In today’s New York Times, David Brooks takes a stab at describing Barack Obama and his performance in office so far. In doing so, Brooks paints a portrait of how polarizing Washington is and what that polarization does in shaping Americans’ sense of reality.

Who is Barack Obama?

If you ask a conservative Republican, you are likely to hear that Obama is a skilled politician who campaigned as a centrist but is governing as a big-government liberal. He plays by ruthless, Chicago politics rules. He is arrogant toward foes, condescending toward allies and runs a partisan political machine.

If you ask a liberal Democrat, you are likely to hear that Obama is an inspiring but overly intellectual leader who has trouble making up his mind and fighting for his positions. He has not defined a clear mission. He has allowed the Republicans to dominate debate. He is too quick to compromise and too cerebral to push things through.

You’ll notice first that these two viewpoints are diametrically opposed. You’ll, observe, second, that they are entirely predictable. Political partisans always imagine the other side is ruthlessly effective and that the public would be with them if only their side had better messaging. And finally, you’ll notice that both views distort reality. They tell you more about the information cocoons that partisans live in these days than about Obama himself.

[…]

In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

It’s unfortunate that our “information cocoons” insist on simplifying the most complex of matters to yes/no or good/bad answers. I like that Brooks shows us what we can get with complexity despite its boring reputation. When we look at phenomena like Obama’s performance with the goal of gaining better understanding as opposed to getting an explanation, we preserve the complexity of the matter and enhance our own analysis skills.

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