Friday, February 13, 2009

Brilliant and Arrogant

William Greider, like so many others including myself, is asking questions about Obama's top two economic advisors:

The question about Geithner that intrigues me is why. Why do brainy technocrats like him often seem so clueless (or, if you like, indifferent) to the social reality once they have risen to the top of the governing heap? I think it may have something to do with the experience of being the smartest kid around and being told so from an early age. This could encourage a narrow kind of arrogance, but maybe also insecurity. Over many years, I have seen a certain type both in politics and private life who climbs the slippery pole by applying intellectual firepower and performing for the teacher. Superiors are impressed and always like this dutiful type. Promotions take them higher and higher. Then they get to the top and it becomes obvious something is missing--a capacity to think creatively in strange new circumstances or the human empathy required to lead others.

My curbstone analysis could be dead wrong about Geithner but might aptly describe the career path of Larry Summers, Obama's economic advisor. Summers rose to the top--president of Harvard--on his well-known brilliance and he was done in there by his personal arrogance. He ingratiated himself with superiors on the way up and adjusted his economic thinking to seasonal changes in ideological fashion. He also learned the bureaucratic skills needed for policy infighting--how to cut other economists with opposing views out of the debate. He somehow did so in the Obama White House.

This is relevant now because Barack Obama has chosen to rely on Geithner and Summers for managing the economy and reforming it. If they are too narrow in perspective, too defensive in behalf of the failed status quo, the Obama presidency will be crippled by their lack of imagination. That leads to another question: why did Obama feel the need to select such a confining list of familiar technocrats--competent and brainy like himself--to run the government? The president is neither arrogant nor insecure--he exudes the opposite--yet he must feel more comfortable dealing with folks vetted by the same ladder of success. Perhaps he believes the "best and the brightest" will protect him from failure. Or maybe he thinks his presidency will have more power to change things if he sticks with people drawn from among the influential elites, safely aligned with the existing power structure.

The fact is, we do not yet know the answer. Events are rapidly revealing the nature of this new president, and we have a lot to learn. We know how smart he is, how easily he empathizes with people across the usual dividing lines. We do not yet know if he is wise enough--tough enough--to lead the country to new ground.

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