Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 3, 2011

COMPARTMENTALIZING.... When thinking about the qualities an effective president must have, some of the first things that come to mind are probably pretty generic: a president should be smart, well informed, have a strong moral center, exercise sound judgment, have the ability to lead, communicate, and inspire, etc.

But modern presidents in particular must also have an ability to compartmentalize. John Dickerson had a good piece last night, noting a president "is occupied by a lot more than the public can see."

The presidency distorts the brain like perhaps no other job on Earth. In the First Noggin, there must be many compartments locked double tight, so the president doesn't show anything on his face. Sometimes he must keep secrets even from the people who work down the hall. But each box has to be accessible immediately if a decision needs to be made. Sometimes the contents of these boxes are difficult and profound questions about life and death. Other times, they concern merely a president's political fortunes -- which appeals to the ego, making them perhaps even more difficult to control. And all the while, there are legions of journalists and opponents trying to pry open these little boxes through force, shame, and flattery.

The most acute recent moments of compartmentalization for Obama had to have been Friday and Saturday. On Friday he gave the final order and then flew to Alabama to visit with families ravaged by the recent tornado. He ended the day in Florida visiting with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband. On Saturday he attended the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where he had to tell jokes and sit through a comedy routine during which everyone watched his every facial twitch for insights into his psyche.

On just April 19, President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast, held a town-hall meeting, attended meetings on immigration policy, and chaired one of the final National Security Council meetings on raiding Osama bin Laden's compound.

Last week, after the White House presented the long-form birth certificate Republican activists had been clamoring for, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the president is too "worried about birth certificates." Priebus added, "I just wish the president would engage in the real issues that are affecting America."

Reince, I'm pretty sure he is engaging in the real issues, even when we don't see it on camera.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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He also managed to squeeze in a commencement speech in Miami this weekend.

Posted by: Bohica on May 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

The many compartments of George W Bush:

"Is that a soul in Putin's eyes? Might just be caffine..."My Pet Goat" - Pretty good read...I wonder what the difference between the Nat'l Deficit and the Nat'l Debt is?...Things got pretty wet down in New Orleans - Maybe I better go stand on something with a cucumber in my pants for extra manliness...How do you say that foreign guys name again?...Brush must be gettin' pretty high at home..."

Posted by: bignose on May 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's doesn't send a tingle up my leg but he commands my respect. I want him to be somewhat different than he is, more willing to fight for liberal ideals and less apt to fold his hand in tough negotiations with Republicans. But that said, he exhibits Lincolnesque restraint and maturity. Maybe my complaints about Obama are really directed at a nation and culture that reflexively demands contradictory things. Maybe we blame too fast and understand too little. Obama, on the other hand, gives the impression of knowing all the arguments and making tough choices not in spite of his values but because those values are ultimately serve what is pragmatic and humane.

Posted by: walt on May 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

And don't forget playing golf, which the hacks at the Washington Times seem to think is really important:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/2/miller-obama-golfs-while-troops-risk-lives/

In a tiny concession to his job requirements as commander in chief, Mr. Obama cut his golf game short by nine holes in order to get back to the White House to monitor the final moments as Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

Posted by: martin on May 3, 2011 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Reince got his comeuppance, didn't he? How tacky, to say Obama is preoccupied when teabaggers etc. pushed the issue. But Obama still needs to win the election and also bring more Democrats in with him. To do so they need to better understand politics, and the essays mentioned here can help.

Tangential question: if "deathers" meant believers in death panels, what then to call Osama assassination doubters?

Posted by: neil b on May 3, 2011 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Or have a blank mind like RR.

Posted by: hornblower on May 3, 2011 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Compartmentalization is one thing, but he has to be extraordinarily efficient as well.

Posted by: Mudge on May 3, 2011 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

There really is a tendency, mainly but not restricted to the right-wing, to view life thru the screen of a TV. Nothing happens if it's not televised, events and emotions must conform to how it would be presented in a fictional tv show or movie, and nothing happens if a republican is not there to see it. It affects their timesense as well - they do not seem to understand how reality has actual continuity and flow.

It really shows how out of touch with reality and ruled by the almightly tv screen the modern GOP (and our modern society) is. Truly bizarre...

Posted by: ErikaF on May 3, 2011 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

Well, "walk and chew gum" is a given, but successful presidents also surround themselves with competent people, the kind you can tell to "git 'er done", and then put "It" out of your mind, and move on to the next crisis. It helps his political side that some of those folks are black or women, or both. Obama's Rice, for instance, does not have that "deer in the headlights" and quavering voice that Condi often displayed on camera.

Posted by: DAY on May 3, 2011 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

I guess Dubya did say one thing in 8 years that made sense - that being president is hard work.

Posted by: citizen_pain on May 3, 2011 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

"Tangential question: if "deathers" meant believers in death panels, what then to call Osama assassination doubters?"

How about "assers"?

Posted by: arkie on May 3, 2011 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

"Maybe my complaints about Obama are really directed at a nation and culture that reflexively demands contradictory things."

