Brooks Nails it

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David Brooks gets it when it comes to how people are sketching Obama.


If you ask a conservative Republican, you are likely to hear that Obama is a skilled politician who campaigned as a centrist but is governing as a big-government liberal. He plays by ruthless, Chicago politics rules. He is arrogant toward foes, condescending toward allies and runs a partisan political machine.

If you ask a liberal Democrat, you are likely to hear that Obama is an inspiring but overly intellectual leader who has trouble making up his mind and fighting for his positions. He has not defined a clear mission. He has allowed the Republicans to dominate debate. He is too quick to compromise and too cerebral to push things through…. [now to the end of the piece]

In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Ben Wheaton

    So, only Brooks actually gets Obama? This sounds pretty childish to me. “Oh, if only the rest of you benighted folk actually understood Obama like I do!”

  • David P Himes

    Actually, it sounds to me like Mr Brooks doesn’t get the public. Neither of the two “camps” he describes is necessarily out of touch with reality — they are only out of sync with Mr Brooks perspective.
    For example, I suspect a lot of the “conservative Republicans” he identifies would likely agree that “Obama [is] a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism.” And that is exactly what they disagree with. There is no misreading of reality here.
    But there is a profound disagreement about whether that direction (Mr. Obama wishes to take us) is good or bad for the country.

  • T

    Scot,
    I totally agree. And I agreed when it was George W. at issue, too. I disagree with some of what each of them and every president has done (and some much more than others!), but these crazy caricatures of each president and each party–spewed out by these “information cocoons”–do exactly what Brooks describes: create people who “come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.”
    I mean, really, some of the conspiracy theories/narratives that I hear from various friends/family about Bush and about Obama (and the level of conviction that they’re given with!) from otherwise very reasonable people are really surprising and disappointing. Bush was right of center. Obama is left of center. And each has their own personality’s tendencies. It’s about as simple as that. Neither is Satan, or communist, or what-have-you. Each disappointed people on the other side of center as well as their own.

  • http://azspot.net Naum

    While much of what David Brooks writes is nonsense, this article, definitely is on the mark.
    As far as “information cocoons”, though I strive to exercise study and review of all views, and resist temptation to hostility to those I do not champion without first trying to understand perspective and how to construct an advocate’s argument were I to be charged with defending that side of the case. My RSS subscriptions are filled with voices from all political perspectives — Ludwig von Mises loving libertarians to Chomsky loving leftist. From crunchy cons to up and coming conservatives. From paleoconservative zines to liberal blog leanings. From the staunchly conservative neo-reformed Christian crowd to the progressive people of the way.
    But Brooks is probably correct in his assessment, that most just tune in to the media that reinforces their view.
    And the genie is out of the bottle — with the abundance of media selections.
    Don’t know where it’s all headed, but certainly a schism that’s going to engulf heated passions.

  • ron

    I think it is useful to distinguish between “conservatives” and “right wing revanchists” who call themselves “conservative” (to use some of the terminology of Sam Tanenhaus’ book “The Death of Conservatism”). Mr. Brooks is a “conservative”, but today “conservatism” is dominated by the “revanchists” rather than people interested in pragmatically achieving a workable governance in the presence of a diverse populace. Reading the whole thing, I think he captures the essence of the political spectrum, as well as makes a reasonable case for the way Obama thinks. And, like he says, “In a sensible country …”

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    Actually, I do think that there is a profound difficulty (on both sides to some extent) in understanding Obama. While I don’t disagree (fundamentally) with Brooks (who is by no means an ideological partner with Obama), I do think he could have followed up on one of his bits here better:
    Re: Conservatives, he says “you are likely to hear that Obama is a skilled politician who campaigned as a centrist but is governing as a big-government liberal.” I expect that almost any liberal would complain that Obama is NOT governing as a “big-government liberal.” In fact, he’s been governing to the center of what he campaigned as, it seems to me.
    Maybe I’m wrong. It’s certainly a matter of perspective. The point here is that both of these perspectives are mutually exclusives. They can’t both be right.

