I should have realized that it was going to be a recurring theme when a liberal friend of mine said to me in January 2009 that ‘it will be a welcome change to have an intelligent occupant of the White House.’ From his arrival on the scene until today, we are repeatedly told that Obama is very smart and that this will enable him to be a very good President. There are two assertions of fact in that last sentence and I would like to test both.
Regarding his intelligence, it seems clear that Obama is above the mean. But his supporters suggest much more—implicitly and often explicitly—namely, that he is one of the smartest men ever to be President. The evidence for that is hardly conclusive. Pro: he ran a masterful campaign, both in the primaries and in the general election; he demonstrates a commanding knowledge of facts and figures about areas in which he has little background or experience; he handles himself with great poise in public arenas; and he can be quite eloquent in prepared speeches. Con: he has resisted making his academic record public; there is no evidence at all that he is an avid reader; he is apparently oblivious to the arrogance he displays toward those who disagree with him; his misreading of the American public over the last year is breathtaking; his eloquence dips precipitously when making extemporaneous remarks; and he has placed his trust (recently and in the past) in characters of dubious integrity.
Well, I’m sure he is smart, maybe even very smart. But the point is: whether he is or not is not terribly important. History has shown conclusively that the raw intelligence of our Presidents correlates not at all with their success. It is often asserted that Woodrow Wilson was the smartest President of the 20th century. Now it has taken history a while to catch up with his reputation; in fact, we know today that Wilson’s ideas and ‘achievements’ helped to ensure the onset of WWII and the modern welfare state. Spare me more brilliant chief executives like him. Others who have been anointed as highly intelligent include Kennedy, Nixon and Stevenson. Kennedy was an insignificant President, Nixon was a disaster and Stevenson’s wit and intelligence were insufficient to get him elected. No one ever claimed that FDR, LBJ or Reagan were paragons of intellect. Yet they were the most transformative Presidents of the century.
Continuing in this vein, Adams was smarter than Washington and maybe than Jefferson too; but he was a far less effective President than either. Madison was brilliant, but his Presidency was much less successful than that of his successor, who did not have a reputation for brilliance. Lincoln was bright and effective. Andrew Johnson was a dolt and a calamity. Truman was no scholar, but his reputation is holding up. Hoover was clever, but an unmitigated horror.