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Comment on ‘What Obama Should Say Tonight’ (David Brooks & Gail Collins, 01/27/10)

January 27, 2010

In response to:

What Obama Should Say Tonight

New York Times | January 27, 2010

Gail, as much as I love you – and I do, I do! – I think the scales tip to David on the whole transparency/trust thing. One could easily make the point by archly observing that even the most daring avant garde artist would think twice about setting up a sausage factory in the windows at Barneys (legislation…sausages…get it?). But the psychology upon which he touches undoubtedly goes deeper.

Human nature is constructed in such a way that broadcasting the constant need for approval rarely breeds confidence. If my best argument that you should trust me is that I’ve put myself in a position where I can’t hide anything, anybody with any critical faculties whatsoever is going to automatically run the logic both ways (“you’re not to be trusted unless I watch you like a hawk”). So while you may get brownie points for sincerity, you get them at the expense of being seen as trustworthy “all by myself, just like a big boy.” [As an aside, we all learn this as kids – there inevitably comes a time in every child’s life when its parents switch from constant supervision of process to assessment of results. Most children initially resist that – we like having mom or dad there to provide comfort constant approval. But, of course, nobody becomes independent until and unless they’re left to their own devices.]

Sadly, the Democratic Party is, in this analogy, terminally pre-pubescent. It seems, for some unfathomable reason, unable to escape its chronic, pathological, and corrosive practice of playing into the Republican narrative that all governance is suspect. This is a tragedy for our country and a betrayal of our founding principles. Consider: why should anybody trust a group of so-called governance professionals if they require the constant supervision of a slob like me? Hell, I can barely be trusted to take out a mortgage on my own house! Can the state of the union ever be strong when it rests on such a premise?

Removing my tongue from my cheek: Leadership is a service business. Like any high-ticket intangible, most of its value resides in doing something more efficiently and with a better outcome than were it done by some random piker. Our system of governance was designed to give those who vote (a privilege, as we’ll all recall, that was initially only trusted to people who, by dint of their place in the social firmament. could be expected to understand responsibility. But that’s a topic for another time) discreet, limited – but ultimately dispositive – opportunities to weigh in on the performance of their leaders. The founders are on record as being extremely concerned that an unending feedback loop would corrupt the difficult process of making hard choices and coming to wise decisions. And although technology has altered the environment in meaningful – and mostly positive – ways, that basic relationship has only gotten more crucial as society, and the job of governing it, has become more complex.

Americans want leaders who can be trusted to go into a smoke-free room and not come out until they have something meaningful to show us. And while the room shouldn’t be hermetically sealed, neither should our hired professionals get away with the excuse that they’re incapable of doing anything without constant supervision. The Democrats, and Obama in particular, don’t seem to understand that in a hard trade-off between transparency and leadership, Americans will take leadership every time. Is it any wonder that no matter how much we may share their values and priorities, by how many votes we hand them a mandate, or how loudly we scream for bloody change, we simply don’t trust them to deliver?

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