Dana Milbank
Opinion writer April 26, 2011

When I covered George W. Bush’s White House, my job was made easier by the simplicity of the subject. The president had a few defining mantras — Cut taxes! Rally the base! Terrorists hate freedom! With us or against us! — and most of his decisions could be understood, even predicted, by applying one of the overarching philosophies.

With President Obama, there is no such luxury. The political right is befuddled as it tries to explain him: First, Obama was a tyrant and a socialist; now he’s a weakling who refuses to lead. The political left is almost as confused, demanding to know why Obama gave away so much on health care and in budget negotiations. Nearly everybody puzzles over Obama’s ad hoc responses to Egypt, Libya and now Syria, grasping for a still-elusive Obama Doctrine.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Seeking a template to understand the enigmatic president, I consulted three leading academics in the fields of psychology and behavior. With their help, I put Obama on the couch and came away with a reasonably coherent diagnosis: There’s too much going on in the poor guy’s head.

“What distinguishes Obama particularly is the depth and carefulness of his thinking, which renders him somewhat unfit for politics,” said Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. “He is a brilliant social and political analyst, which makes it harder for him to play hardball or to bluff.”

Obama’s strengths and weaknesses come from his high degree of “integrative complexity” — his ability to keep multiple variables and trade-offs in mind simultaneously. The integratively simple thinker — say, George W. Bush — has one universal organizing principle that dominates all others, while the integratively complex thinker — Obama — balances many competing goals.

Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that politicians on the center-left (where Obama dwells) tend to have the highest degree of integrative complexity, followed by politicians on the center-right. Politicians on the far left and far right are the most simple.

Though Tetlock hasn’t applied his methodology to Obama, the 44th president would seem to be the very model of the complex thinker. Among the complex thinker’s advantages, says Tetlock, is the ability to see quickly the trade-offs among policy options, to update his beliefs after finding evidence that disproves his preconceptions, and to predict probable outcomes with accuracy. Among the disadvantages: The complex thinker can suffer from “analysis paralysis” and confusion; he can be perceived as unprincipled or disloyal to the values that elevated him to power; and he can be seen as too willing to make trade-offs.

One type of thinker isn’t necessarily better or smarter than the other; it depends on the circumstances. A simple thinker such as Winston Churchill, for example, was a better answer to Adolf Hitler than the complex Neville Chamberlain. “Leaders need to be simple enough for people to relate to,” said Tetlock, “but complex enough to explain to people that they can’t have everything.” Obama was simple enough during his campaign, but, as president, became submerged in subtlety.

As Obama’s capacity for complex thought can become a liability, so, too, can his cool rationality. Politics often rewards the emotional over the rational. Nuclear deterrence, for example, works only if your enemy thinks you are crazy enough to destroy the world.

Such “strategic irrationality” can be useful in negotiations. If your opponent thinks you really might do something crazy — like, say, shut down the federal government over a small budget dispute — then you have more power to bluff. But because Obama is unfailingly rational, opponents aren’t afraid of him doing something crazy.

“If the logic of a threat doesn’t make sense, it can still work if [your opponents] think you will be in the grips of an emotional reaction that’s not under your control,” says Robert Frank, an economist at Cornell University who specializes in behavior and emotion. “With Obama, it doesn’t seem there would be any emotional reaction that is not under his control.”

In an ideal world, complex and rational thought would be virtues. But in politics, these attributes can make Obama seem ambiguous, without toughness or principles. “It isn’t because he lacks a moral compass — it’s because he understands there are a lot of moral forces at play,” U-Va.’s Haidt says. “This is why people get frustrated with him. The more of a partisan you are, the more simple-minded you are.”

What’s a complex guy to do? Simple. “It is important,” Haidt says, “for the president not to be rational and fully honest.”

danamilbank@washpost.com

Twitter: @milbank