What President Obama Should Learn From Star Trek

Leonard Nemoy as Mr. Spock, 1982 Photograph by Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Matt Yglesias at Vox has written a post taking issue with my essay in the new Bloomberg Businessweek on Obama’s shaky crisis management. I argued that Obama tends to botch the initial response in a way that undermines public confidence and often exacerbates the problem, even if things generally turn out OK in the end. On Ebola, for instance, he insisted the odds of anyone in the U.S. contracting it were “extremely low”—right before two nurses were infected and the media (and much of the public) freaked out. I attribute this tendency to two things: Obama’s excess of faith in government’s ability to handle an emergency and an aversion to the public role of president that people need and expect in a national crisis—think Bush after 9/11 or Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombings.

Yglesias bases his objection on what happened after Republican Scott Brown won an upset victory in the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy, robbing Senate Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority. “[T]he political community was electrified by Brown’s triumph,” Yglesias writes. “But to most observers the stunner also had a very concrete significance—the drive to pass an Obamacare bill through the United States Congress was dead. Of course Republicans spun it that way. But many Democrats—including senior figures on and off Capitol Hill as well the President’s own chief of staff—agreed as well.” Obama wouldn’t hear of it. “He refused to give into the panic gripping the Democrats,” Yglesias writes. “And today Obamacare is law.”

Here’s the problem with Yglesias’s argument: Scott Brown’s Senate victory wasn’t a national crisis. It was certainly a crisis for professional Democrats like Yglesias, who was then working for a liberal think tank. But it didn’t instill the kind of broad public anxiety/panic that 9/11, Oklahoma City, Deepwater Horizon, Ebola, or even the initial failure of healthcare.gov did.

That’s really the only objection I have to what Yglesias wrote, because the rest of his rebuttal seems pretty spot-on and echoes a bunch of the points I made in my piece—in particular, that Obama’s record, even on issues where he’s drawn heavy criticism (the economy, health care, even the oil spill) is often much better than the initial impression would lead you to believe. That’s largely because, as he did with Obamacare after Brown’s victory, Obama has stuck to his guns with what he considers good policy, even if it costs him politically.

So why is Yglesias so hot and bothered? Here’s my theory: I think I offended his Trekkie sensibility. Of the president’s response to Ebola, I wrote, “Obama’s Spock-like demeanor and hollow assurances about what experts are telling him feel incongruous.” This prompts the following unhinged, pro-Spock rant from Yglesias:

Critics, including Green, like to satirize Obama’s cool by comparing him to Spock. But Spock, though often played for laughs, was a damn fine officer. His clear thinking not only saved the Enterprise on countless occasions but was instrumental in brokering a historic peace accord between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

Look, my point was merely that Obama isn’t the most commanding public speaker. I did not mean to malign Mr. Spock or the broader Trekkie community. In hindsight, I might have used a more balanced Trekkie analogy, such as one later suggested by Bloomberg’s White House editor (and Trekkie?) Joe Sobczyk: “The public wants Captain Kirk in the Oval Office and is getting Spock instead.” I’ll try harder next time.

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