Intelligence and Presidents

There’s a rather odd op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning. Bret Stephens doesn’t think that President Obama is particularly smart:

When it comes to piloting, Barack Obama seems to think he’s the political equivalent of Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager and—in a “Fly Me to the Moon” sort of way—Nat King Cole rolled into one. “I think I’m a better speech writer than my speech writers,” he reportedly told an aide in 2008. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m . . . a better political director than my political director.”

On another occasion—at the 2004 Democratic convention—Mr. Obama explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter that “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play at this level. I got game.”

Of course, it’s tempting to be immodest when your admirers are so immodest about you. How many times have we heard it said that Mr. Obama is the smartest president ever? Even when he’s criticized, his failures are usually chalked up to his supposed brilliance. Liberals say he’s too cerebral for the Beltway rough-and-tumble; conservatives often seem to think his blunders, foreign and domestic, are all part of a cunning scheme to turn the U.S. into a combination of Finland, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

I don’t buy it. I just think the president isn’t very bright.

There are some whose intelligence I respect who see President Obama as a mastermind, a person of surpassing intelligence. I don’t see it quite that way but I don’t really know. My intuition suggests to me that, like most presidents including his predecessor, he’s a reasonably bright person of the “professional class”, significantly smarter than the average person but by no means brilliant.

It’s just an intuition. Whether or not being extremely intelligent is a requirement to be president being a relentless self-promoter certainly is, at least it has been for the last century or so (“the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, the baby at every baptism”). If there were actual evidence of extraordinary intelligence on the part of the president I suspect that we’d hear about it. Over and over again. If not from the president at least from his admiring supporters. Indeed, rather like Bill Clinton, I interpret the relative silence about things like SAT scores and GPAs as more likely to cast doubt on the notion of brilliance than enhancing it.

I would consider his reported intolerance of dissenting ideas (Lawrence Sumner) another signal.

Most of all I don’t think great intelligence is particularly necessary or even desireable in a president. We have had very effective presidents who weren’t astonishingly intelligent and certainly weren’t particularly intellectual, e.g. Eisenhower, and terrible presidents who possessed extraordinary intelligence, e.g. Nixon, Wilson.

I suspect that President Obama is at least reasonably intelligent. What concerns me much more than his intellect is what I perceive as his great predisposition to rely on his advisor. Too much reliance on his economic advisors on the economy, too much reliance on his military advisors on Iraq and Afghanistan.

27 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    If I were pulling a number out of the air I’d say 130-135 IQ — enough to hold down any job short of working at CERN or Lawrence Livermore (or writing this blog.)

    I base this largely on verbal processing speed, not speeches but Q and A. Word choice, word avoidance or substitution, calibration, organization. You never see confusion in these situations. Also his ability to learn skills at an advanced age — Obama was not a particularly moving speaker when he started out the 2008 campaign but he got very much better very fast. Those aren’t the best ways to guess at intelligence but they’re all I’ve got.

    I don’t think his failures are lack of IQ, rather a product of personality. He’s moderate by temperament, reasonable, and evidently incapable of just bringing the crazy. He won’t draw lines in the sand and he won’t risk asking for what he can’t get. I’ll avoid my usual more Asian analogies and go with a Civil War one: he’s McClellan not Grant. Lots of prep, lots of maneuver, very competent, but when it comes time to drop the hammer all he has is more maneuver. Grant won because for Grant every day was attack day.

  • If I were pulling a number out of the air I’d say 130-135 IQ

    That would be my guess,too. A respectable intelligence. And, as I said above, I don’t think intelligence is particularly important in a president.

    Temperament might be a factor behind his failures (he’s accomplished an enormous amount of what he set out to do). Again, as I said above, I think he’s too prepared to take advice from suits with certificates hanging on their walls.

  • PD Shaw

    On my kids’ report card, I would give him an overall grade of three (shows mastery of material), but does not exhibit advanced proficiency in any given area, which would give him a four.

    The problem of course being the thinness of the resume. We think we know Wilson was intelligent because his body of writing. Obama apparently does not like to write, with the exception of the autobiography. The case summary published in the Harvard Law Review was a three, it merely summarized the holding of a case, and didn’t attempt to use the form creatively.

    His best speech (IMHO) was the “A More Perfect Union” speech, which again showed mastery of the subject of race and the threads of American exceptionalism, but ultimately will be remembered for little more than a few soundbites and disassociating himself with Rev. Wright.

