How Smart Is Obama, Anyway? About As Smart As Gerald Ford!
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“But as he stood on the stage in Grant Park, a shudder went through Barack Obama. He would now have to command Washington, tame New York, and rescue the economy in the first real management job of his life.”

Ron Suskind  in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,

“Barack Obama came to Washington just six years ago, having spent his professional life as a part-time lawyer, part-time law professor, and part-time state legislator in Illinois. … But there was no mistaking the lightness of his résumé. Just a year before coming to Washington, State Senator Obama was investigating the dangers of a toy known as the Yo-Yo Water Ball. (He tried, unsuccessfully, to have it banned.)”

Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker,May 2, 2011

How did we wind up with another lightweight in the Oval Office?

Ron Suskind’s upcoming book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, is perhaps the first full-scale work of real investigatory journalism to subject the Obama Administration to non-fawning attention. It documents how:

“The Citibank incident [in which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner ignored a Presidential order], and others like it, reflected a more pernicious and personal dilemma emerging from inside the administration: that the young president’s authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers.”

One of those Washington insiders who pushed Obama around, his chief economic advisor Larry Summers, complained repeatedly to a rival Administration economist, Peter Orszag:

“’You know, Peter, we're really home alone.' Over the past few months, Summers had said this, in a stage whisper, to Orszag and others as they left the morning economic briefings in the Oval Office. ... 'I mean it,' Summers stressed. 'We're home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.’”

Of course, Larry Summers, like Timothy Geithner, was one of those insiders who helped get the country into the financial mess that it’s in. But how was Obama—a man of so little financial acumen that he didn’t start putting his own retirement savings into a tax-sheltered SEP account until 2007, the head of a family that had kept going deeper into debt despite a $200,000 income—supposed to out-argue the famous economist?

Suskind’s phrase “the young President” is literally true of Obama: Only four Presidents were younger when they entered the White House: Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ulysses S. Grant.

And “young” is also a euphemism for “inexperienced,” “untested,” and “callow.” Obama’s uneventful life and lackluster career provided him with far less executive experience than even Kennedy, much less General Grant.

Until recently, Obama has benefited from press coverage so masturbatory that the Main Stream Media was shocked last week to learn from Suskind’s book that Obama doesn’t take white feminists seriously:

“‘The president has a real woman problem’ was the assessment of another high-ranking female official. ‘The idea of the boys’ club being just Larry and Rahm [Emanuel] isn’t fair. He [Obama] was just as responsible himself.’ … ‘[L]ooking back,’ recalled Anita Dunn, when asked about it nearly two years later, ‘this place would be in court for a hostile workplace … Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.’”

[Book: Women in Obama White House felt excluded and ignored, By Nia-Malika Henderson and Peter Wallsten, Washington Post, September 16, 2011]

But why should this be news? Obama hired Larry Summers, who, as you’ll recall, is a bête noire of feminists for telling some unwelcome truths at a feminist kvetch conference. Telling truths of this sort is exactly the kind of thing that feminists would normally complain about. But as with most things interesting about Obama, the MSM just never brought up the issue.

Although Obama has made millions of dollars off his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, few have read it closely. (Except, of course, for me, researching my book America’s Half Blood Prince: Barack Obama’s “Story of Race and Inheritance”). One thing that stood out is Obama’s lack of interest in feminism. My recollection is that he devotes clauses in a couple of sentences in his 150,000-word book to boilerplate tributes to feminism, which isn’t much for a modern politician.

In general, Obama gives the impression that he viewed feminists as horning in on all the sympathy due the real victims: black men (such as, to pick a random example, Barack Obama).

Obama deeply resented his mother dumping him on his grandparents in Hawaii while she pursued her career, such as it was, in Indonesia writing her 1,067-page dissertation on peasant blacksmithing.

Intellectually, he could acknowledge that his grandmother, a pioneering female bank executive, worked a lot harder than his beloved Willy Lomanish grandfather. But his appreciation for her is distinctly limited.

In the notorious Throw Grandma Under the Bus anecdote recounted in both Dreams and in his celebrated 2008 race speech in which he compared his still-living grandmother to Rev. Wright, Obama treated his grandmother’s fear of violence from a male thug who accosted her at the bus stop as a racist insult.

His lazy but anti-racist grandfather explained why he refused to drive his evil wife to her high-paying job even this once:

"He turned around and I saw that he was shaking. 'It is a big deal. It's a big deal to me. She's been bothered by men before. You know why she's so scared this time. I'll tell you why. Before you came in, she told me the fella was black.' He whispered the word. 'That's the real reason why she's bothered. And I just don't think that right.'

 "The words were like a fist in my stomach, and I wobbled to regain my composure.”

