I’ve often been struck by how frequently commentators suggest that President Obama is one of the smartest or most intelligent presidents in history, with little or nothing to back up these claims. Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss famously said that “[Obama] is a guy whose IQ is off the charts.” But when pressed, Beschloss wasn’t able to tell us what his IQ was. Meghan Daum wrote a fawning piece in the LA Times in 2012 entitled “Too brainy to be president” where she referred to him as “someone who was unapologetically intellectual” and she added that he’s so smart “the White House is holding [him] back”.
It seems to me that, if people are going to make claims of this sort, we should be presented with objective evidence or be able to judge it based on the president’s performance or actions relative to others. I know or have worked with plenty of people who are objectively or demonstrably more intelligent than their peers and while Obama might be smart, he doesn’t strike me as being one of the smartest presidents in history.
My father, Roger Kerr, happens to have been both objectively and demonstrably one of the brightest men in New Zealand. On a purely objective basis, he came first in the country in our national high school exams and went on to outperform his university peers. Unlike many past presidents and presidential candidates, such as George W. Bush, John Kerry and Al Gore, President Obama hasn’t shared his college records so there’s no way for us to objectively compare his intelligence to others. One suspects his grades might not be flattering.
While the president was a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago and regarded as a professor, the university has been careful to clarify that he was not what most of us think of as a professor. He was never a full-time professor nor tenure-track. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from one of his peers that he was not one of the smartest lecturers and would have been unlikely to ever get tenure. This seems to be supported by Doug Ross who wrote:
“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back…According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”
On a demonstrative basis, my father rose to the top of his profession, was recognized nationally and internationally for his work, and was confident enough in his intelligence that he was always willing to match wits with others in policy debates. As Bryce Wilkinson said in delivering my father’s eulogy:
“He had great courage in entering the lion’s den time after time to stand up for unpalatable policies in front of audiences that he knew would be overwhelmingly hostile.
On one occasion he debated minimum wage rates with Cardinal Williams. It was in front of a 100 percent hostile audience… This was an occasion when the Christians were the lions.”
While Obama may have ascended to the presidency, I’ve seen little evidence that he’s demonstrably smarter than his predecessors. Last week in discussing the beheading of Steven Sotloff and the march of ISIS, Brit Hume made the following comment in an interview with Megyn Kelly:
“I think he is a man who turns out for all his apparent intelligence to be a slow learner on a number of things and extraordinarily not adaptable.”
Hume has made similar points before, as has Fred Barnes and others.
In August Brett Stephens, never an apologist for the Bush administration, wrote about the threat of ISIS in the context of the questions confronting the White House the day after September 11, 2001:
“Are we going to fight terrorists over there—or are we going to wait for them to come here? Do we choose to confront terrorism by means of war—or as a criminal justice issue? Can we assume the cancer in the Middle East won’t spread so we can “pivot” to Asia and do some more “nation-building at home”? Can we win with a light-footprint approach against a heavy-footprint enemy?
Say what you will about George W. Bush: He got every one of these questions right while Mr. Obama got every one of them wrong.”
When Obama has engaged in battles of wits, the results haven’t been stunning. He was soundly defeated in his first debate against Mitt Romney, which the president later acknowledged, and there was not much difference between the two candidates in the second and third debates.
Rather than match wits, Obama prefers to attack others when they can’t respond, which is hardly a sign of someone secure in their intelligence. Columnist George Will made this point in a review of Paul Ryan’s new book. In it he described the time Ryan was invited to the White House to listen to attend a speech. In it, the president proceeded to roundly attack his ideas on entitlement reforms. Will also mentioned Obama’s 2010 State of the Union Address attended by members of the Supreme Court who he then famously chastised for a recent decision. As Will went on to say:
“Obama’s behavior bespoke the insecurity of someone who, surrounded by sycophants, shuns disputations with people who can reply. Ryan, however, has replied with a book that demonstrates Obama’s wisdom in not arguing with a man who has a better mind and better manners.”
Obama is no presidential genius. Which is a shame, because right now we need a really great president.