If there’s one thing President Obama wants readers of the New Yorker to know, it’s that he’s comfortable with complexity. That’s a good thing for Obama to want them to know, since New Yorker readers no doubt fancy themselves comfortable with complexity too.
“I am comfortable with complexity,” Obama assured David Remnick in his New Yorker interview. Remnick was convinced. He gushed about Obama’s “archetypal habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity.”
To support this characterization, Remmick cites Obama’s ability to make convincing arguments for every side of a host of issues, from marijuana, to federalism, to pro football. But any decent high school debater can do that. It’s evidence more of sophistry than of comfort with complexity.
In his approach to major issues, Obama has seemed more oblivious to than comfortable with complexity. His stimulus program, hardly a nuanced approach to generating economic growth, relied heavily on a label — “shovel-ready” — that bore little relation to reality. Obama later expressed surprise at the disparity.
Obamacare implementing is an even stronger example. Obama seems not have understood the complexities of building a workable website, not to mention commandeering the insurance industry.
Indeed, Obama showed little interest in the complexity of developing the legislation he would be called upon to implement. He turned that task over to congressional Democrats — the true authors of “Obamacare.” Where was the “professorial immersion in complexity?”
Nor does Obama appear comfortable with complexity in foreign affairs. He failed to appreciate that striving for a Middle East peace agreement by bullying Israel — hardly a nuanced approach — would extinguish any slim chance of accommodation by a Palestinian side comfortable that Obama had their back. Obama eventually confessed error and later turned the matter over to John Kerry.
Obama couches his hands off approach to Syria as a reflection of the undoubted complexity of the situation there. But recognizing complexity in an obviously complex matter is not the same thing as embracing it.
Obama’s approach does not appear to balance complicated competing considerations. Rather, it is governed by one consideration — unwillingness to become involved, however peripherally, in a Middle East war.
This doesn’t mean that Obama’s approach is wrong, but did Obama immerse himself in an analysis of alternatives such as vigorously arming and financing the non-jihadist opposition to Assad?
Remmick reports that Obama asked the CIA about past instances in which the U.S. employed such an approach, and the CIA couldn’t point to many that ended well. But how many satisfactory instances did Obama find of the U.S. sitting by and watching two forces inimically opposed to the U.S. crush a force that isn’t, while slaughtering more than 100,000 people for good measure?
As Michael Gerson says, Syria is a case in which Obama’s “disengagement has undermined national credibility and betrayed friends.” As a result, “Obama is likely to spend a portion of his post-presidency defending his studied inaction in the face of mass atrocities.”
His defense will be that Syria was complicated. So was promoting growth in the economy he inherited. So was reforming health care. So is just about everything important that a U.S. president grapples with.
Ultimately, then, Obama’s complexity complex is mostly a clever way of excusing poor performance while claiming that the office wasn’t to be big for him. In effect, he’s telling us that the problems he confronted were complex, but he was comfortable with that.
However, the measure of a presidency has never been the alleged comfort of the president. And an intellectual pose has never been a substitute for effective governance.
UPDATE: Obama’s performance for Remnick seems more indicative of insecurity than of depth. A reader observes:
A truly complex person who is comfortable with complexity will leave it at that, like a Charles Krauthammer. I have never been impressed with acquaintances in my life who constantly felt compelled to explain how smart they are, rather I have marveled in wonder by those who truly are. This is clearly a lesson our president has not learned.