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Reagan and George W. Bush Changed the World More than Bill Clinton or Obama

2016 December 1
by Ian Welsh

We have a problem.

Left wingers and centrist, technocratic types are enamoured of intelligence. Of being smart.

Smart is all very nice. I am smart. But smart is not a synonym for effective or competent or wise or, well, most other words. It isn’t even a synonym for clever.

George W. Bush, by the time he got to the White House, was not smart. You listen to him talk, and it’s obvious. This is not a smart man (he was smart when he was younger–something went wrong).

George W. Bush had his two terms, and he changed the nature of American government in ways that neither Clinton nor Obama did. Bill Clinton ran Reagan’s economy better. Reagan was not smart. Reagan changed the nature of American government more than any President since FDR.

Bill Clinton was Reagan’s butt-boy. Understand that. Internalize it. He ran the neo-liberal economy that Reagan had created, and yes, he ran it better than Reagan, but he was living in Reagan’s world.

Obama ran Bush’s government. He kept deporting people–he deported even more people than Bush did. He ramped up drones. He kept troops in Afghanistan, he attacked Libya, he kept extending the Patriot Act and AUMF. He was operating within a constitutional order set up by Bush, and he never challenged it. Not once.

Obama was Bush’s butt-boy. Understand that. Internalize it.

It was famously said of FDR that he had a second class mind and a first class temperament. FDR created a framework for the US that ran, substantially from 1932 to 1970 or even 1980. Even Nixon, who overturned the post WWII order, didn’t overturn the New Deal. Heck, Nixon wanted universal health care.

Every Republican President after FDR and before Reagan, was FDR’s butt-boy. They ran the country he set up and they did it largely by his rules.

FDR wasn’t stupid, by any means, but he wasn’t as smart as Clinton. He might not even have been as smart as Obama. But he was far, far more effective. He got his way, he changed the nature of America, and he made it stick with his enemies.

Smart is NOT a synonym for effective.

This is very important to understand when dealing with someone like Trump.

I’m going to pound this issue a bit more, in a bit more detail, but for now: Stop underestimating people because they don’t have the sort of smarts you were taught in school matter, and which mostly matter because school selects for them. If you don’t, people like Trump and Bush will keep winning.


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28 Responses
  1. December 1, 2016

    Who is this intended for? Unless I’m wrong, the common refrain on the Left was that while Bush and Reagan were dumb and senile they certainly had a big and mostly negative effect on society and government. IIRC, the “not smartness”? made the Left focus on every figure in those administrations (e.g Cheney, Bush Sr, etc.) more than they normally would have. Nobody missed it because they looked down on them not being smart and yes they did have an outsized effect compared to Clinton and Obama.

    “But smart is not a synonym for effective or competent or wise or, well, most other words. It isn’t even a synonym for clever.”

    I know we are in the annoying “Apple era” so yes that might be in the air culturally but who on the political Left is arguing that? I think the general sentiment is that while smart is better than not, it’s not the end all and be all.

  2. realitychecker permalink
    December 1, 2016

    “Left wingers and centrist technocratic types are enamoured of intelligence. Of being smart. ”

    Might be better to amend that to “used to be enamoured,” Ian.

    That’s why I always felt like I belonged on the left. But after living in the progressive trenches my whole adult life, I was forced to recognize that in its desire for inclusion, the left was embracing and raising up many of no education and no critical thinking skills. Forced to recognize that polysyllabic words and loud voices were being substituted for clear thinking. The array of contradictions we embraced, as a group, came to at least match, and maybe exceed, those we used to sneer at the right for.

    The gift that Trump’s victory brings us, if we choose to take advantage of it, is it gives us all a chance to completely re-calibrate and overhaul our thought processes and belief systems, and to replace them with new thoughts and attitudes that we require to be reasonable and relatively free of contradictions. I hope we seize this opportunity, because if we do, we will all be better for it.

  3. nihil obstet permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Reagan and Bush had people and organizations supporting them that were focused on changing the nature of government. FDR did, too. Reading about the New Dealers and the labor struggles of the 30s will break your heart — can we ever get such people committed to the general good in government again? The Republican platforms of the 30s could be the Republican platform today, but they lost.