Although there's no question that this is correct, we also have to add in that the above is now especially true about the Publicans / Tea-Party "movement" / conservatives -- all consistently amplified and reinforced by a mass media collective that's more than just co-operative, they're fully engaged in and integral to the Publicans' propaganda operations.
All of this is perfectly represented by:
"Reince Priebus said the president is too 'worried about birth certificates.'"
There is nothing that more succinctly and accurately demonstrates the environment in which Obama has had to operate for the last three years (including both his term so far and his first Presdential campaign) than that.
But there is one that comes close. You might remember that on his summer 2008 trip to Germany, the Publicans slammed Obama for not visiting wounded American troops when he cancelled a planned visit to them -- but they also had plans in place to slam him for political exploitation of the troops if he had gone on the visit as scheduled.
(For a while there, a theory of schizophrenia blamed the development of the disease on such "double-bind" situations. Though it's long been discredited, I'd imagine the President can sympathize.)
This is not a blind function of "a nation" or a "culture." It's an intentional function of demagogues who engage in orchestrated campaigns of pure deception, their followers and functionaries, and their corporate owners and operators.

Posted by: smartalek on May 3, 2011 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

@ neil b (3:24 PM)

I got a not-found window from your link.

Were you referring to this:

http://dailytaylor.blogspot.com/2011/04/david-roberts-wins-prize-for-correctly.html

?

Posted by: smartalek on May 3, 2011 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Terribly sorry if you've already mentioned it - I did go back and check and didn't see anything, but I could have missed it - but Glenn "Rodeo Clown" Beck's cable show was cancelled last Wednesday by Fox network.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2011/04/06/AFNEgnqC_story.html

I wonder if he'll be buried at sea, so his grave cannot become a shrine for his followers. Probably not - most of them can breathe underwater.

Posted by: Mark on May 3, 2011 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Very interesting points, smartalek.

Posted by: Archon on May 3, 2011 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

The president is first and foremost a decision making machine. He must be a good decision maker.

Harry Truman was perfect in this regard.

He spent a lifetime playing poker - which is good mental training the decision making reflex, but one has to have the basic aptitude to begin with.

The second element is that the President must have great reading speed AND comprehension AND memory. In regard to cognative skills he must be good at induction, deduction, communication, leadership, a sense of a human touch (warmth) and have a fantastic sense of humor (Roosevelt won the 1944 election, almost on the strength of his joke about his dog Falla.)

The third element of course is politics, where all of this comes together. Politicians by nature tend to be street fighters, tacticians, but a great one has to have both tactics and strategy (which Obama has - it was strategy, not tactics that beat Hillary Clinton in 2008) - indeed, he has most of these qualities).

Of course, none of this matters much anymore because our fate is in the hands of concentrated wealth - which is to say that our democracy is pretty much a dead man walking.

Posted by: Tim on May 3, 2011 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a question that's often occurred to me: Leaving aside his somewhat un-photogenic looks and his reportedly strange-sounding voice, could Lincoln be elected today? FDR? Truman?

I'll take my answer off the air.

Posted by: JCB on May 3, 2011 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

The President's critics are almost all idiots aren't they? If Obama issues a proclamation honoring American mothers this week, they will criticize him for ignoring the fathers (and blame it on Kenyan influence). Are there ANY republicans (they don't deserve a capital R) out there with any brains? Or all they all just reading from a Frank Luntz script every day? (When they aren't quoting Ayn Rand.....)

Posted by: MuddyLee on May 3, 2011 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

MuddyLee - the only Republican I've found to be fairly consistently worth reading is David Frum (www.frumforum.com). Of course, he's on the outs in "respectable" Republican circles because he keeps pointing out all the myriad ways they're shooting themselves in the foot ...

Posted by: blondie on May 3, 2011 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

this Prince Reibus guy literally appeared out of nowhere to head the RNC - his only qualification being he is caucasian and, apparently, somewhat stupid.

Posted by: T2 on May 3, 2011 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

"a president should be smart, well informed, have a strong moral center, exercise sound judgment, have the ability to lead, communicate, and inspire, etc."
And yet we elected Reagan, Bush the Older and Bush the Lesser, and the R's recently tried to give the job to McCain/Palin.

In fact, I'm having trouble coming up with any currently elected House & Senate R's who meet more than one or two of those criteria (although if you discount inspiring teabaggers, it's remarkably easy to come up with names of R's who don't meet any of those criteria).

Posted by: N.Wells on May 3, 2011 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

The most acute recent moments of compartmentalization for Obama had to have been Friday and Saturday. -- John Dickerson, @ Slate

That's, exactly, what my mind had been running 'round and 'round with, late Sunday night and all day yesterday, as more and more details about the assault on the compound in Pakistan came out. "How on earth did he manage to 'act naturally' throughout those two days, when every thought must have been there, wondering about the outcome?". I've always appreciated and admired his low key behaviour joined to the high grade intellectualism and self control, but this feat really takes the cake, for me.

Posted by: exlibra on May 3, 2011 at 7:04 PM | PERMALINK

Obama was elected President and that's what he's been doing all these years. We no longer have Rove's 24/7 spin cycle out of the White House any more--instead we have a president really dealing with real issues. That seems to be confusing people. Sorry folks, he really doesn't have the time to keep up with conspiracy-of-the-day nonsense that preoccupies what still calls itself news.

The level of class he brings to the job is amazing.

Posted by: golack on May 3, 2011 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK

Smartalek: Yes. BTW, a very good blog, link to it, share on FB, etc.

Posted by: neil b on May 3, 2011 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK
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