    I too don’t think superior intelligence is a requisite for President, I just don’t see the evidence that he possesses it. (And what does it suggest if he doesn’t value the insights of the policy directors he selected? How about select someone else?)

  • PD Shaw

    ” he’s McClellan not Grant”

    Yikes. I wouldn’t be that mean to him.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    Hey, McClellan built the army more or less from scratch. Didn’t know what to do with it once he had it, but he built it.

  • PD Shaw

    At least in the context of this discussion the problem is that McClellan always thought he was the smartest guy in the room; he was wrong and largely judged a failure by history because of it. I don’t think Obama has that level of conceit.

  • Drew

    I think I more or less agree with the thrust of the thread. And trying to park Obama’s IQ at this or that is just quibbling.

    The real issue for me, as frequent commenters might suspect, is his leadership and executive acumen, which approaches zero in my humble opinion.

    Real leaders do not invoke their predecessors legacy more than once or twice, and only with a limited time frame. They certainly don’t whine 3 years down the road. Real executives take charge and make proposals; they take command of issues and situations. They do not let the subordinant cat fight get near its end and then ride in on a chariot and claim victory. Corporate gamesmen do, not real executives. Real executives are proactive.

    I know it offends the sensibilities of certain commenters to criticize Obama. But I would just note – its fine if you have liberal points of view. Its fine if you don’t see the world the way I do. But attaching your wagon to Obama is bizarre. He’s an incompetant executive, unworthy of your support. If you really believe in your liberal views, that’s fine. But why the reflexive need to defend Obama in the same context flummoxes me. He’s out of his league. And predictably so.

  • sam

    “and—in a “Fly Me to the Moon” sort of way—Nat King Cole rolled into one.”

    That was jarring. Almost stopped reading at that point. Nat did record the song (so did a lot of others), but anyone alive in that era knows that Frank owned that song.

  • PD Shaw

    “Word choice, word avoidance or substitution, calibration, organization” strike me as skills possessed by an above-average attorney. I personally don’t think of attorneys as being one of the more intelligent professions.

    A saying about law school comes to mind: the students that get As become professors, Bs become Judges, and Cs make all of the money. The point being made is that the abstract theoretical points of law are really only useful in law school, and the ability to express both sides of the issue will only become useful to judges. Most lawyers, once they’ve chosen a career path, need only understand what works for their client. Obama strikes me as a a B law student; Clinton B+ or A-, and Edwards a C.

  • PD Shaw

    sam, I just realized that I’ve had that song in my head the past hour and it was Frank’s voice.

  • sam

    QED 🙂

  • michael reynolds

    Drew:

    The real issue for me, as frequent commenters might suspect, is his leadership and executive acumen, which approaches zero in my humble opinion.

    It’s absurd on its face to ascribe a leadership rating of “zero” to anyone who has managed to reach the presidency. The fact of that accomplishment alone moves anyone — even the ones I don’t like — to about a 7 out of 10. It’s that kind of wild overstatement that makes one suspect you’re not doing analysis in any real sense.

    Real leaders do not invoke their predecessors legacy more than once or twice, and only with a limited time frame. They certainly don’t whine 3 years down the road.

    Again, nonsense. FDR “whined” about Hoover for a dozen years. George W. Bush “whined” about Bill Clinton. Reagan “whined” about Carter. (The entire GOP political establishment still “whines” about Carter, as the entire Democratic establishment still “whines” about Reagan.) So, again, this isn’t analysis. It’s an assertion of your own preconceptions, indifferent to reality.

    Real executives take charge and make proposals; they take command of issues and situations. They do not let the subordinant cat fight get near its end and then ride in on a chariot and claim victory. Corporate gamesmen do, not real executives. Real executives are proactive.

    As I recall a number of presidents in modern times have made proposals about health care reform and crashed and burned. Obama succeeded. I really don’t think leadership is about posturing and demanding and snapping out orders like some Hollywood screenplay version of a board room. It’s about attaining your objective. What were Obama’s stated objectives? Avoid a financial system collapse, pass health care reform, continue to pull out of Iraq and double down on Osama and Afghanistan. So that would be done, done, done and done. His stimulus attempt: failure. His negotiations on the debt ceiling? Failure. Describing that as a “zero” is, to put it mildly, inaccurate.

    It sounds as if Mr. Bush the younger would be exactly your model of the executive type. He made quite a leaderish play for reforming Social Security. How did that work out? Come to think of it, how did his entire term work out?

