ignored the White House servants, who eventually hid from him when a signal was sent that he was about to walk in the vicinity. Hoover's response to criticism from those who did not understand his logic -- or thought it a road to disaster -- was "hurt contempt" or "pained disbelief." His Spockian intelligence and dependence on logic, once a highly touted asset, "froze into inflexibility" with his dedication "smitten by self-righteousness." By 1932, his rigidity and reflexive insistence on logic had earned him contempt and enmity from his countrymen, who sent him packing in a landslide for the personally vivacious Franklin Roosevelt.

3. Jimmy Carter: Like Hoover an engineer (turned peanut farmer when he left the Navy) Carter is the most recent example of a President Spock. Looking past the astounding murderous record of decades of Soviet thuggery, President Carter blithely announced that Americans needed to move past an "inordinate fear" of Communism. He sent one signal after another to the Russians that he was more than amenable to doing business with them (think the SALT II treaty, at a ceremony for which he memorably kissed Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev on the cheek) -- and then pronounced himself "shocked" at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This President Spock would spend hours alone reviewing the minutia of Pentagon budgets and other government "homework" -- all the while angering even his political allies like then House Speaker Tip O'Neill or Senator Ted Kennedy. Unable to get beyond his frosty sense of Spockian logic as to how the world worked, Carter was blindsided by everything from the significance of the Ayatollah Khomeini's rise in Iran to the real reason for American gas lines in a regulated economy.

Over and over again, this Spock-like devotion to "logic" and the world of intellectual intelligence has resulted in tragedy for presidents. It was not, in fact, the practical Lyndon Johnson who devised the disaster that became Vietnam. It was the men he eventually called with a sneer "the Harvards" -- the men with the great intellectual reputations for whom Spockian logic was the lodestar -- who persuaded the common-sense LBJ to fight in Vietnam the way he did. It was the Robert McNamara's and McGeorge Bundy's (the latter a onetime Harvard dean) who were, like a Wilson or Hoover or Carter, so immersed in a world of intellectual logic that they were utterly unable to understand the lack of common sense behind what they were doing. Johnson, alas intimidated because of the elite view of his own education at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, uncharacteristically let himself be carried along. LBJ's friend and fellow Texan, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (who died before LBJ became president) uneasily observed to then Vice President Johnson that he would feel better if the intellectuals advising then-President Kennedy "had run for sheriff just once."

Yet periodically LBJ's Emotional Intelligence surfaced in foreign policy. Asked to depend on the Organization of American States during a crisis in the Dominican Republic, the earthy Johnson snapped in decidedly un-Spockian terms: "The OAS couldn't pour sh-- from a boot if the instructions were written on the heel."

Why is any of this relevant today?

Because in the person of Barack Obama, America is once again at the mercy of a President Spock. With every passing day Obama's Inner Spock reveals more of itself -- from the inability to understand the furious response to his 2,000-page health care "reforms" to the bizarre insistence on giving a civilian trial in New York City to one of the most infamous war criminals of the modern age to a "Cap and Trade" energy program almost guaranteed to cripple what's left of the American economy that the "stimulus" trillion dollar debt and health care reforms hasn't already destroyed. The "correctness" of these things exists only in a head where Intellectual IQ rules the day and Emotional Intelligence is not only lacking but almost entirely absent.

It is often said by the left that George W. Bush was "dumb." As they said it of Ronald Reagan and, in a still earlier day, of Dwight Eisenhower. What all three of these presidents had in common was a high Emotional Intelligence, an understanding of the way the world really works. They were not perfect -- there is no such thing as perfection in a president for the obvious reason that presidents are humans one and all. But they were the Captain Kirks, if you will, of their day.

These were men for whom the world of abstract theory, of running the world according to rules of academic logic, was both impractical if not dangerous. They understood the character of a Saddam Hussein or this or that Soviet Communist leader. They understood the realities of human nature, the frailties of men and women when entrusted with great power or simply the power of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It should not go unnoticed that Spockian intelligence is in fact visible with any number of Americans, not all of whom are on the American left. But it is surely clear that vast number of Spocks inhabit the left, citizens for whom there is no bureaucracy too big, no theory too impractical, no logic that does not make sense. In the world of Spock-thought, the logic is that devotion to logic will "solve" social problems, our economic problems, our national security problems -- without a moment's understanding that it is the Spockian logic itself that is in fact producing these problems in the first place.

As the first year of the Obama Administration draws to a close, it is abundantly clear that once again President Spock is in the White House. The inability to see that "what is essential is invisible to the eye" is a real-time handicap in Obamaland.

"Live long and prosper" is Mr. Spock's famous saying. A wonderful thought. Sadly, it is never a reality with a President Spock.

There's no logic to it. 

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.