    Nixon wanted generally to roll back from the Great Society and reduce the power of labor, as Republicans did generally. He didn’t get far, but his administration left two important legacies: the practice of not holding elites responsible for lawbreaking and the personnel who learned how to organize for control. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Nofziger — these were people who learned in the Nixon White House and brought their circle of compatriots into the Reagan White House.

    Reagan was a good propagandist for the business elites, especially those of the extractive industries, to attack the welfare state, and brought with him the people to do it. Bush similarly had the neocons’ view of a world dominant American elite and the personnel and organization to accomplish it.

    The difference with Clinton and Obama is foremost that they didn’t want to change course. It’s clearest with Obama. Bush had completely discredited the Republican party. Obama had an overwhelming mandate for change. He worked hard and intelligently to prevent change from happening.

    Long-winded way to say that to judge someone’s intelligence based on effectiveness requires that we define what effective means. Clinton and Obama were effective in the same way that they were smart. But neither wanted to be effective in the way that FDR was, granting more power and security to most Americans.

    This is all kind of a replay of the campaign kerfluffle about whether Hillary Clinton was qualified. The establishment Democrats were clueless about how anyone could possibly say Clinton was unqualified, and the rest of us couldn’t get across that credentials weren’t the sum total of qualification. Vision and judgment had to be included. Credentials (proving she’s smart) are a misleading criterion.

  4. bob mcmanus permalink
    December 1, 2016

    What I get from this glance at history is that Republicans make irrevocable changes. Fast. So everything we know is all wrong, and most Democratic plans for 2018 onward or at least what I’ve seen…are already obsolete.

    Examples are Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Kerry, McCain…candidates that were anachronisms while they were running. Romney might actually have been ahead of his time in a way.

    No, I have no ideas yet. Too much initiative possible for Trump/Bannon/Kushner, and the likelihood of a black swan or two market crash war climate event.

  5. Carla permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Well, Ian, FDR may not have been smart, but he didn’t have to be; he had Eleanor, who was not only smart, but wise.

  6. bruce wilder permalink
    December 2, 2016

    I am not sure what personal “smarts” really has to do with anything. I would not know how to judge FDR’s raw intellect, but I would say that he seemed in two important instances to have a remarkable mastery of situations that must have made extraordinary cognitive demands:

    1.) he knew what he was doing in taking the U.S. off the gold standard, both economically and politically. In the circumstances, a misstep in language or a hesitancy in taking radical steps could easily have provoked panic or an obstructive reaction. He used constructive ambiguity to avoid provoking a hostile reaction even while he was taking radical action. And, he hammered the issued with a series of enactments over a two year period that made the new regime stick.

    2.) he knew what he was about in managing U.S. preparation for entering World War II. Again, he was taking radical actions but dressing them in some very creative examples of constructive ambiguity. But, he also managed his generals and admirals as well as leading industrialists and Republican internationalists with great assurance.

    The far-sighted wisdom of his decision-making stands out, though he may have had two decades to think thru the lessons of the first World War and the Wilson Administration’s mobilization. But, he was also creatively clever with language and policy both. “Bank holiday” wasn’t original, but he latched onto it. Piling up gold in Fort Knox was symbolically important as was retaining a nominal gold value for the dollar even as he eliminated gold specie from circulation. Lend-Lease was political and economic genius.

    He was smart in the way he took radical action, but he was smart, too, in seeing that radical action was necessary and used often meaningless compromise to protect radical measures.

    My perception with Clinton and even more so with Obama is that they did not appreciate the importance of radical action; they shied from it. George W Bush — or his Administration — seemed to appreciate the power of a radical policy, even if he was not smart enough to anticipate or manage the consequences. Obama, in particular, was faced with circumstances that called for a radical response, and instinctively (it appears to me) avoided it. I don’t see how one can not appreciate intellectually that failing to break up the big banks or prosecute their officers for frauds would be economically deleterious in the long-run, but maybe Obama was smart enough to fear the potential for things running out of control in the wake of radical interventions. That kind of smart is hard to distinguish from cowardice.

  7. EmilianoZ permalink
    December 2, 2016

    As far as Clinton and 0bama are concerned, it was never about being smart or not, efficient or not, competent or not, … It was all about being corrupt or not.

