Times op-ed writer: Obama not smart

After covering himself with the obligatory ode to Obama’s mental gifts (“in this one poised man, erudition and eloquence join hands”), Frank Bruni of the New York Times states in so many words that Obama is not smart. And he says it repeatedly. At the same time, Bruni argues that the question of politicians’ intelligence is too vague to be useful, and that what matters is “whether we share and respect their values and whether they have shown themselves to be effective.” Yet there, too, says Bruni, Obama fails. And in the last sentence of the column, he puts Obama in the same class as the famously “dumb” Rick Perry.

Along with the economic capital that Obama has destroyed through his policies, he has destroyed his own political capital. His own media base no longer touts him, no longer even supports him. Where are the snow jobs of yesteryear?

September 3, 2011
Pass, Fail and Politics

It’s a foolish question, asking how smart a politician is.

It’s too vague. It ignores all the different wrinkles of intelligence and ways to measure it, along with the debatable link between brain power as it’s typically defined and skilled governance in terms of actual results. It’s a vessel for prejudices, a stand-in for grievances.

And yet it comes back around almost every election cycle, as it’s doing now.

Meet Rick Perry. At Texas A&M University, his grades were so poor he was on academic probation. He flunked advanced organic chemistry, which, in his defense, sounds eminently flunkable. He got a C in animal breeding, which doesn’t. For a “principles of economics” course, he attained a glittering D, as The Huffington Post detailed. You won’t be hearing him mention that much amid all his talk about Texas jobs creation.

His academic background, coupled with his rejection of climate change and fondness for gauzy generalities, prompted a story in Politico last week with this subtle headline: “Is Rick Perry Dumb?”

Based on grades alone, it seems so. But by that yardstick, even a politician as outwardly cerebral as Al Gore has some explaining to do. Gore got his very own college D—in a course about man’s place in nature, no less. Granted, this was at Harvard. But still.

Perry can’t dazzle in policy discussions. That’s also clear. The farther he ventures from Texas, the smaller he shrinks. When the radio talk show host Laura Ingraham recently tried to get him to say something specific—anything specific—about how America should deal with China, he clung so tightly to banalities that she was forced twice to plead: “What does that mean?”

But he’s savvy enough to have assembled a political team and adopted a political strategy that have him leading the (flawed) Republican field in a raft of recent polls. There’s something to that. Something more than excellent hair.

I’m less troubled by how thickheaded Perry may be than by how wrongheaded we already know he is on issues like evolution, which he says is just a theory, and homosexuality, which he has likened to alcoholism.

President Obama has those issues right. And can talk authoritatively about them and most others. A former editor of the Harvard Law Review, he has that kind of mind, that kind of fluency. In this one poised man, erudition and eloquence join hands.

But they don’t save him. Last week, he set himself up once again to look like the nation’s deferrer in chief by proposing a date for his jobs speech that had the possibility of provoking Republican opposition and did precisely that, at which point he retreated. Is this the Mother-May-I presidency? With John Boehner in the role of paddle-wielding matriarch?

That many Republicans will viciously seize any opportunity to defy and undercut Obama is a lesson he should have learned by now. Regardless of who was being unreasonable, it was he who actually ended up sending an e-mail to supporters with the one-word subject line “frustrated.” The president of the United States is supposed to salve our frustrations, not meekly bemoan his own.

Shouldn’t he or someone in his inner circle have foreseen the potential for events unfolding in such a humiliating fashion and made sure to avoid it? Apparently no one did, and that suggests a deficit of smarts by almost any definition of that ludicrously imprecise term. [LA replies: note that Bruni does not echo the White House claim that Boehner gave informal approval to the September 7 date before reversing himself; he simply says that Obama requested a date that he should have known the Republicans would have a problem with. Meaning that the joint session imbroglio was entirely Obama’s fault, not a “food fight” as the Times called it in an editorial.]

Worse yet, this was only the latest in a long series of questionable calculations. Was it smart/prudent/pick-your-adjective to lavish all that precious post-election political capital on health care reform rather than economic revitalization and jobs creation, especially if it winds up being the first in a chain of dominoes that leads to defeat in 2012 and the repeal of that precise legislation?

Was it smart/prudent/pick-your-adjective not to head off a debt-ceiling showdown by settling the matter during last year’s lame-duck session of Congress, before Republicans took the reins in the House? And, during the showdown, didn’t Obama and his advisers misjudge both the zeal of some House Republicans and the magnitude of his own powers of persuasion?

