Just before Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, I wrote a post about the disappearance of the White House intellectual, a peculiar, semi-official position that John F. Kennedy created for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and that continued in various forms during the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford presidencies, before being silently eliminated by Jimmy Carter, never to be revived again (at least so far).
Of course, while Presidents since Carter have not designated a single “intellectual in residence,” they have certainly involved themselves publicly and privately with intellectuals, both as sources of policy and political ideas, and (in their more public engagements) as a way of refining and burnishing their political brands. Despite receiving a lot of support from intellectuals as intellectuals in 2008, and even prompting James Kloppenberg to write a book (much discussed on this blog) on Obama as an intellectual, Obama has not made as much of a show of involving intellectuals in his White House as many of his predecessors have.*
Like White Houses, presidential campaigns often involve intellectuals, both behind the scenes as sources of ideas, and publicly as surrogates and as embodied promises of what the American people might expect should a particular candidate win. But this year, such figures seem conspicuous in their absence, at least from the campaigns’ public faces.
In the past, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have made the support of intellectuals and the adoption of their ideas an important aspect of their campaigns. In 2000, John McCain adopted the rhetoric of what was known as “national greatness conservatism,” a neoconservative vision of America-in-the-world that in many ways eventually became embodied in the policies of his primary opponent, George W. Bush. As a candidate, however, Bush was more closely associated with Marvin Olasky and the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” Bill Clinton, in 1992, adopted the centrist, “third way” rhetoric associated with thinkers like Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. And Barack Obama, in 2008, assembled an array of intellectual supporters and advisers, including, among others, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, Samantha Power, and Austan Goolsbee, whose places in the campaign suggested to many that Obama was not only interested in intellectuals, but that he might become one of the tiny handful of presidents who have been intellectuals in their own right.
This year, however, neither the Romney nor the Obama campaign seems very interested in the conspicuous display of intellectuals or their ideas. The most obvious explanation for the change involves not a change in the place of intellectuals in American life or politics in general, but rather the nature of this year’s presidential race. Unlike 2008 (or 1992 and 2000), this year’s election features an incumbent. As Nate Silver recently noted, Romney, like most challengers in such races, wants voters to see this election as a referendum on Obama. And as we saw a couple weeks ago at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the heart of that imagined referendum is the economy, framed by Ronald Reagan’s famous question from 1980: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” This is not a question that requires the (real or symbolic) presence of intellectuals to answer or highlight.
In contrast, as we saw in Charlotte last week, Obama wants voters to see this election as a choice. But the nature of that choice is framed in stark terms by Obama’s 2012 slogan: “Forward.” The implication, made explicit in a number of Democratic National Converntion speeches, is: we want to go forward; they want to go back. Like Romney’s framing of the election, the choice presented by the Obama campaign does not especially require sophisticated ideas or their human signifiers.
There are, of course, ideas connected to these two campaigns: the RNC emphasized individualism (“We Built This”); the DNC, a kind of mild communitarianism (we are at our best when we work together). But each of these sets of ideas is being sold as both common sense and utterly, traditionally American. Neither message has the complexity (or pseudo-complexity) or air of innovation (or pseudo-innovation) that would be helped by an association with one or more intellectuals.
In the past, presidential candidates have linked themselves to intellectuals to seem youthful and innovative (JFK), sage and sophisticated in policy matters (Nixon), or simply to lend an air of gravitas to a candidate who might otherwise be dismissed as a lightweight (George W. Bush). But these are not the challenges facing this year’s candidates, each of whom, in rather different ways, has to struggle against attacks that suggest that he’s somehow out-of-touch and not like the American electorate. The symbolic function of intellectuals is not much help in such a situation.
But I suspect that candidates in the future will, once again, find themselves in political situations for which a visible brain trust will seem like a solution, and then the campaign intellectuals will reappear in force.