    You’re letting your own ideological — and perhaps professional –prejudices cloud your judgment. More to the point, I don’t know that you’re capable of objectivity, certainly not where Obama is concerned.

    Let’s recall that you were describing him as weak and indecisive in the very week he was dropping the hammer on Bin Laden.

    So, Drew, we’re not discussing “zero.” We’re probably realistically debating in the 6-9 range on the leadership scale, (apparently we now have a leadership scale) and as for the matter of intelligence we’re talking a low end probably of 130, which would make Obama smarter than 97.7% of the population.

  • Icepick

    Nat did record the song (so did a lot of others), but anyone alive in that era knows that Frank owned that song.

    I had the same problem with that.

    An interesting discussion about one candidate’s likely intelligence broke out over at one of Razib Khan’s sites.

    As for Obama, I would characterize him as at best a “High V, Low Q” type. And given various verbal gaffes through the years, I’m not even sold on the “High V” part of it. He’s claimed to do things he hasn’t done (a speech in Israel when he claimed to be on certain Senate committees he was not on), he’s read the wrong speeches off teleprompters without realizing it (early on in his Presidency he read off quite a bit of the Canadian PM’s remarks in the Rose Garden without realizing they weren’t his comments), he didn’t know when to shut the hell up while toasting the Queen of England, etc., etc. Someone cited the “More Perfect Union” speech above – that was hardly a shining moment either in general or in particulars. Perhaps it was his inner “typical White person” that fucked it up so badly, but it sure as Hell wasn’t Lincoln at Gettysburg, Kennedy’s Inaugural address, or Reagan at the Berlin Wall. I just can’t imagine Bill Clinton making those kinds of gaffes, much less doinig so repeatedly.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave and Drew:

    That being said, I wonder if I might go off-topic and sneak in a business question.

    I have a company I do business with. In my most recent deal they acquired rights to some intellectual property of mine and the money that flowed in went through them to me. (I still make most of the money, and since this was a highly speculative deal and I was extremely overbooked (Heh) I was content to have it that way.

    But I’ve found I can’t take as much of a backseat as I would have liked because in general I think my judgment superior to theirs.

    So, going into the next deal, a new property, I intend to maintain tighter control. I want to make them sub-contractors and have the money pass through me first. But on business matters and money-handling I’m an idiot. So I need a guy, someone to watch the money flow to this sub-contractor. I need a guy to say, 1) No, you haven’t justified that expenditure and 2) You need to clear this idea with Michael.

    So: is there such a guy? And what would he/she be called?

  • Sounds like a business agent to me. Not the same as a literary agent, theatrical agent, or registered agent.

    Most of them are accountants IIRC.

  • Drew

    “It’s absurd on its face to ascribe a leadership rating of “zero” to anyone who has managed to reach the presidency. The fact of that accomplishment alone moves anyone — even the ones I don’t like — to about a 7 out of 10. It’s that kind of wild overstatement that makes one suspect you’re not doing analysis in any real sense.”

    Oh, please, Michael. Hyperbole. But you are engaging in same. I know Obama’s history here in IL. I know how he went from nondescript state senator who was going to lose the election…..to national senator. A fortuitous husband-wife spat sex scandal; thn came Alan Keyes. And from there its been all media hype and slobbering – still is. “5” is a best case.

    “Again, nonsense. FDR “whined” about Hoover for a dozen years. George W. Bush “whined” about Bill Clinton. Reagan “whined” about Carter. (The entire GOP political establishment still “whines” about Carter, as the entire Democratic establishment still “whines” about Reagan.) So, again, this isn’t analysis.”

    Convenient, totally amorphous “analysis.”

    Don’t ascribe “the entire Republican establishment” to Reagan. or vice versa. We are talking about specific executives and their actions. Reagan was the consumate leader. He talked everything up. He didn’t whine about Carter in 1983. Can you imagine a manager of a baseball team three years in whining about the players his predecessor left him? Fired!! Obama needs to shut up about Bush. He needs to stop catigating businessmen. He needs to get at the task of bucking up the nation, not scapegoating. He’s all about Barack.

    “Let’s recall that you were describing him as weak and indecisive in the very week he was dropping the hammer on Bin Laden.”

    I do recall the media accounts of him practically in a SEAL suit. I wonder if he is similarly responsible for 38 deaths this week……..or if that’s “different.”

