Good teaching requires, First, that one understand the subject being taught so thoroughly and well that one can see a simple, direct, clear story line leading from the problem to its solution, or from the topic to its elucidation; and Second, that one be able to put oneself in the place of the student and grasp what the student needs to know at each stage of the explanation in order to follow it successfully and with steadily growing comprehension. The first desideratum is difficult enough, to be sure, but it is the second that defeats even quite intelligent and knowledgeable would-be teachers.
All of us who have guided doctoral dissertations are familiar with the student who is so deeply into the details of his or her research as to be utterly incapable of explaining it to someone less familiar with the topic, or perhaps completely unfamiliar with it. In preparing doctoral students for job interviews, where they will be expected to say something about their research, I tell them that they should be able to give four distinct answers to the question, "What are you working on?" The first answer is a phrase ["Kant's Ethics"], the second is a sentence. ["I am tracing the sources of Kant's ethical theory to twelfth century cabbalistic teachings." Just a joke, folks.] The third is a five minute overview of the entire project, suitable for the interview, and the fourth is a one hour job talk, in effect a short publishable journal article. Even students who can do a quite creditable job of the fourth find the first and second difficult and the third nigh on impossible. They are so far inside their work that they simply cannot imagine the state of mind of an interviewer who is intelligent but relatively clueless about the student's field of specialization.
Precisely the same skills required for good teaching make for effective explanations in a political setting. All of us, I am sure, have listened to politicians talking about some piece of legislation whose discourse is filled with acronyms, shorthand phrases, and other bits of inside-dopester jargon that are simply incomprehensible to the general public. The sense they communicate, roughly, is that they are experts on the subject who cannot be bothered to explain things to people who have not, in W. S. Gilbert's immortal phrase, "got up all the germs of the transcendental terms." The result is off-putting, condescending, and utterly unpersuasive.
As an example of good teaching [and I say this without n shred of false modesty, a vice of which I have never been accused!], take a look at www.robert-wolff.blogspot.com, the blog on which I expounded Game Theory and Collective Choice Theory over many days. This is very difficult material, but I dare say at every step along the way, I have introduced things in such a manner that even someone completely unfamiliar with the subject can follow along and understand how one gets from one step to the next. The same thing is true of my exposition of Classical and Marxian economic theory in my book UNDERSTANDING MARX, and of the central argument of the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON in KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY.
Now, Barack Obama is obviously an extremely intelligent and extraordinarily knowledgeable person. My guess is that when it comes to something like the health care reform legislation, he has a level of detailed knowledge and understanding that rivals that of people for whom the ins and outs of such legislation is their bread and butter. But smart and knowledgeable though he may be, Obama is a simply terrible teacher. He has not the slightest idea how to explain things so that they are, at one and the same time, clear, simple, precisely correct, and attuned to the state of knowledge and comprehension of those to whom he is speaking. Like many intelligent people who are bad teachers, he manages to communicate the sense that he understands these things and thinks that people who hold wrong-headed views about them are just dumb. He is an inspirational speaker, a speaker capable of gravitas, of humor, of elevation. But he just is not a good teacher.
Consider, for example, the grotesque charge leveled by Sarah Palin and then taken up by supposedly serious [and certainly very dull] Republicans like Charles Grassley, that the health care reform bill had in it a provision for Death Panels. Obama knew that that was nonsense, and I suspect he had contempt for anyone who was stupid enough to think it was true [as do I, by the way], but instead of explaining simply and clearly what was in the bill, and why it was silly to call that "Death Panels," he just denied the claim, which left him looking like someone who was trying to conceal a terrible and inhuman provision that he and similar Seniors-hating Liberals had sneaked into the bill.
It is interesting to contrast Obama with Bill Clinton, another extremely intelligent presidential policy wonk, who, whatever his other faults, is vastly better than Obama at the business of teaching.
I suspect that Obama actually thinks that he is a good teacher [he did, after all, teach Con Law at Chicago for a while], and therefore has no sense at all that there is a skill he needs to develop. If I ever get to speak to him [sure sure], I will tell him.