  8. Herman permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Good post. I agree that people on the Left and especially the centrist technocrats who currently run the Democratic Party are way too enamored of intelligence. Hillary Clinton’s campaign team included plenty of Big Data whiz kids using algorithms to pinpoint voters and yet she still lost, and lost to Trump’s comparatively low-tech operation. I remember the pundits making fun of Trump’s operation, saying that he would be crushed by the high-tech Clinton machine. Well who is laughing now?

    Clinton’s loss is reminiscent of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara was a very smart man and had smart people around him conducting the war with all of the money and technology available to the U.S. military at the time. And yet they were beaten by the relatively low-tech Vietnamese communists.

    This goes back to the fundamental problem with the Left today: it is not really a working-class movement anymore. The leadership of the major center-left parties are run by and for the professional class. What is left of the Far Left seems to be pretty much reduced to students and other academic types who spend all of their time arguing about arcane sectarian differences.

    The Right is winning all over the world because they understand ordinary people better than the Left does. Ever notice that it is the Right that makes big, sweeping declarations about what they want to do? Trump may be a con artist but he spoke in big, sweeping language about “Making American Great” and bringing good jobs back and standing up to Chinese currency manipulators and globalists. Liberals like to mock these promises as baloney and unrealistic and they are perhaps correct, but why is it surprising that people are more attracted to Trump’s vision than to Clinton’s minor technocratic reformism? Even considering that Clinton received more votes than Trump, there seems little doubt that Trump’s supporters were more energized.

    The point is that being smart is overrated. Having a vision of what you want and a powerful message that resonates with ordinary people is more important. The Left better figure out a way to connect with the masses, even if it involves delving into the “stupid” world of populism and fiery rhetoric and supposedly crazy, unrealistic promises.

  9. December 2, 2016

    FDR knew the smart person to call.

  10. Ché Pasa permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Yes, Ian, who are these “left-wingers” and “leftists” you and others rail against? Bernie? Or who?

    Who are you addressing these posts to, exactly?

    If it’s the Democratic hierarchy, they aren’t listening. Have you noticed? You may be right about what’s wrong and what they should be doing about it, but clearly they. do. not. care. It’s not their job to care about what you or I think. It’s their job to serve their sponsors and owners just as fully as they can. And they do despite their diminution as a political force in the United States.

    If it’s non-Democratic pooh bahs, they already know what’s really wrong with American (and more and more with European and British) politics. Some are able to take advantage of it, but most have already thrown up their hands and gone with the neo-fascist renewal. Why not? They might come out ahead, and for all they know the odds are better for them than at one of Trump’s casinos. What have they got to lose, right?

    If it’s the rank and file of any party or none, you must think they’re really stupid. I think they’re much smarter than you and other critics give them credit for. They know what’s been happening to them thanks to the abysmal policies of both major parties, and they know that the rules are stacked against them. They know they can’t change things through electoral means, only who does it to them.

    They’ve been living the reality of this situation, many of them for all their lives, and it doesn’t get better, no matter what they do. Their rulers govern contrary to the public interest and the public will, no matter who is in office. They ritualistically ignore the outcries of the People. It’s sport for them to see the Little People in distress. This is as true of Trump as any other ruling potentate and their servants in the West. It is their way. It’s their culture.

    Trump is an example of his class, ruder and cruder than most of them perhaps, but fully aligned with their culture of exploitation and destruction for the many and celebration of Self for his own sake, with no concern for the fate of others not of their circle and class, nor apparently of the Earth itself.

    Having someone like that in the White House is offensive on its face. It should not be defended.

    But many of us are well aware that Hillary is a member of the class that works for and serves people like Trump, just as Obama has been, just as Bill Clinton was. As was Reagan, btw. The two Bushes, on the other hand, were members of the older aristocracy of politicos (like FDR, for example), Ivy League, upper class, credentialed and experienced, rich in their own right, but also imbued with an ideal of public service that has essentially disappeared. Their policies and actions were awful, to be sure, but at least they had an inkling of the public interest now and then and believed they were doing the right things for the right reasons.

    The crew coming has no such grounding or conception. They are as dangerous as any rulers this country has ever enabled. 

    

  11. markfromireland permalink
    December 2, 2016

    @Ian

    Left wingers and centrist technocratic types are enamoured of intelligence. Of being smart.

    Smart is all very nice. I am smart. But smart is not a synonym for effective or competent or wise or, well, most other words. It isn’t even a synonym for clever.

    Proverbially in the British Isles some people are “so sharp the cut themselves” or if you prefer the Arabic proverb they’re “cunning but stupid”.

