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Brett C. Di Resta Headshot

Confirmation Overload

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When I approach a new research project, I try to do it with an open mind, eschewing strong opinions. It is, of course, easier said than done. As my columns indicate, and my family and friends can attest, strong opinions (along with withering sarcasm) are my stock in trade.

But bringing preconceived notions tend to lead to bad research. That's when confirmation bias, the practice of only finding facts that corroborate your beliefs, creeps in and ruins your work.

I bring this up after reading Peggy Noonan's latest column. Noonan brings up the rather obvious point that the key to this election was the first debate in Denver. The reason that debate resonated was not that people got to see Mitt Romney unfiltered, but that it was their first view of the real Barack Obama. She writes:

And in some utterly new way the president was revealed, exposed. All the people whose job it is to surround and explain him, to act as his buffers and protectors--they weren't there. It was him on the stage, alone with a competitor. He didn't have a teleprompter, and so his failure seemed to underscore the cliché that the prompter is a kind of umbilical cord for him, something that provides nourishment, the thing he needs to sound good.

The nonsense about the teleprompter aside, the analysis that this debate exposed the real Obama seems odd. After all, Ms. Noonan acknowledges that the president won the second debate against Romney, in what she called a "vigorous, pointed performance". Obama also was judged the subsequent winner of the third debate -- not to mention he more than held his own in three debates against Sen. McCain and several debates in the 2008 Democratic Primary.

So why would Noonan suggest that this debate, as opposed to the other two dozen or so presidential debates he participated in, really defines Mr. Obama? Because it fits her preconceived notion of the president -- that he's a dull, unhappy man who is overmatched.

In a September 2008 column, she called him "cerebral, urbane, detached." After a debate with McCain in 2008, Noonan hit Obama for his demeanor, saying "His cool made him seem hidden."Even when she admits he won the debate, she hits for being "joyless, a bit of a toothache."

So Noonan ignores all the other evidence, in this case just about every other debate President Obama has participated, because this one debate confirmed what she always believed. The somnambulant president in Denver is the real Obama, rather than a just a bad one-off performance.

And now that she has confirmed this is the real Obama, Ms. Noonan gets to her second point, which is Obama's aloof personality is the real cause of gridlock in Washington:

Which gets us to Bob Woodward's "The Price of Politics," published last month. The portrait it contains of Mr. Obama -- of a president who is at once over his head, out of his depth and wholly unaware of the fact -- hasn't received the attention it deserves... His confidence is consistently greater than his acumen, his arrogance greater than his grasp... He misread his Republican opponents from day one. If he had been large-spirited and conciliatory he would have effectively undercut them, and kept them from uniting.

By cherry-picking from Woodward's book, Noonan gets the result she has long advocated -- Mr. Obama's haughty personality is the real problem in Washington. To confirm her beliefs, she had to ignore several things.

First and foremost, Mrs. Brooks had to ignore the most recent book by Robert Draper. Mr. Draper recounts a meeting of the top Republicans on Inauguration Day, where they hatched a plan to obstruct the president's agenda.

It also contradicts reports from that time period. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out, Republicans gave kudos to Obama for his efforts to reach a deal on the stimulus:

Obama's efforts did win him some compliments from Republicans who figure they can make deals with the Democratic president when the bill goes to the Senate next week


"The president was clear that he was going to continue to reach out to us, continue to listen to our ideas and I think we have to remember we're at the beginning of this process," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told "Good Morning America" today.

Finally, as an alert Andrew Sullivan reader mentioned, it ignores the outreach the president performed to Republicans and Republican intellectuals, including one Peggy Noonan.

Call it a charm offensive or a high-level "Listening Tour," but Barack Obama is already signaling that he intends to break with the current president in one obvious way: hearing from his critics.
Obama Tuesday night trekked to the Chevy Chase, Md., home of conservative columnist George F. Will to talk politics and get to know some of his fiercest intellectual adversaries: Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Larry Kudlow, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan\, Michael Barone, and Paul Gigot.

By cherry-picking facts to fit her long held beliefs, Ms. Noonan proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she'd make a lousy researcher. And frankly, considering the amount of evidence that undermines her central point, it doesn't speak well of her writing either.