Revenge of the nerds

By STEVEN STARK  |  January 21, 2009

But there are two dangers for the new president. The first is that he may be setting himself up for a populist political revolt. Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop recently wrote that one thing separating our current era from FDR's is the lack of populist figures to challenge the status quo, such as Huey Long or Upton Sinclair. Well, give it time. The economic crisis has been with us only a few months, and Obama's administration isn't yet a week old. If the crisis lingers, the populists will appear. And, even when it's over and people suddenly realize their 401(k)s are never coming back, they will be looking for scapegoats, only to find that some of the major potential villains, such as Larry Summers (who failed to regulate the markets adequately the first time around when he should have as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary), have desks right next to the president. If that begins to happen, Obama shouldn't be shy about letting heads roll.

The second danger was persuasively outlined by David Halberstam in his seminal history, The Best and the Brightest (a term used ironically) — the story of how the best brains of the '60s got us immersed in the Vietnam War. It might be described as the conceit of intellect. Put another way, there's a story that, when Socrates went to see the Oracle at Delphi, the Oracle told the philosopher he was the wisest man in Greece. Socrates took that to mean that he knew enough to know that he didn't know.

Can one say the same about Obama and his team? There is an extremely fine line between audacity and arrogance. Not confusing one with the other may be the toughest challenge facing the new administration.

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