Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama: too smart for president?

Obamania peaks today with inauguration of the country’s 44th president. No other country makes such a drama out of its politics like America. This is a happy ending to the Obama fairy tale. A black boy from nowhere rises to become head of the most powerful state in the world. Today is just where the story begins.

The power of the presidency is a strangely malleable thing - one that is moulded largely by the incumbent’s personality and its personification of the popular mood. Obama has proved a natural at doing this well.

The US is a populist political culture where politicians express in large part what the public feels. During the campaign the president-elect hit the right notes on Iraq, the credit crunch and Afghanistan long before anyone else in public life. One British minister recently spoke to me of Obama in Jedi-like terms, of his “preternatural ability” in sensing what lies beyond the political horizon.

Apart from race, the most important thing about the new president is that it marks the return of the Intellectual in Office. Obama is smart. This has been a hindrance in the US political system. Clever people are not seen as warm. They are portrayed - especially by their opponents - as sly, elite types who claim to be able to fix America but cannot fix a flat tyre.

It's not always fatal. Bill Clinton was a brainy guy but it was hidden in a fug of cigar smoke, semen-stained dresses and big haired blondes. With Bill there was no moral character to ruin. Clearly Obama owes a big thank you to George W Bush, the frat boy president who nearly sunk America.

Obama’s popularity was not down to the fact he was one of the guys. Sometimes this backfired on him. Obama had to hide the fact he played hoops well and then embarrassingly turn up at bowling alleys looking like he was lost.

On this day of triumph there are reasons to worry. The United States has a tradition of resenting intellectuals, seeing them as anti-egalitarian and lacking a common touch. For all the universities and think tanks in the US, Americans are more in thrall to the public concern, independence and self-respect of ordinary citizens than any qualities possessed by a college professor.

For Obama the trick will be to mask his penchant for deliberation and precise thinking with quick, snappy decision-making and seizing of the right opportunities. Only his meanest opponents would not wish him well.

PS I am in Britain, so the Asian bit of musings may have to wait a while

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