Both Obama and McCain Are 'Gladwellian' Candidates

10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain, like his predecessor, is a guy who likes to make gut decisions from first impressions and shoot from the hip. Of course, that is another way of saying he is an anti-intellectual's anti-intellectual--a perennial C student who does not like to deliberate over a stack of policy papers or find nuance in foreign affairs. He makes snap judgments, as his pick of Sarah Palin and knee-jerk response to Russia's incursion of Georgia highlight. That is a sign of strength, Republicans insist--sloppy judgment, say Democrats.

"There are lots of situations," writes Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, "particularly at times of high pressure and stress--when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions offer a much better means of making sense of the world."

The question for voters: Do you favor a president who flies by the seat of his pants, or one who carefully mulls over every footnote of every policy paper and listens to every opinion in the room? McCain faces the Ron Burgundy dilemma: He is handed a statement by his advisers after a crisis and literally just reads it, no questions asked, no edits made--the faster and more hard-nosed the language, the better.

But here's the thing: Obama, too, is a fan of Gladwellian rapid cognition. He blurts out opinions (especially on foreign policy) without careful consideration, as he did last fall in response to questions about negotiating directly with dictators, invading Pakistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda, or renouncing the use of nukes to fight terrorists. Interestingly, his gut answers to these questions on foreign policy appeared at first to be clumsy (they were mocked by Republican and Democratic rivals alike)--but on closer examination, Obama's hastily made views were correct and prescient.

Even some Republicans (i.e. Mike Huckabee) came around to his hawkish views on Pakistan. And the Bush team has begun talking to the North Koreans and Iranians, the Israelis have opened up talks with the Syrians, and so forth and so on.

Both candidates, like George W. Bush, shoot from the hip--but one absorbs the nuanced wisdom of those around him before blurting out his opinion, the other stubbornly clings to his snap judgments and appears to be reading from cue cards. I'll take Obama's gut reactions any day over McCain's.