I feel Barack Obama’s pain—not the pain of the man who is president but the pain of the person who receives praise for his intellect that is almost always followed by the word but.
For over 40 years I have tried to prove wrong the classmate who said of me, “She may be book smart, but she hasn’t got a lick of common sense.” But…she was right. As a naïve, bookish girl who came of age in an all-white, all Protestant town, I learned everything I knew about the world from novels and history books. It wasn’t until I moved to the diverse suburbs of our nation’s capital and taught students whose backgrounds were very different from mine that I began to explore the varied perspectives that led me to understand the vast range of human experience.
Though President Obama’s experiences have been very different from my own, he suffers from a similar malady. He is smart. And he doesn’t have a clue why others don’t subscribe to his own line of reasoning. His former aides have used what might as well be a BUT—in all caps—to sell books and to push their own political agendas. In the latest iteration, former defense secretary Leon Panetta has said that his former Commander-in-Chief resorts to “the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”
As Aristotle pointed out over 2000 years ago, not everyone is persuaded by logos—by the rationality of scientific reasoning. The ethos of the speaker is also important, though no credible person has questioned Obama’s character or ethics. But Obama seems to have forgotten the power of pathos—the ability to move the emotions of his audience. He seems to have forgotten his message of Hope that swept him into his first term in office.
President Obama has failed to live up to his potential for many of the same reasons that high school valedictorians aren’t usually elected to class office. Studies show that valedictorians do pretty well in life—but they aren’t likely to be the people who move others to change the world.
People vote with their emotions as much as with their brains. And because Obama has forgotten to balance his ethos and logos with a healthy dose of pathos, he is losing the vast majority of Americans who are more prone to follow the emotional charisma of Captain Kirk than the cold intellect of Mr. Spock.
President Obama’s opponents have consistently used his intellect against him. Rick Santorum summed up Obama’s greatest problem during the 2012 election, when he said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”
President Obama did not say that he wants everyone in America to go to college. But he did say that he wants all students to get a high school education that will provide them the option to go to college if that’s what they choose to do.
But the fact that conservatives have been able to paint Obama and other liberals as intellectual snobs has made many people who have chosen to go into the work force after high school deaf to any of his logical arguments about the value of higher education.
While I don’t believe Santorum’s label is a fair assessment of Obama’s views, I have, in my work as an educator in the DC suburbs, met more than a few intellectuals who are snobs—who don’t value the hard work of a plumber, the artistry of a carpenter, the dedication of a police officer, the labor of a housecleaner.
The fact that such liberals dismiss the views of conservatives as being unworthy of argument has come with a cost. To assume that all conservative views are flawed allows the most extreme views to go unchallenged. And the more extremists go unchallenged, the louder their voices become.
President Obama has two years left. But…sometimes when I see the tired look in his eyes, I wonder whether he’s just waiting for those years to be over. Somewhere in there, though, is the man who charmed us with a song of Hope. I want a president who is smart enough to understand that we are a people who are moved by our hearts as well as our minds—and that in speaking to both, he will find our greatest strength.