Time and again, Obama hasn’t been a prescient or brutal enough tactician and hasn’t adjusted his high-minded ways to the low-minded sport of Congressional politics. That’s a failure of some kind, and intelligence may be one word for it.

“Is Obama Smart?” the Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens asked in early August. That was the headline, and it’s at least as good a question, in terms of the president’s political efficacy of late, as the one Politico posed about Perry.

THAT Perry’s headline contained the harsher adjective—“dumb”—is typical, say many Republicans, who complain that journalists tend to equate the anti-intellectualism and populist affects of many of their party’s candidates with outright stupidity. They cite Ronald Reagan as an example of someone first dismissed as a dunce and understood only later to be wise in some basic, consequential ways.

And they say that Democrats get a greater pass on gaffes than Republicans do. There’s merit to the argument. The recent verbal hiccup with which Joe Biden seemed to endorse China’s one-child policy lengthened a formidable list of Bidenisms, including his statement in 2007 that Obama, as a presidential contender, was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.” But Biden’s intelligence is seldom questioned, not the way it would be if he had a Tea Party affiliation and Southern drawl.

Then there’s the whole matter of whether we’re well served by a brainy president. In an excellent piece in Slate in 1999, Jacob Weisberg explored a growing body of thought that a president’s supposed brilliance (or lack thereof) has no bearing on success in office. By this theory, relatively ordinary smarts yielded extraordinary accomplishment (Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman) while extreme intelligence led to defeat (Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover).

Weisberg rightly noted the huge flaws with this analysis, including the small sample size and the subjectivity involved in judging achievement. Here’s another: what makes Carter more brilliant than Roosevelt—or, for that matter, Reagan?

That assessment reflects a narrow, traditional understanding of smarts as a sort of academic aptitude, a facility with facts and language. But a whole genre of best-selling books over the last decade and a half insist—correctly, I think—that there are various ways to be clever: “Emotional Intelligence,” “The Wisdom of Crowds,” a knack for gut responses formed in the span of a “Blink.” None require exemplary SAT scores.

Instead of talking about how smart politicians are or aren’t, we should have an infinitely more useful, meaningful conversation about whether we share and respect their values and whether they have shown themselves to be effective. Someone who rates high on both counts is someone to rally unreservedly around.

Right now, neither Perry nor Obama fits that double bill.

- end of initial entry -

Tim W. writes:

After sneering at Rick Perry’s “backward” positions on evolution and homosexuality, Frank Bruni wrote:

“President Obama has those issues right. And can talk authoritatively about them and most others. A former editor of the Harvard Law Review, he has that kind of mind, that kind of fluency. In this one poised man, erudition and eloquence join hands.”

So when, pray tell, has Obama ever discussed those issues with authority, poise, erudition, and eloquence? Has Obama ever once discussed the theory of evolution and given sound reasons for believing it from a scientific basis? Of course not. As a liberal, he’s never challenged on this issue. Only conservatives are challenged on evolution. In the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell was mocked for weeks over her questioning of evolutionary theory. Granted, she wasn’t a good candidate with a sound grasp of the issues. But her opponent Chris Coons was never once asked his position on evolution. It was enough for the media that he didn’t hold O’Donnell’s position. No reporter ever asked Coons a question like this: “Mr. Coons, do you believe we humans are here because of purely naturalistic processes, or did God have something to do with it?” He would have fainted if asked a question like that. As it was, all he had to do was smirk at O’Donnell’s un-PC stance and walk away unscathed.

Has Obama ever spoken on homosexuality? I mean on homosexuality itself. Has he spoken on this matter with eloquence and authority? Of course not. All he’s ever done is avoid the issue except when in front of friendly audiences. There he repeats banalities. “You shouldn’t be excluded from serving in the military because of who you love.” Or he claims that his attitude toward same-sex “marriage” is evolving, though from what and to what he never explains. Nor why it is evolving.

Only conservatives are truly challenged in our present political atmosphere. If they take a firm position on the right, they’re immediately attacked for it. All the liberal opposition has to do is not take the same position to be considered moderate, sensible, and even eloquent and authoritative. They don’t have to explain their own position. They’re never asked.

LA replies:

Tim makes an excellent point and I don’t know that it’s ever been made before.