  • Bill Philbin

    Is an “information cocoon” all that new?
    When my grandparents generation came to this country in the 1920s they lived and socialized in Irish Catholic circles, worked blue collar union jobs, resided in distinct neighborhoods within Chicago which sociologists compared to small villages, and read newspapers sympathetic to FDR & the New Deal. I understand there were 8-10 daily newspapers which spanned the political spectrum, plus a variety of niche publications.
    In my parents’ generation TV came along, newspapers and magazines folded and consolidated, and so information platforms contracted for a time, only to become wide and diverse again in the internet age.
    Perhaps in our lifetimes, it’s become more work to be informed. No longer can we be well served just tuning in to the CBS Evening News, or the 11/10 O’Clock News. When I park on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, I only hear the preaching for that choir.
    Like anything else, being well informed requires doing the work that goes into listening empathicly, and respeting views that differ. I bet it’s much the same as it was in the 1920s.

  • danderson

    IMO our country has gotten to the point where it is nearly un-governable. We have too many competing interests and people looking after their own desires before others’ needs that it really doesn’t matter who’s president. Congress is a near useless entity at this point, unless you’re a lobbyist looking after a special interest. I respect Obama more than many other politicians, but he’s human and he’s working within a near-broken system. Perhaps God has us right where He wants us…

  • MattR

    Don’t always agree with Brooks… but this time I agree, he said it well.
    Hearing what’s coming from both sides about our Pres… they both are mutually exclusive positions! You can’t really be someone with ‘a radical left wing agenda’ (as the right acuses) AND ‘a slow moving, more conservative compromiser’ (as the left acuses).
    Which tells me that the truth is likely somewhere in between… Pres Obama is exactly who he ran as, “a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism.” And I would add, a rather pragmatic/realist version of that as well.
    I hope we as a country give him the trust and leadership space he needs to carve out this more centrist, yet slightly progressive vision. I often hear people complain about ‘partisan’ politics, but yet when we have someone in office who is at least trying to lead outside of those boundaries, why won’t the moderates (who are supposedly the majority in this country) speak out in support for him?!

  • Robert

    Perhaps one of the greatest struggles we have in America is the constant push towards polarization and dualism by members of the media.
    Why is it just conservative vs. liberal? It reminds me of the Calvinist vs. Arminian debates, there are other options. It isn’t an a or b, there is a full alphabet of diversity out there.
    That said, I believe for these two extremes he paints a good picture. One of the sad things that I encounter on a weekly basis from my parishioners is the total commitment to everything Republican by so many. They have no other way of viewing the world and their Christianity is inextricably linked to their Republicanism. It is really sad.
    The other day I was talking about the success of a program that our current President introduced and how it really has helped a group of people. It was an off hand conversation with a friend over coffee. At the table next to us one of our members just got all flustered an went off about how President Obama has failed in so many areas, and then he mentioned how terrible it is to have a church leader think that any good can come from this administration. Everything he talked about was from a Beck/O’Reilly perspective…using some of their language too.
    Why is it so hard to acknowledge that there is some good out there? Why does it have to be you’re either for us or against us?
    How do we move beyond the polarized culture? I don’t know. Maybe we need to start by exampling gracefulness. That starts with me.
    You are the Church!
    Robert

  • http://derek4messiah.wordpress.com derek leman

    I usually stay out of politics discussions (as my lack of knowledge easily leads to me being made a fool of).
    But I notice a rhetorical trick in Brooks’ comment. He is trying persuade us of something: that Obama is a moderate progressive. That is a hard statement to back up, I think. If Obama’s health care plan is moderate, what does radical look like? How is spending unprecedented amounts of money in an already bankrupt national treasury (no household could carry debt like the U.S. does) moderate?
    Derek “probably wrong” Leman