  • Laurie

    I clicked over to your blog from OTB and have found it interesting reading. I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to pigeonhole your political ideology. I did find this statement a strong indication that you are fairly conservative- “My intuition suggests to me that, like most presidents including his predecessor, he’s a reasonably bright person of the “professional class”, significantly smarter than the average person but by no means brilliant.”

    I like my presidents to be much more intelligent than myself, which in my estimation describes Obama. GWB, on the other hand not so much. I have always felt that he has a learning disability, which does not preclude him from average intelligence (which is my rating.)

    Of course as there are many kinds of intelligence (as evidenced by Sarah Palin)

  • David

    The problem is he’s not white enough.

  • michael reynolds

    Laurie:
    Schuler exists in a space outside of ideology. I would think of him as almost purely pragmatic. Swiss, you know.

  • Thanks for stopping by, Laurie. I’m a registered Democrat and would characterize myself as a pragmatist. I believe in fiscal prudence, am socially moderate, and non-interventionist in my foreign policy views. I voted for Obama in 2008. I don’t know what I’ll do in 2012.

    I didn’t vote for George W. Bush in 2000. However, his intelligence has been maligned. His SAT scores are public knowledge and SAT scores used to be a good proxy for IQ. Based on his SAT scores Bush’s IQ is around 129. Obama’s might be around there or a bit higher. Hard to say.

    I can disagree with people without thinking they’re stupid.

  • PD Shaw

    Dave wants to raise taxes and get out of wars, the Republican Party woudn’t have him.

  • PD Shaw

    I agree with one of Razib Kahn’s suggestions, Obama doesn’t want his grades released because he is a probable beneficiary of affirmative action. Simple matter of time and place.

  • Drew

    “But I’ve found I can’t take as much of a backseat as I would have liked because in general I think my judgment superior to theirs.”

    A thorny issue. And Dave hits it correctly as a general proposition: an agent. As a general notion, this falls under the heading of a “stockholders agreement” or some other governance document.

    I find this hard to believe:

    “But on business matters and money-handling I’m an idiot.”

    I often chide you on business acumen, but in the context of organizations making widgets etc. As far as your world: creative – really?

    The tension between the creator and the business side is as old as the earth. Baseball players have agents. The Stones have agents. And who is in control is the quintessential issue. They generally fight like cats and dogs. And, bootom line, what is on paper?

    In your neck of the woods there have to be umpteen agents. But be very careful; ask all questions; shisters abound. If you trust me (and you should) you should feel free to bounce anything off of me, as I’ve sort of seen everything under the sun, and have an inherently suspicious, street sense, mindset. I trust about 12 people on the face of the earth. But you really need to find a word of mouth recommended agent out in LA. Said another way. Who would you let your child stay with overnight , or out to dinner, or a weekend getaway? That’s you agent. But do all diligence……

  • Laurie

    I should have guessed from the your thoughtful commentary (here and OTB) that you’re a pragmatic democrat. That is sort of how I describe myself, though I believe I am to the left of you. I was sort of hoping to have found another blog with an intelligent conservative pt of view. As your comment threads are interesting as well (and not to long), I expect I will be back.

  • michael reynolds

    Drew:

    First off:

    Hyperbole. But you are engaging in same.

    How dare you accuse me of hyperbole! It’s vile calumny. It’s a despicable slander. Never in human history has so cruel and vicious an attack issued forth from the pen of man. You are worse than Hitler.

    Second,

    I’m fairly good at the creative, and that’s why I want more control. Plus the fact is that in this situation I’m the one element we cannot do without: we’re stuck with me and my judgment.

    But honestly, keeping books, paying bills, handling details like, oh, taxes let’s say, or controlling my expenditures? Yeah, not so good at that. For all of that day-to-day stuff I need to hire a grown-up.

    Dave has my email and I gather you have his. Perhaps he would offer his good offices to connect us?

  • Icepick

    I agree with one of Razib Kahn’s suggestions, Obama doesn’t want his grades released because he is a probable beneficiary of affirmative action. Simple matter of time and place.

    That’s most likely the case.

    I also agree with Razib that Rick Perry is too stupid to be President. Therefore my money is on Rick Perry to get sworn in come January 2013 as the new President of these here United States.

  • Drew

    “How dare you accuse me of hyperbole! It’s vile calumny. It’s a despicable slander. Never in human history has so cruel and vicious an attack issued forth from the pen of man. You are worse than Hitler.”

    So I’ve been told…..

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