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Election 2008 Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

The Art of Character Sketches

Joe Klein begins his piece about “Why Barack Obama is Winning” with this anecdote:

General David Petraeus deployed overwhelming force when he briefed Barack Obama and two other Senators in Baghdad last July. He knew Obama favored a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, and he wanted to make the strongest possible case against it. And so, after he had presented an array of maps and charts and PowerPoint slides describing the current situation on the ground in great detail, Petraeus closed with a vigorous plea for “maximum flexibility” going forward.

Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views “under advisement.” Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action — especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind….

You should read the rest of the piece – it’s fascinating take on Obama and his decision-making process.

Matt Yglesias wrote a few days ago about David Brooks and how:

a lot of this genre of punditry seems based on the idea that journalists can discern when politicians are and aren’t misleading with their presentation of self. But I have no reason to believe I’m especially good at this, and plenty of reason to believe that big-time politicians are unusually good at misleading about this sort of thing..

I know exactly what he means about how this can be frustrating. David Brooks seems to have had wildly diverging opions about Obama – which would tend to make one somewhat skeptical of his deep insight into Obama’s character.

Matt suggests ignoring character and focusing instead on policy positions – where you can more easily figure out if a politician is lying. He doesn’t seem quite comfortable with that – and leaves himself an out – despite the fact that his piece builds to this point, he concludes only by saying that “There’s something to be said for” looking only at policies.

But I think there is something valuable in what David Brooks, Joe Klein, Maureen Dowd, Peggy Noonan, Frank Rich, George Will, and many of these other columnists do as they attempt to determine a candidate’s character. They’re often wrong. And they are rarely consistent. But I believe a person’s essential character is important – and is generally revealed when a person holds power – and it affects what politics and policies actually happen.

What we need to realize when reading these columnists is that their trade is an art – not a science. It’s not necessary that these men or women be better at seeing through to the essential character of a politician – but that their job is to try to figure it out.

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