When I started covering the White House, more than 50 years ago, I believed that the smarter a president was, the better he would be. That was wrong.
Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were certainly not intellectuals, but they grasped the power of the presidency and they knew how to impose their agendas on their political partners and rivals.
By contrast, Jimmy Carter was a whiz at policy analysis, and Bill Clinton grasped the connections among issues almost intuitively. Yet neither was able to leave the White House with a record of great achievements.
So for several years, I have been arguing that there are traits much more important to the success of a president than his brainpower.
Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, the temperament that invites collaboration – all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.
I am not ready to abandon that view. But I am struck at how lucky this country is, at the moment, that the president-elect of the United States is a super-smart person like Barack Obama.
With each passing day, it becomes more evident that the smartest and most experienced managers of the American economy are struggling to understand – and fix – what has gone wrong in our markets.
I attempt to follow the discussion in serious newspapers and on the Jim Lehrer “NewsHour” and other deeply serious television programs about the latest moves of the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury – and I am stumped.
The sums are so staggering, the vocabulary so unfamiliar, the experience so uninformative that I have not a clue whether Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson and Co. are on top of the situation or inadvertently making things worse.
That’s an embarrassing admission. I get paid to cover the government, and this is by far the most important challenge now facing Washington. But I am utterly dependent on others to decipher the clues that may unravel these mysteries.
Obama is not similarly handicapped. Even in the emotional maelstrom of his election victory and even with the pressures of assembling his administration, everything points to his managing to focus on the policy choices looming in the economic field.
I have talked to two people on the fringe of the transition team – both members of Congress with major responsibilities in the economic area.
Both have been asked for input by Obama and both say that the quality of his questions – and the follow-ups – were a measure of the depth of his knowledge of the situation.
He has not been tested that rigorously in the news conferences he has held so far, but his ability to respond to the questions he has been asked, to make his points in a coherent, balanced way, and to avoid any misstatement has certainly been a treat to watch.
The appointments he has made to the economic team have been impressive, and the response has been almost uniformly positive, from Capitol Hill to Wall Street. But it is not just the new White House and Cabinet people who have been reassuring; it has been Obama himself.
As well as he handled himself in the long campaign, he has been equally sure-footed in the transition. And behind the smooth public performance is a mind that seems able to stretch to encompass even the most complex of policy choices.
I am sure that in coming weeks and months, there will be judgments that will jar this confidence and decisions that Obama himself may come to regret.
But for a nation in crisis, it is worth giving thanks for the performance the new president has turned in so far – and for the mind that is working on the nation’s behalf.
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