Returning to Bruni’s view of Obama, his position, and perhaps what is emerging as the standard position of the left, is that Obama is intellectually gifted, that he can with erudition and eloquence explain difficult issues like evolution and homosexuality which conservative apes like Rick Perry are unable to discuss intelligently, but that what Obama lacks is practical smarts.

However, since, as we know, Obama lacks the intellectual intelligence that Bruni attributes to him, the bottom line is that Obama lacks both intellectual smarts and practical smarts.

James P. writes:

Bruni is not saying that Obama is not smart. Bruni is saying there are different kinds of “smarts” and that Obama has one kind but not another. In his view, Obama is “book smart” and thus can speak with erudition and authority about evolution and homosexuality (though personally I am unaware of anything erudite and authoritative Obama has said about these things). However, he says Obama lacks “political smarts”—i.e., the ability to be effective and get things done. You can see at the end that he’s setting up Obama as an example of a President whose “extreme intelligence led to defeat,” like Jimmy Carter. If Obama is defeated in 2012, we can expect the NYT to argue not that he was stupid but that he was too smart to be President.

LA replies:

Fascinating last point. If, as many on the right now believe (though I personally am not persuaded of this), Obama’s presidency is an irretrievable failure and he’s heading for a certain humiliating defeat next year, his defeat will be played by the left, not as proof that the Brilliant Black Man was in reality sub par, but that he was too brilliant for this country of conservative apes!

James R. writes:

You wrote: “His own media base no longer touts him, no longer even supports him.”

This is a cyclical feature of politics on the left. These guys will ream him into the first half of next year (aproximately), then resume singing his praises around July/August, and castigating his opponents, and implying that a country unable to appreciate His Greatness is perhaps too stupid and evil to deserve him (“we must redouble our efforts!”).

The discontent with him is sincere—as will be the resumed praise and cheerleading, when the time comes. But it’s also adaptive: this way they can claim they’re not in the tank during the general election campaign, “because we criticized him severely, see? Look at our past articles / columns / whatnot.” This is one way they maintain their pretense of even-handed impartiality (yes, even the blatantly liberal columnists think of themselves as models of disinterested commentary).

But it happens every election cycle. It happened with Clinton, too, remember? About this time in his first year, the left was muttering its discontents, then he became their gawd again. It’s like deja vu all over again, so I make about as much of this kind of thing as you (properly) do of polling at this point in the election process. It’s completely meaningless.

Paul K. writes:

Excellent comment by Tim W., saying exactly what I would like to have said in response to Bruni’s column.

In the sentence previous to the one Tim quotes, Bruni, to illustrate Perry’s supposed stupidity, writes: “I’m less troubled by how thickheaded Perry may be than by how wrongheaded we already know he is on issues like evolution, which he says is just a theory, and homosexuality, which he has likened to alcoholism.”

Perry says evolution is “just a theory.” What should he have said, Mr. Bruni? Evolution IS just a theory.

As far as homosexuality being like alcoholism, I hadn’t thought much about it but there are parallels. I see both as predilections which one can choose to indulge or choose not to indulge, and the choice to indulge may destroy one’s life. I don’t consider this a stupid comment.

That said, I don’t think Rick Perry is intellectually up to the job of the president, just as George W. Bush was not and Sarah Palin would not be. Whether Obama is smarter than any of them is not important because his strongest beliefs are wrong, and thus his best efforts are doomed to failure. For that reason, I couldn’t care less if or when he delivers his upcoming jobs speech as I know it will contain nothing but clichés and claptrap.

Jim C. writes:

Here’s a typical NY Times reader’s comment on Bruni’s article:

For somebody with a supposedly high IQ, Obama just doesn’t seem all that smart. He tends to speak in slogans, with some of his favorite words and phrases being “the government is just like a family”, “the temporary economic headwinds” “win the future”, “car in a ditch” “share the sacrifice” and “tighten our belts”.

LA replies:

That is a very telling comment about Obama. However, we don’t know that the commenter is a typical New York Times reader, or even if he is a liberal.

Jim C. replies:

You’re a good goalie—LOL—of course this is not a typical Times reader, because Times readers like to lie about blacks.

James N. writes:

Very interesting comments on the Bruni column, as usual.

It has attracted my notice for many years how liberals (including conservative ones) use “smart” as an all-purpose term of approbation. Of course, if one is “smart,” it is likely that one will have an easier passage through this vale of tears (likely, not certain—cf Lord of the Flies).

