President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s. Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya. Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.
Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience. Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer. An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair. Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator. Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.
Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command. In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.” His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.
To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet. As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids. While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that. He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.
Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions. He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them. Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire. Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position. The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.
What went wrong? Spock doesn’t know. Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew. But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally. Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.
While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings. A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.” Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.
Now, let’s turn to Obama. Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental). Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.
What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots. Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options. By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.
How does Spock recover and save the day? By gambling. As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it. Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry. But the desperate gamble works. Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet. Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.
The lesson? Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds. Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it. He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it. In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.
So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command? That we could use a little inspiration. That we want less analysis and more action. That we may even need a game-changing gamble.
C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it. Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.
Professor Astore currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has also been published in Huffington Post.