Michael Lewis explains why I like Obama

by Alan Cohen

Michael Lewis just had a great profile of Obama in Vanity Fair. It’s a bit long but worth the read, and it’s important in three ways:

1) Obama is bold

Obama has a reputation of having let events shape his presidency rather than having shaping events himself. In contrast, this profile details how he made the decision to invade Libya when none of his advisors wanted to even present that as an option. The options presented were to do nothing or to impose a no-fly zone, which would have been just for show (since Qaddafi wasn’t using air power). Over the objections of his top advisors, he had a plan for an effective intervention drawn up, figured out how to get it through the UN and achieve it with the international community, and went forward with it. These are not the actions of someone who is letting events shape him.

2) Obama’s failures are more due to the system than to him

The article mentions briefly how, due to changes in the political system and media, a president has a lot less power now than, say, 40 years ago. I have been thinking about this for a while: the use of the filibuster, increased partisanship, 24-hour sensationalized news coverage, and a closely divided electorate mean that the president has relatively little scope to achieve anything. I think this is why Obama is perceived as letting events shape him rather than the other way around. Clearly the system is harder to manipulate than it used to be, but I have also wondered how much he might be at fault as well. Could a more skillful politician have done systematically better? The subtext of this article makes the case that no, it is unlikely a more forceful personality could have done more. In part this is because it shows Obama as forceful when appropriate (as in his decision on Libya).

This does not mean there is nothing Obama could have done differently to get a better outcome. It’s easy with hindsight to find such things. Some of them maybe should have been better anticipated. But lack of forcefulness and resolve does not seem to be the reason for such failures.

3) Obama thinks in probabilities, not black-and-white

Obama explicitly mentions that every decision he makes has a probability of failure: the easy decisions have already been made by someone else. He is comfortable living in a world of shades of grey, but explicitly notes that the public requires things to be explained in black-and-white. Yay! He is so clear here about one of my favorite themes: the need to think in terms of probabilities and uncertainty, and the fact that our brains don’t seem to be built for this. So few people are good at understanding probabilities and uncertainty intuitively. I’m now convinced Obama is one of them.