But, as a lifetime Boy Scout, I’m obliged to point out that smart is not Trustworthy, nor is it Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, or Reverent.

In other words, smart is overrated.

But because “smart” equals good or excellent in liberalspeak, its antonym, “stupid,” becomes an all-purpose term of disapprobation. International recordholding smarties like Hitler and Pol Pot, Abimael Guzman and all the rest of the genocidal crew must become “stupid.”

And of course, all Republicans and conservatives—stupid, every last one.

LA writes:

I should have said that if Obama loses, “his defeat will be played by the left, not as proof that the Brilliant Black Man was in reality sub par, but that he was too brilliant, and too good, for this country of conservative apes!”

I make that revision in light of this reader’s comment following Maureen Dowd’s column in today’s Times:


I think that the President is burned out. He thought he’d find a Washington that was willing to find solutions to the problems besetting the nation. Those problems were so urgent, he believed, that at least some Republicans would be willing to work with him on finding solutions, He achieved real accomplishments in his first two years of office, saving the US from another Great Depression, passing a health care bill, enacting consumer protection legislation and Wall Street regulation. He thought that people would take notice. Recently, he found and killed Bin Laden, just as he’d promised that he would when he ran for President. Yet nothing has prevented the economic downslide or impressed the public. Moreover, as his influence has waned, so has his power, until now, the Republicans are walking all over him. What happened?

What happened is that the President, a reasonable, decent man, had never before encountered evil, and did not know what to do when he did. The Republicans are bent on his destruction. Period. If that destruction causes another recession so be it—they don’t care. The elite Republicans support demagogues like Rick Perry, because they know that ignorant, angry people will vote for such demagogues and that fear of intelligence has been a hallmark of the American working class for two hundred years. The elites also get that Perry and others are appealing to subliminal racism. They don’t care, because getting poor fools to vote against their economic interest has become the Republicans political forte.

Where does that leave Obama? I think that he is lost, overwhelmed by the sheer evil and stupidity that he has encountered. Contrast Clinton, who was shrewd and cynically nature; LBJ, who was absolutely ruthless; and FDR, a traitor to his class who loved a good fight with the dark side. The lesson he needs to learn: some guys are bad guys. As in “enemies”. Only then will he figure out how to fight back.

So there you have it. If Obama ends up as a one-termer, some liberals will take this, not as evidence that they vastly overrated the talents of a presentable black man who played on their delusional utopian hopes, but as proof that America is even more evil and racist than they had thought.

Paul Nachman writes:

Bon mots by Dowd and by you.


“How will he up the ante next time? A speech from the space station?”


“Where are the snow jobs of yesteryear?”

LA replies:

Thanks. I thought I was being original with that. Then I Googled it and found that others had already used it. But it’s still funny.

For those who don’t know what this is about, there is a famous line of French poetry, “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (I don’t remember the poet), and it’s the kind of line that is a natural subject for wordplay and parody.

Richard O. writes:

KT in NYC has it that “Perry and others are appealing to subliminal racism” and that the elites get this.

KT is on to conservatives who are too canny these days to resort to overt racism. Instead we search for ways to appeal to white subliminal racism. Which is ubiquitous, possibly even in black people.

Liberals think this is done by the use of code words and dog whistles. “Section 8 housing” is code for “crime-ridden black housing area” and “underprivileged” signifies “someone who lives in a crime-ridden black housing area.” Also, mentioning astronomical black crime rates is code for astronomical black crime rates. Questioning affirmative action is a dog whistle for an immediate relegalization of slavery. We are wily.

KT unwittingly reveals he’s like something you find when you turn over a rock. This liberal knows demagogues when he sees one, and just out and says that “fear of intelligence has been a hallmark of the American working class for two hundred years.” That would be code for “the white working class.”

KT should get out more. If he did, he’d find that working class Americans wouldn’t necessarily see a special intelligence in KT, and that they don’t so much fear intelligence as disdain manifestations of it that stink with such malevolence. Such as his.

Working hypothesis: readers and employees of the NYT think they are vastly superior to ordinary mortals to whom the pronunciation of “Delibes” or the outcome of the Council of Trent are not matters of greater concern than knowing how to get a front wheel hub off of a 2004 Chevy Silverado 1500LS pickup.

LA replies:

A quibble is that I don’t think many Times readers/ writers would care about the Council of Trent. That’s a subject that conservatives would more likely be interested in.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 04, 2011 08:06 AM | Send

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