A Good Time for a Smart President

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 27, 2008

When I started covering the White House more than 50 years ago, I believed that the smarter a president was, the better he would be. That was wrong.

Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were certainly not intellectuals, but they understood the power of the presidency and they knew how to impose their agendas on their political partners and rivals.

By contrast, Jimmy Carter was a whiz at policy analysis and Bill Clinton grasped the connections among issues almost intuitively. Yet neither of them left the White House with a record of great achievements.

So for several years, I have been arguing that there are traits much more important to the success of a president than brainpower. Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration -- all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.

I am not ready to abandon that view. But I am struck by how lucky this country is, at the moment, that the president-elect is a super-smart person like Barack Obama.

With each passing day, it becomes more evident that even the smartest and most experienced managers of the American economy are struggling to understand -- and fix -- what has gone wrong in our markets.

I attempt to follow the discussion in newspapers and on Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour" and other deeply serious television programs about the latest moves by the Federal Reserve Board and the Treasury -- and I am stumped.

The sums are so staggering, the vocabulary so unfamiliar, the experience so uninformative that I have not a clue whether Bernanke, Paulson and Co. are on top of the situation or are inadvertently making things worse.

That's an embarrassing admission. I get paid to cover the government, and this is by far the most important challenge facing Washington. But I am utterly dependent on others to decipher the clues that may unravel these mysteries.

Obama is not similarly handicapped. Even in the emotional maelstrom of his election victory, and even with the pressures of assembling his administration, everything points to his managing to focus on the policy choices looming in the economic field.

I have talked to two people on the fringe of the transition team -- both members of Congress with major responsibilities in the economic area. Both have been asked for input by Obama, and both say that the quality of his questions -- and his follow-ups -- were a measure of the depth of his knowledge of the situation.

He has not been tested that rigorously in the news conferences he has held so far, but his ability to respond to the questions he has been asked, to make his points in a coherent, balanced way and to avoid any misstatement has certainly been a treat to watch.


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