The truth of presidential intelligence is that, ultimately, smart is what smart does, not what smart could do but doesn't. Calling attention to your intelligence by using such self-congratulatory terms as "smart diplomacy" to describe your policies does not make them so. Nor does the admonition "don't do stupid stuff" make you immune from doing just that.
Effective leadership requires judgments about its limits as well as its possibilities, tempering ambitions as well as reaching for them, and ultimately ensuring that those you lead are willing and able to go where you want to lead them. These are not matters of IQ, but of having political clear-sightedness, undistorted by elevated heights of ambition or certainty about the essential correctness of your views. It is this set of capacities that presidential scholar Fred Greenstein has analyzed as "emotional intelligence".
President Obama is not the first smart person undone by his psychology, and immigration is not the first policy to be undone by being wildly out of step with what most Americans want. And the latter was the second major policy misstep by the president, even as he was eying a potentially major political victory as the Senate passed, with Republican help, "comprehensive immigration reform".
It was comprehensive certainly, all thousand-plus pages of it, as it sought to encompass every immigration policy wish of those "stakeholders" who had been invited to meet behind closed doors to trade and reach agreement about its provisions. Most of its provisions were hidden behind highly technical and legally arcane language that few Senators who voted for it read or of which the American public was made aware. And the virtues that were publically touted for it — my favorite being that soon-to-be legalized illegal migrants would have to pay "back taxes" — turned out to be untrue.
Most of the focus, then and now, is on the fact that the Senate successfully passed the bill and the House, courageously in my view, failed to take it up. Yet seen from another perspective, that "success" represented the president's second immigration failure. Yes, the bill passed the Senate, but its passage reflected the president's larger and more important failure to develop a successful left-center presidency rather than the progressive strong-left presidency he sought.
Some have pointed to the president's lack of involvement in legislative details as a failing, and it is true that President Obama is not much interested in the legislative process. In that area he is no Lyndon Johnson and more closely resembles John F. Kennedy, who was also not very interested in it. However, President Obama faces political circumstances that neither of these men did — a deeply divided country. Mr. Obama knew this. He had campaigned as the one person able to heal and surmount these divisions.
His disinterest in legislative process was entirely in keeping with his approach to his own healthcare bill: Let his Democratic allies in Congress write and pass it. His approach to immigration legislation was the same. He allowed his Senate Democratic allies, and their Republican helpers, to meet behind closed doors with no dissenters allowed.
The president didn't have to be interested in legislative "details" to insist on a more open process and, as a result, a more centrist bill. Again his ambition for "big", "major", "transformative" legislation took precedence over reaching a smaller, more sustainable compromise immigration bill that would have most likely assured its passage in both houses of Congress and given him a fresh start as a "successful" rather than a "transformative" president.
But his ambitions trumped his "emotional intelligence".
Next: The Executive Immigration Order That Breaks the Obama Presidency?