  12. December 2, 2016

    The Germans have a good word for it: Schlau. It certainly means ‘clever’, but just consider the sound of the word and you can feel the pejorative uses for it. And, whenever I think of “Lil’ Boots” Bush — that peevish dullard; a Dauphin of a man — Schlau seems to fit best.

  13. December 2, 2016

    The left has a fondness for being considered to smart, but actually that is wrong in two ways:

    The people who seem to smart are actually smart enough, but there are others who are much smarter – they need to listen to them, but do not.

    The people who are actually smart do not work well with the majority of people, they need to get through to the people think they are smart but are not.

  14. Sanctimonious Purist permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Been saying this “being enamored of smart people” thing for a while. Reform mostly stinks. Say what your vision is, make it about people, and folks will follow you. Thanks Ian for saying it more eloquently than I ever do. Obama’s legacy is in the toilet, where it should be. I said this morning, after hearing more about all the ways in which Trump is going to be even more blatantly corrupt than the Democrats, that this may be the best thing to have happened to the Left in a long while. Perhaps we will finally wake from our slumber and build a worker’s party.

  15. December 2, 2016

    The Germans have a good word for it: Schlau. It certainly means ‘clever’, but just consider the sound of the word and you can feel the pejorative uses for it. And, whenever I think of “Lil’ Boots” Bush — that peevish dullard; a Dauphin of a man — Schlau seems to fit best.

    Unsurprisingly, it’s a sister of English “sly”.

  16. December 2, 2016

    This discussion is just the mirror image of the “stupid or evil” debates that happened after Obama’s election and the Obamacare battles. In both cases, it’s mostly Kremlinology.

  17. Shh permalink
    December 2, 2016

    The “book smarts” of the left have frequently been identified as a weakness in the general appeal of the various movements and special interest that comprise the lose affiliation generally considered the left. Nearly every “cultural revolution” begins with a bloody purge of intellectuals.

    Too, there are many forms of intelligence. Trump is very, very smart. Just not in the beltway accepted version of what constitutes smart. In this regard, the left is cognitively impaired. A fact they remain blind to.

    I agree with realitychecker:

    “The gift that Trump’s victory brings us, if we choose to take advantage of it, is it gives us all a chance to completely re-calibrate and overhaul our thought processes and belief systems, and to replace them with new thoughts and attitudes that we require to be reasonable and relatively free of contradictions. I hope we seize this opportunity, because if we do, we will all be better for it”

  18. Billikin permalink
    December 2, 2016

    In the US, I don’t think that it is so much that the Left likes intelligence as that the Right, particularly the Christian Right, does not. The Christian Right distrusts intellectuals because they are likely to be Free Thinkers who promote Atheism and godless Evolution. Perhaps much of that has to do with being Protestants, the P is WASP. A Catholic intellectual could become a Jesuit. Where is the analog in Protestant churches? The US Right is anti-science, not just anti-climate-change. It is not easy for an intellectual to embrace an anti-science point of view. In the US it is not so much that intellectuals are drawn to the Left as that they are repelled by the Right by mutual repulsion.

  19. December 2, 2016

    Billikin has it right: there’s an aspect to the populist right that is repulsive to some intellectuals, so even if they may be otherwise inclined to traditional conservative-aristocratic thinking, they nevertheless identify as left-liberals along with more unambiguously left-wing intellectuals, who at least do not emit a repellent anti-intellectualism. For example, the European populist movements emit a degree of emotive hysteria at the refugees that is hard for someone who studies the reality on the ground to stomach, even if one may be disinclined to favour high immigration.

  20. bruce wilder permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Sterling: FDR knew the smart person to call.

    Persons. FDR was quite good at setting multiple spinning tops in motion. He usually assigned authority over any important task to at least two smart people so that they came back to him with conflicts and disputes.

    He did not have the enormous WH staff of recent Presidents, but he did reach down to minor figures for detailed and first hand accounts and had a grey eminence or three, including his wife. He affected a sincere disdain for detail, but still managed to seek after a lot of detail.

    I suspect more recent Presidents face more daunting information processing challenges simply because ill-considered centralization in the office of the President combines with the explosion of communication to overwhelm. One gets the idea that FDR was frequently thirsting after information like a man in the desert thirsts after water, but 21st century Presidents live amid a perpetual flood. It must lead to a different mental outlook and may well squeeze time for reflection, the building of walls and levees to hold back too much information.

