The ‘Rigid’ Obama — Will He React to ‘Change’ Well?


By: Warner Todd Huston

Originally Appeared in Human Events 11/03/08

The L.A. Times’ Peter Nicholas had a rather revealing piece about Barack Obama that causes yet another concern about the candidate of “change.” Is Obama the sort of man that can, himself, actually handle change?

A president must be flexible enough to meet the ever-changing world, but is Obama that man? Is Barack Obama nimble enough to react in tough situations?

After reading Nichols’ piece one has to wonder.

Nichols reveals a tightly-controlled man who doesn’t know how to “loosen up,” even a little bit. Obama was a man that had “little show of spontaneity” about him, Nichols thought. One could call that rigid. One could also wonder if such rigidity could bend enough to react to sudden political crises, as a president must do?

Even though he’s been on the campaign trail with him for months, Nichols found himself a bit amazed that Obama’s personality was still a mystery. “After all this time with him,” Nichols wrote, “I still can’t say with certainty who he is.” Nichols is in the same boat as most of Obama’s supporters. They know they love him, but they aren’t sure why.

Obama has proven a candidate firmly under the watchful eye of his handlers, one not willing to shine in a crisis. He has been distant from reporters, and has often been one that does not react well to the ebb and flow of changing situations on the campaign trail. He has at times been slow to react and has been known to make several tries at adopting a line before settling. He badly handled the Rev. Wright situation. For several days he had no idea how to react to McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin. He’s often been unable to adjust to attacks made against him on the campaign trail by both Senators Clinton and McCain. Not to mention the complete inability to rein in his own running mate, Joe Biden.

Obama is widely thought to be a “deliberative” man. But there is only so far deliberation can go before it becomes dithering. And a dithering man is not suited to the high pressure of the presidency. A president must be grounded ideologically, certainly — not one blown by the four winds — but he must also be one that is not so hidebound that he cannot react to the unexpected.

A perfect example of such flexibility is Ronald Reagan. He was sure of his own ideology, knew what his principles were. But he also knew well enough when compromise was needed. Reagan was able to make those compromises and still keep his principles largely in tact. He was flexible enough to be both a strong, principled leader and a man that could react to change.

But, like Reagan’s, will Obama’s ideology act as a solid base for decisions or will they be a stumbling block to them? In September, Time magazine published a piece headlined “Taking Professor Obama’s Class” that spoke to Obama’s too deliberative nature and may help enlighten us on this question.

For Time magazine, Steven Gray wrote that, “Some feel the candidate has too often been more head than heart, more intellectual than passionate, less a leader than a lecturer.” “Less a leader” is not a ringing endorsement for these times.

Of course, Time was incorrect to call Obama a “professor.” Barack Obama never advanced farther than lecturer, never published any scholarly works, and was never a tenured professor but that bit of sycophancy aside, Gray did offer a rather interesting quote about Obama’s nature farther down in the article. It was from Richard Epstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago.

“He’s got this wonderful manner, cocks his head forward, always asks good questions. You always feel you’ve been heard out.” But in the end, “he doesn’t change his mind. He’s surprisingly rigid, intellectually.”

Epstein’s observation is somewhat amusing in light of one of the left’s gripes about Bush. Doesn’t the left claim that George W. Bush is a “rigid” man that “doesn’t change his mind” and don’t they use that claim as evidence that Bush is not the right man for the presidency? Yet now they are supporting a man with the same tendencies to “rigid” ideological thinking?

In any case, Epstein’s quote might reveal a man that isn’t flexible enough prevent his “rigid” intellectual nature from getting in the way of quickly addressing the constantly changing world in which we live. We may find that Obama’s preconceived notions will die very hard should he sit in the Oval Office.

Finally, Obama’s unbending intellectual rigidity might be a guidebook as to how he will govern. If he does lean toward unchanging opinion, can’t we take what we do know of his ideology and assume that it will unerringly guide his every move?

In a 2001 interview with WTTW in Chicago we were introduced to an Obama that thought that the civil rights movement failed because it didn’t “redistribute the wealth.” Just this month Obama used that same line in an encounter with the now famous “Joe the Plumber.” Also in the 2001 interview, Obama seemed to say that the Constitution needed to be cast aside as inadequate for our times. Has his opinion on that changed any over the last seven years? There is no reason to expect it has.

Obama seems to have displayed this intellectual rigidity from the beginning. If this is true, we may be electing to the highest office in the land a man that has little veneration for the founding concepts or the documents meant to assure them. And in a time as tumultuous as the next four years will be, is that a wise choice?

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