Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The impossible contradiction that is the Democratic president

It took almost a year, but we now are hearing the conservative critique of Obama that he "dithers," that he waffles, that he wavers, that he is not quite a real man because he does not show convictions. Of course, we've heard the "waffle" epithet thrown at other Democratic presidents, especially Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. And you don't have to be Democratic president to be called a dithering, waffling unmanly man. Just ask John Kerry.

What is remarkable about these charges is not that they are made: critics know we want a strong leader (that phrase is almost redundant). What is remarkable is that the charge is made at the same time as the opposite charge: that Obama (or fill in the name of a Democratic presidential candidate) is a megalomaniac bent on using the government to fulfill--you guessed it--his horrifying liberal convictions. In other words, Obama is a waffle with a fascist's mustache.

One of these may be true. He may be the waffle or the mustache. But not both.

To be fair, conservatives have had to deal with Republican presidents facing their own familiar from the Left: that they are stupid. Now they are even facing social scientists who try to prove it. George W. Bush faced this charge throughout his presidency, but so did Reagan. Republican vice presidents have faced it (remember Dan Quayle) and of course Republican vice presidential candidates (Sarah Palin). At the same time, liberals have painted Republican presidents, despite their supposed stupidity, as scheming to destroy all that is good. The threat is real enough to earn them the fascist mustache on protesters' placards. The contradiction here is slightly less pronounced, because liberals can point to a Rasputin-like team of advisers who tell the supposedly-dumb president what to do (that logic works less well for Republicans attacking a Democrat because the Democratic president would not waffle if they had an analogous team of scheming liberal advisers).

While there may be a grain of truth to these stereotypes (that Democratic presidents are more deliberate and Republican presidents more un-nuanced in their assessments of issues), the media are probably responding to what psychologists have identified as a kind of cognitive confirmation bias: we start with a meaning of a thing, and then we notice everything that conforms to that meaning, and ignore that which does not. We can hold only one meaning of a thing at a time (either waffler *or* liberal schemer), and bias our interpretations based on that.