Regardless of whether one supports or opposes Obama’s policies, the picture that has emerged thus far of President Obama is that he isn’t a wartime CEO—indeed, that he might just be too reasonable, too optimistic, too mentally well adjusted to lead the country during this difficult time of economic, political, and existential crisis.
This is ironic, considering the two leaders Obama invoked most often during the 2008 presidential campaign were Lincoln and King—both of whom suffered from mental illness. (Lincoln suffered from chronic depression all throughout his life; King attempted suicide twice during his adolescence, and experienced periods of depression and mania throughout his adult life.) And while history has done much to sanitize the legacies of both men, few of their contemporaries would have described them as “reasonable men.”
Lincoln was unreasonable in his commitment to preserving the Union. During the Civil War, he expanded his presidential war powers, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, ordered the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers without warrant, and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively ending slavery in the United States even as fate of the war remained uncertain.
King was unreasonable in his commitment to justice and civil rights. Although his primary weapons were nonviolent resistance and Christian love, King understood that the civil rights movement was a battle—not simply against racism and Jim Crow, but against evil itself. King endured multiple arrests; constant threats, harassment, and attacks of violence; FBI wire-tapping; the bombing of his home; a near-fatal stabbing; and was ultimately assassinated for his unreasonable commitment to justice. But King’s commitment was bolstered by a faith in the cosmic nature of the civil rights struggle. To quote King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
According to Ghaemi, both King and Lincoln gained tremendous benefits from their mental illness: increased resilience, creativity, empathy, and realism, benefits that helped them become two of the most effective crisis leaders in history. Far from being well adjusted to their circumstances, both men were maladjusted to the politics and prejudices of their respective times. Indeed, King recognized that “maladjustment” was a necessary quality when it came to advancing human progress. As he wrote in The Strength to Love: “The salvation of the world lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
In contrast to Lincoln and King, President Obama frequently seems too reasonable, a trait that served him well on the campaign trail, but that in his negotiations with House Republicans often comes across as weakness—or even downright foolishness. (In discussing the deal that was reached after the debt ceiling debate, Obama called it a painful compromise; House Speaker John Boehner essentially called it a Republican victory.) Obama failed to recognize the Tea Party threat before it became a legitimate movement; has been unwilling or unable to force TARP-assisted banks to do more for struggling homeowners; and has neither indicted anyone for the 2008 financial crisis nor passed measures that would prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again. In speeches to the public, he’s reluctant to attack extremist Republicans directly, choosing instead to criticize “Congress” as a whole, as if everyone in Washington were the problem. A brilliant orator and thoughtful intellectual, Obama appears to lack the bullish resilience of a Churchill, the depressive realism of a Lincoln, the political shrewdness of an FDR, and the creative maladjustment of a King to lead and inspire confidence during difficult times—gifts that a touch of mental illness might’ve conferred upon him.
Of course, I should point out that mental illness, as Ghaemi defines it, isn’t the same as delusion-based politics, or the complete disregard of reality for the sake of political convenience. Personally, I find Obama’s reasonableness preferable to the delusion and fact-free pandering displayed by many of the current crop of Republican presidential contenders. However, neither delusion-based politics nor timid reasonableness will help us solve our current crises. Only bold, truth-based, creatively maladjusted leadership will do that.
As Obama travels the country in the coming months—both to push his recently unveiled jobs plan and to persuade voters that they should give him a second term—we will no doubt hear much of the stirring rhetoric that we heard (and that inspired many of us) back in 2008. But if Obama’s leadership style doesn’t change, or fails to produce substantive results by November 2012, then all that rhetoric will be for naught. If Obama—to quote Lincoln—is to “rise with the occasion,” he must recognize that peacetime leadership is woefully inadequate during a time of crisis; that while the country may want (or say it wants) reasonable leadership, what it needs is unreasonable leadership. And if nature has indeed blessed Obama with relatively good mental health, then he must actively embrace the role of the wartime CEO. He must cultivate the creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism necessary to steer the nation—indeed, the world—through these difficult times. He must start to emulate Lincoln and King in more than just their superficial aspects, otherwise his presidency will merely be a superficial parody of their legacies.
Certain times and certain situations call for reasonable men. If the thesis of Ghaemi’s book is correct, our present time is not one of them. Does President Obama have what it takes to transform crisis into opportunity and emerge as a great leader? Perhaps. But he’ll need more than just stirring speeches and the audacity of hope. He’ll need something that all great crisis leaders naturally possess or eventually acquire, at least the ones who rise with the occasion to meet the challenges of their time: the courage to be unreasonable.
In a world gone mad, it might be the sanest form of leadership there is.