As people cast around to find reasons for Barack Obama's now epic collapse in the first debate against Mitt Romney, one of the prime culprits identified is the office of the presidency itself.
While there are a great many people who fancy themselves as straight talkers and speakers of truth to power, the fact of the matter is that there aren't too many who are willing to tell any president of the United States exactly what they think on the issues of the day. This ought to surprise no one; meetings usually occur on the president's turf, in the Oval Office, where visitors are intimidated and psyched out of the ability to speak their minds. Additionally, the president possesses a great deal of power; it therefore isn't all that easy to tell the president that things are going badly, or that a particular policy is failing, or that the president is not exactly on the job.
So the president lives in a bubble. The White House staff, cabinet secretaries and other officials of the United States government feel a great deal of pressure to say only those things that the president wants to hear. Even members of Congress, governors and mayors are often too awed to tell the president what they really think regarding a given subject. The tendency for epistemic closure is built into the job.
And it makes things worse when the president has not shown the ability--prior to becoming president, mind you--to listen to differing points of view.
I am in the position to tell you lots and lots and lots of things about the intellectual culture at the University of Chicago. I can tell you that from the Lab Schools to the College to the various graduate schools, there are any number of opportunities for people to be exposed to debates with others possessing differing views on a panoply of issues. I am in the position to tell you that those debates are interesting, fascinating, enriching, deeply valuable. I am in the position to tell you that after being exposed to such a culture, you will want no other.
I am also in the position to tell you that like all good things presented to a person, a person has to want that good thing, to grab for it and to partake of it eagerly. The opportunity for intellectual enrichment may be there, but an individual has to actively take advantage of that opportunity. It will not force itself on you.
. . . Mr. Obama’s years at the law school are also another chapter — see United States Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage. The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools, but if teaching alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country had any impact on Mr. Obama, no one can quite point to it.
“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”
[. . .]
Nor could his views be gleaned from scholarship; Mr. Obama has never published any. He was too busy, but also, Mr. Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Ms. Guinier’s writings had hurt her. “He figured out, you lay low,” Mr. Epstein said.
The Chicago law faculty is full of intellectually fiery friendships that burn across ideological lines. Three times a week, professors do combat over lunch at a special round table in the university’s faculty club, and they share and defend their research in workshop discussions. Mr. Obama rarely attended, even when he was in town.
“I’m not sure he was close to anyone,” Mr. Hutchinson said, except for a few liberal constitutional law professors, like Cass Sunstein, now an occasional adviser to his campaign. Mr. Obama was working two other jobs, after all, in the State Senate and at a civil rights law firm.
Several colleagues say Mr. Obama was surely influenced by the ideas swirling around the law school campus: the prevailing market-friendliness, or economic analysis of the impact of laws. But none could say how. “I’m not sure we changed him,” Mr. Baird said.
Because he never fully engaged, Mr. Obama “doesn’t have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from,” Mr. Epstein said. “He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues.”
It's true that as president, Barack Obama has not often had to face others criticizing him. That's regrettable, but it is the nature of the office to insulate its occupier and the occupier is forced to fight against that tendency. Should he become president, Mitt Romney will face a similar challenge.
The problem, however, is that even before becoming president, Barack Obama was never really interested in engaging the ideas of others--perhaps especially the ideas of a "rightward-leaning" law school faculty. And if the above excerpt doesn't convince you of that, perhaps an excerpt from this piece will:
Economist John Lott, noted for his academic advocacy of gun rights, says that when Barack Obama was his colleague at the University of Chicago, the future president treated him as if he were “evil.”
Lott relates his interactions with Obama in his new book, co-authored with Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, “Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth and What We can Do Now to Regain Our Future.”
“The book relates a couple out of the dozen-and-a-half conversations that I had with him,” Lott told The Daily Caller. ”But they were all very short, cut off by Obama turning his back on me and walking away.”
“He wouldn’t shake hands. It was very clear that Obama disagreed on the gun issue and acted as if he believed that people who he disagreed with were not just wrong, but evil. Unlike other liberal academics who usually enjoyed discussing opposing ideas, Obama simply showed disdain.”
Lott and Obama were colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School in the 1990s.
I have no doubt that Barack Obama will shake up his approach to debating after his awful first performance against Mitt Romney. He is too prideful and to desirous of a second term not to. But our concern ought to be whether four more years for Barack Obama may mean four more years during which views opposing the president's don't get the time of day in the Oval Office not because of the insular nature of the office of the presidency, but because of the epistemic closure affecting the current incumbent.