Milbank: Obama just too smart to be a popular leader, or something

Worth noting mainly for its unintentionally comedic spin, Dana Milbank’s column extolling the unappreciated subtle genius of Barack Obama is also entertaining for its pop-psychology once removed.  After noting that one social-psychology professor thinks Obama’s brilliant and another thinks center-left politicians are naturally more complex thinkers than conservatives, Milbank then marries the two without any supporting factual data at all, emphases mine:

Seeking a template to understand the enigmatic president, I consulted three leading academics in the fields of psychology and behavior. With their help, I put Obama on the couch and came away with a reasonably coherent diagnosis: There’s too much going on in the poor guy’s head.

“What distinguishes Obama particularly is the depth and carefulness of his thinking, which renders him somewhat unfit for politics,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. “He is a brilliant social and political analyst, which makes it harder for him to play hardball or to bluff.”

Obama’s strengths and weaknesses come from his high degree of “integrative complexity” — his ability to keep multiple variables and trade-offs in mind simultaneously. The integratively simple thinker — say, George W. Bush — has one universal organizing principle that dominates all others, while the integratively complex thinker — Obama — balances many competing goals.

Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that politicians on the center-left (where Obama dwells) tend to have the highest degree of integrative complexity, followed by politicians on the center-right. Politicians on the far left and far right are the most simple.

Though Tetlock hasn’t applied his methodology to Obama, the 44th president would seem to be the very model of the complex thinker. Among the complex thinker’s advantages, says Tetlock, is the ability to see quickly the trade-offs among policy options, to update his beliefs after finding evidence that disproves his preconceptions, and to predict probable outcomes with accuracy. Among the disadvantages: The complex thinker can suffer from “analysis paralysis” and confusion; he can be perceived as unprincipled or disloyal to the values that elevated him to power; and he can be seen as too willing to make trade-offs.

Yes, even though Tetlock hasn’t bothered to do any research on Obama at all, and even though Milbank is anything but an expert in the field, Milbank feels totally comfortable in applying Tetlock’s methodology and reaching the conclusion Milbank desired all along.  There’s nothing wrong with columnists having opinions, of course, and Milbank is perfectly entitled to stating his belief in the unimaginable brilliance of Barack Obama.  But offering up scientific theses as support while not having anyone actually do any research is transparently manipulative, an attempt to pass off Milbank’s opinions as science.

There seem to be a number of unquestioned assumptions in this piece as well.  For instance, Milbank assumes that George W. Bush was a “simple thinker,” which is certainly the common belief, but offers no support for that assumption.  Somehow, I doubt that Milbank knows Bush well enough to diagnose his cognitive processes.

At the same time, Milbank also labels Winston Churchill as an example of a “simple thinker,” an analysis that would astound anyone who has taken the time to read Churchill’s massive, nuanced volumes on history and his memoirs of the Second World War, or at the very least Churchill’s own highly nuanced political history.  Churchill had many virtues and at least a few flaws, but describing him as a “simple thinker” is laughable on its face.  There are plenty of differences between Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, but among them is not a tendency towards “simple thinking” in either man, especially not Churchill.

Basically, this is just another attempt by the liberal commentariat to expound on how stupid the American people are for not falling adoringly at Obama’s feet.  Like other attempts, this one falls embarrassingly on its face.