Lately, I have read two articles on, bluntly, President Obama’s mental abilities. Written by conservative commentators – Peggy Noonan and Bret Stephens, both writing in the Wall Street Journal – they not surprisingly take a pretty dim view of the subject. (Both of the stories are behind the WSJ subscription wall, but if you fiddle with Google, you should be able to get access to them.)
Noonan starts with a back-handed compliment, noting that he is “so famously bright – academically credentialed, facile with words, quick with concepts … the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.” But her ultimate verdict is damning: “His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.” As proof of this, she cites some of the missteps noted in this blog, such as his “red line” comment about Syria and his fiddling with Obamacare while the economy was burning. She then adds a litany of other examples, including his mishandling of Congress, the IRS scandal, and some recent clunkers in the one area where he previously excelled: his ability to communicate.
Stephens is even less impressed. Whereas Noonan thinks that Obama has a strong grasp of details – too strong, in fact – but lacks the big picture, Stephens doesn’t even give him credit for this: “Every president gets things wrong…Where he stands apart is in his combination of ideological rigidity and fathomless ignorance. What does the president know? The simple answer, and maybe the truest, is: not a lot.” Stephens backs this up with some recent statements from Obama like “good news keeps on coming” in the world, including in places like Asia (ignoring a floundering Japan, the bursting of the Chinese real estate bubble, the overthrow of democracy in Thailand, the continued mayhem in Pakistan, etc.) and Latin America (where Brazil’s economy is teetering on the edge, Argentina has just defaulted again, Venezuela’s repression grows as the economy shrinks, etc.). He then goes on to note Obama’s embrace of Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan long after his authoritarianism was clear – Turkey has more journalists in prison than China and Iran combined – and his dismissal of ISIS as the “jayvee team” just before it brushed aside the American-trained and -equipped, but thoroughly disinterested, military forces of Iraq.
I have long wondered about Obama’s fundamental abilities, going back to an article I read in Bloomberg a long time ago that contained comments from his inner circle that were positively nauseating in their flattery. Valerie Jarrett, for example, expressed the concern that perhaps Obama would find the duties of the presidency to be insufficiently challenging for his supreme intelligence. Toadyism, or maybe just her way of forewarning us of his impending withdrawal into the greater challenges of tight lies, sand bunkers and multi-breaking putts? We will never know.
There is one thing that has always struck me about Obama which relates directly to this question. Intelligence obviously takes many forms. I once worked with a Russian woman who had been a world-ranked chess player; she was smart, for sure, but not in the overwhelming way you would have expected. Likewise, I have worked with people who are fluent in six or seven languages, but who manage to say utter nonsense in each of them. There are clearly different forms of intelligence, but there is one trait that is, or at least should be, common to all of them: the ability to question accepted “truths”. And this is the area where Obama comes up very short.
As far as I can tell, every opinion and instinct that Obama has is exactly what I would have expected someone with his background and education to hold. His views on economics, government, society and politics come directly from the syllabi and intellectual milieu of Columbia and Harvard, supplemented by Beltway conventional wisdom. He has done a great job of absorbing the accepted truths of his world, and he is superb at regurgitating them from a teleprompter, but I don’t get the impression that he has wasted one second of his life questioning them. Obama has almost never surprised and on the rare occasions when he has, his handlers have rapidly brought him back into line.
One of my proudest moments in college happened in a senior-year debate class. I attended an Eastern liberal arts college where the faculty and student body vied with each other in their left-wing sentiments and political correctness. As I was leaving this class one day, a group of students were clustered around the left-leaning professor congratulating themselves on their rebelliousness. To her credit, the professor stopped them and pointing to me as I exited the room, she said: “All of you are not radicals. He’s the radical.”
The amazing thing about Obama and his coterie is that, like so many left-leaning people, they have no idea how unquestioningly and smugly conventional they are. And that is never a sign of real intelligence.
Roger Barris, London