    Obama is remarkably disciplined and Clinton in his prime was very energetic, but neither seemed able to see himself as master of any situation as opposed to manager. The younger Bush may have been too stupid to manage anything and being stupid he sought simplification, which his underlings supplied as radical action — radical change in its earliest stages being indistinguishable from simple principles relentlessly applied.

  21. XFR permalink
    December 2, 2016

    I don’t see how one can not appreciate intellectually that failing to break up the big banks or prosecute their officers for frauds would be economically deleterious in the long-run,

    Obama didn’t merely fail to prosecute the banks. He made a joke of the constitutional separation of powers by halting all of the banking fraud prosecutions being prepared by the attorneys-general of dozens of different American states.

    That was bold, radical, decisive action…in the wrong direction. So Obama can hardly be accused of being timid or cautious. That’s just a cop-out to avoid acknowledging Obama’s real sympathies.

  22. December 2, 2016

    bruce wilder good point.

  23. realitychecker permalink
    December 2, 2016

    @ XFR

    Right you are, and also let us not overlook that Eric Holder was a partner in the law firm that told the mortgage industry that it would be OK for them to substitute their wretched MERS system for the traditional title registration systems. Another partner at that law firm was Lanny Breuer, who was Holder’s chief of criminal enforcement.

    What a surprise that they could not find any prosecutable targets among those whom they enabled to cause the crisis in the first place./s

  24. Hugh permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Trump is effective in the same way a runaway bulldozer or a bomb is effective.

    The central contradiction at the heart of Trumpism is that he can’t/won’t deliver on the populist message that got him elected. He ran against Wall Street and has filled his administration with Wall Streeters, and not just any Wall Streeters but the Wall Street billionaire class ones. He has talked about dumping the current free trade agreements, but it is unclear he has the legal or constitutional authority to do so. If they have treaty status, they might need a 2/3 majority of the Senate to reverse them. If there was enabling legislation, then it might take an act of Congress to reverse that legislation. At a minimum, most of these treaties have a 6 month waiting period before an exit can happen. It is not even clear he can unilaterally raise tariffs within these frameworks. About all he can do is name China as a currency manipulator because duh, it HAS been manipulating its currency brazenly for years.

    Trump is also much more interested in lowering taxes on corporations and the rich than he is raising wages for American workers. He is against increases in the minimum wage and anti-union. How exactly does one bring back “good jobs” under such conditions? The tooth fairy? Additionally, he has surrounded himself with people who want to privatize Medicare and Social Security. How populist is that?

    Finally, Trump was supposed to be the guy to reduce America’s foreign military adventures/débâcles but he wants a former 4 star general and head of the Marine Corps at Defense. This is a guy who never met a war he didn’t like and for whom military force is the hammer and every problem looks like a nail.

    I think Trump has neither the temperament nor the knowledge to govern, and has surrounded himself with more of the same. I think his PR will work until it doesn’t and will burst like a balloon, and people will simply tire of him, his excuses, his distractions, and most of all, his failure to deliver.

  25. December 2, 2016

    Translation:
    They lie and steal.

    Thank you.

  26. December 3, 2016

    There’s smart, there’s leadership, and there’s manipulation. FDR was a leader. He knew how to bring masses of people into a coherent whole and how to reach them with a message. He knew how to persuade them.

    Clinton was smart, and was a manipulator, not a leader. Reagan was a manipulator, and a better one than Clinton, because Clinton could never resist showing off how smart he was, and Reagan was a better actor. Bush was neither smart not particularly good manipulator; he was a puppet whose success was due to the people behind the curtain. Obama is smart, but too morally lazy to be either a leader or a manipulator. He finds a parade and gets in front of it, posing as its leader.

  27. S Brennan permalink
    December 4, 2016

    realitychecker – December 2, 2016

    “let us not overlook that Eric Holder was a partner in the law firm that told the mortgage industry that it would be OK for them to substitute their wretched MERS system for the traditional title registration systems. Another partner at that law firm was Lanny Breuer, who was Holder’s chief of criminal enforcement…What a surprise that they could not find any prosecutable targets among those whom they enabled to cause the crisis in the first place.”

    Worth a repeat

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