President Obama has recently graded his performance in uplifting the economy as "Incomplete" ("Inc" to us professors). Non-academics will undoubtedly interpret this ‘Inc" as indicating progress but more time needed. Not quite accurate. The choice of "Incomplete" is revealing in ways that the President might not realize. As both a student and a sometime professor, Obama knows that "Inc" does not mean "more time is needed so stay calm and I'll carry on." Truth be told, Obama is giving, perhaps unconsciously, himself an "F+" but in a way that disguises failure.
As a veteran academic, let me explain "Incomplete." I've given out hundreds of them and only in the most exception circumstances (e.g., the death of a parent) did Inc reflect an unavoidable obstacle to completing course work. In today's atmosphere where students are "valued customers" professors will not confront sloth with an "F." To award "F's" only invites trouble, everything from student complaints to meddling soft-hearted Deans to smaller enrollments at a time when class size may affect salary and promotions.
The reality is that the "Inc" is usually the kinder, gentler way of giving an "F." Here's how it works. A desperate student appears at your office with a tale of woe to ask for the "Inc." Professors usually recognize the charade, a theatrical performance to save face versus confessing to indolence. Perhaps too many golf outings or overseas travel. The student is then told, as per university rules, that unless the work is completed by a specific date, it automatically reverts to "F." The Inc request is honored and students naturally welcome the reprieve, often believing that they will complete missed assignments...eventually. All and all, a win-win outcome: the student temporarily avoids the "F," the Professor escapes the nagging and knows that the "F" will be awarded mechanically by the administration's computer software. Justice will be served.
Let me suggest that Obama is just continuing on with the bad habits he acquired in his academic career. At least to me, the flight from responsibility pattern is unrelenting.
Non-academics would be amazed at how universities, even elite ones, can protect students who should not have been initially admitted or should have long been kicked out. This is not only about affirmative action types like Obama. It applies equally to children of major donors (my lips are sealed), athletes, even the off-spring of other professors (professional courtesy). Most of these save-the-student tactics are legal and, critically, nearly invisible. Students on the edge of expulsion can be rescued by slightly bending the cure to make a "D" into a "C-." allowing an "F" paper to be re-written to get a passing grade, allowing extra-credit projects, even permitting students to drop the course after a final "F" grade (no, I'm not making that up). One favorite are "Independent Studies" from sympathetic professors who might accept verbal summaries in lieu of written papers. It is no wonder that professors often complain that it takes serious effort for a student to flunk out.
I'd guess that many "saved" students are oblivious to their good fortune and judged by his public pronouncements Obama belongs in the "most oblivious" category. Why should self-esteem be endangered by asking about gift grades or or why a summer internship to bring "social justice" deserves 12 "A" credits? As far as these lucky beneficiaries are concerned, they are the real McCoy.
I'd strongly guess that Houdini-like escapes from the consequences of shoddy work were a way of life for Obama and, of the utmost importance, he rarely (if ever) recognizes the gifts. As a struggling student he probably honestly believed that so-so students can easily transfer from a second tier college like Occidental to Columbia or that admission to Harvard Law was a realistic option for those with nondescript academic records. Or that his election as President of the Law Review reflected his demonstrated legal acumen or that his appointment at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School was a legitimate honor. Recall his numerous "present" votes in the Illinois State Senate, a "vote" that relieved him of any personal responsibility for the outcome. Those of a certain age might recall the cartoon the Near Sighted Mr. Magoo-the nearly blind old man oblivious to his endless death-defying escapes. After just missing by inches being hit by a car, he could complain that today's cars were just too loud.
Such escapes were undoubtedly part of Obama's very existence and, after a point, "normal." Somebody will fix things or awkward realities would somehow just vanish. Why worry about spending 22 years listening to Rev. Wright wail about god-damn America? As for hanging out with terrorists-What, me worry? And why should he be embarrassed about his wife's cushy job with the University of Chicago's Medical School that was abolished when Obama moved on. Or his dealing with shady characters when he bought his expensive Chicago home. Somebody will come up with a plausible explanation and fix it all up. A charmed life, just like the near-sighted McGoo.
Compare the academic world to the private sector. In a nutshell, unlike university life, there are no incompletes in the marketplace. A businessman unable to make Friday's payroll cannot hand out I.O. U.'s and plead for more time. Yes, a sympathetic bank might extend a loan but at some point it must be paid back or its bankruptcy. All the survival tricks that students use to stay in school, e.g., the dog ate my hard drive, just don't work when running a business.
This is not to argue that we should prefer those with business experience as political leaders. The more basic point is that we should elect those who understand the relationship between action and their consequences and, I would submit, Obama is deficient in this regard. Has he ever screwed up and lost his house or business due to financial recklessness? Note how Obama always talks about the harm suffered by others, not himself for messing up. Can you imagine him telling the world, "Yes, I recall the repo man showing up, removing all our furniture because my mother could not manage the family's credit card debt"?
And to drive this point home, let me offer up the example of Dwight D, Eisenhower, a president who governed America "when nothing happened." In fact, Ike was often criticized for making politics "dull." A better way of putting it was that Ike's military experience, including the horrific Battle of the Bulge, taught him painful lessons about getting it wrong, and dullness was to be much preferred to ill-advised decisions (for example, dispatching the US Air Force, even using nuclear weapons to rescue the French in Indo-China). I'd guess that for Ike "Change you could believe in" would invoke images of Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union. Alas, "Dullness you can believe in" lacks sex appeal in today's world where we seldom appreciate what we already have.
Mitt Romney has called for Americans to embrace success and he is correct. But less obvious is the need to have someone who deeply understands the failure from personally getting it wrong. Sad to say, Obama's invoking "Incomplete" suggests that he is a man accustomed to escaping consequences. Perhaps Bain Capital will now have to clean up the mess.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society andBad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.
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