  • Kenny Johnson

    Derek,
    I would say his health care reform plan is very moderate. It’s not government run (private insurers still rule the market, no single-payer, no public option, etc etc etc.) What would a radical reform plan look like? Like the ones the liberals have been calling for: a single payer, government-run healthcare system — something like the U.K. has — or perhaps something like Medicare for all.
    To me, that’s the irony of the conservative backlash. They call it a government take-over of healthcare. It’s not at all — however, that is what the liberal (or very liberal) Democrats want. To be honest, I doubt the sincerity of much of the congressional Republican objections. I think they are being more obstructionist than thoughtful critics.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Wanted to add this, because I think it makes things more clear. Nate over at fivethirtyeight made this scale — lets call 100 the very liberal plan and 0 the very libertarian/conservative plan:
    100 – Single payer
    70 – House bill with strong public option
    60 – House bill with weak public option
    50 – Senate Finance bill (no public option)
    20 – Incremental reform
    10 – No reform (status quo)
    0 – Complete deregulation

  • Richard

    @ kenny 12 and 13
    Great point and well said. I watched the Healthcare forum and walked realizing just how much compromise has really taken place regarding this plan.
    Not to mention the talking point of “shoving it down out throats” ignoring that this process is taking over a year and reflecting conversations that have been going on for 30+ years. Great rhetoric, horrible governance.

  • http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com Bob Cornwall

    Derek #11, if you want to know what radical looks like compared to the current Obama plan, then consider that Richard Nixon (a Republican President) essentially proposed extending medicare to all Americans. I think that’s sort of a Canadian style single payer plan. Remember that America’s seniors already have a single-payer plan sponsored by the government and paid for by the tax payers. As I understand it, by expanding it to all, we could spread the costs better and reduce costs to everyone — including the tax payer. But then, then that would be liberal — just like Richard Nixon!

  • Mark Atteberry

    I hit a link on my churches web site to check out the Jesus Creed and I ended up looking at the post re David Brooks comments about our president. I thought the post sounded so one sided that it was probably written by the White House and passed to Mr Brooks. The following comments indicate that most readers are very liberal in their definition of the term “limited government”. The federal government is an overgrown, over reaching behemoth that can’t stop spending money that it doesn’t have. Is it fair that only the lucky or the rich have medical insurance? No, but life isn’t fair and hasn’t been fair for billions of people for thousands of years. The government simply cannot afford to give all of it’s uninsured citizens free or highly subsidized insurance. Has anyone besides Derek noticed the national debt and even worse the projected national for the next ten years? It’s not a pretty picture. How will our grandchildren deal with all of this debt caused by our reckless spending? If you want the gov’t to offer cradle to grave care of the unfortunate or unlucky citizens you better be ready to pay a lot higher taxes and have less money to give to charities and your local church. I agree that healthcare for the uninsured is important and that insurance not paying for pre-existing conditions is patently unfair, but creating a huge gov’t program is not the answer. If our desire for a fairer and more merciful nation isn’t balanced by fiscal responsibility, we’ll end up as citizens of bankrupt country that can’t afford to pay for the basic necessities of a limited gov’t, much less a cradle to grave healthcare plan. Well, this is just the way an old guy in Texas sees things…

  • Charles Harris

    Kenny,
    To me, it seems likely the American political liberals see this bill as a weigh-station on the way to to the promised-land (medicare for all). Dennis Kucinich switching his vote should be indicative enough of that.
    So, its not merely what this bill does; its where it is going!
    The left believes “healthcare” is a fundamental right, and a public good. Thus, healthcare financing shouldn’t be part of the “productive economy”. Healthcare is seen by liberals to be like the Police, Fire Dept., or Post Office.
    Or, even more precisely with a single-payer finance, its like: the “U.S. Dept. of Transportation”, where much of the actual work is performed by private companies, but the funding and rules & regulations are determined and administered by the federal government.
    Switching to a single-payer system may “cover all” in theory (see Massachusetts mess), but it will surely decimate the American healthcare industry, as we know it. And, science majors surely will redirect their plans for med-school, and switch to engineering, and other more promising careers.


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