Similarly, after Michelle Obama got off to a rocky start on the campaign trail, Obama started treating his Harvard Law graduate wife the way Ike treated Mamie: as a devoted homebody who could barely bear to be away from her children for minutes.

Of course, that should have raised the question: if Michelle's priorities are so home-centric, how did she “earn” $317,000 in 2005 from the University of Chicago Hospitals? Wasn’t Michelle’s giant raise and bonus therefore mostly just a payoff from private medical interest to a potential President?

The big question that hasn’t been much discussed: why the remarkable four-year rush that propelled a second-string state legislator into the White House. What was Obamamania all about?

Answer: It was all about race.

Race isn’t the only reason Obama edged out John McCain and Hillary Clinton. But it’s the main reason why an obscure state legislator wound up in the White House before enough people noticed he wasn’t all that bright.

To understand the mania of 2008, imagine some island tribe whose shamans have been telling them for years that all their troubles are due to the volcano gods being angry. The solution, obviously, is to throw a virgin into the volcano.

Obamamania was the mirror image. The witch doctors in the schools and the MSM had been telling us for decades that our troubles are caused by white racism. Then Obama comes along and volunteers to graciously exorcise the demons of racism for us by allowing himself to be cast into the White House.

The slightly demented party that Obama presided over in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night of his election was a lot like the orgy after the volcano virgin-tossing: everybody is fired up that they’ve finally done what the high priests had been telling them to do. All our troubles are over!

But then a couple of years go by, and it turns out that our troubles are only worse.

People start to argue. Some say we didn’t throw enough virgins into the volcano. Others whisper: “Where’s the proof that virgin was really a virgin?”

But nobody quite wants to believe yet that angry volcano gods don’t actually have much to do with our problems.

Although he’d be reluctant to admit it, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy’s new book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, documents the answer to what the frenzy of 2008 was about: Just as George W. Bush was the Legacy President, Obama is the Affirmative Action President.

Without their distinctive dads to attract attention to them, Bush could have made a pretty darn good sales executive, while a white Obama might have wound up one of the best lecturers at some community college.

Although there are two Ph.Ds in his family tree (his mother and his late maternal grandmother’s sister, a retired statistics professor), it’s hard to imagine Obama ever finishing a dissertation. This author of two volumes of autobiography has a hard time staying interested for long in anything other than himself.

And Obama can’t ever quite come up with an original insight even about Obama, much less anything else. (Can anybody recall any new idea even being credited to the President?)

Still, Obama has a solid knack for digesting and lucidly repeating back other people’s ideas, which would have served him—and, let’s not be ungenerous, his JuCo students—well in an all-but-dissertation academic career.

Suskind’s revelations about the contempt some of Obama’s underlings’ felt for their boss’s brains are quite similar to the ones he reported in his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty, which revealed former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s view of Bush.

So, let’s ask a question that won’t get asked much elsewhere: Who is smarter: Obama or Bush? The Harvard Law School grad or the Harvard Business School grad?

As seen with all the attention devoted to Texas governor Rick Perry’s lousy college grades, the MSM tends to be rather avid in reporting the academic records of Republican politicians. Of course, since everybody knows that Democratic politicians are smarter, they see no need to do any actual reporting on Democrats. How smart, for example, is Vice-President Joe Biden?

Thus, we know a fair amount of objective information about Bush’s intelligence as a young man. He scored a 1206 on the SAT (640 math, 566 verbal). That would be about a 1300 on the SAT after scores were inflated in 1995. He earned a 77 average (C+) at Yale majoring in history. And when he took the Air Force officer qualifying test in 1968, his scores equated to an IQ in the 120s, much like his SAT score does.

In August 2004, Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, asked rhetorically in a column entitled The ‘Dumb’ Factor:

“"Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead."

Oh yeah? Challenged, I dug up Kerry’s 1966 scores on the Navy officer’s qualifying test. They were slightly worse than Bush’s on the 1968 Air Force equivalent.

When NBC’s Tom Brokaw asked Kerry about my finding, he testily replied that he must have been out drinking the night before the test.

A year after the election, Kerry’s GPA at Yale finally leaked out: 76—a point lower than Bush’s.

Similarly, Obama has been widely portrayed in the press as a near-genius. But nobody has looked terribly hard for objective evidence to support these first impressions. And in fact, viewed dispassionately, Obama’s career presents a mixed bag.

He was a run-of-the-mill student at a strong prep school in Honolulu. Although he impressed some of his classmates as verbally agile, in general he didn’t make much of an impression.

He then attended Occidental, a decent but underachieving liberal arts college in Los Angeles. Oxy had a longstanding arrangement for a certain number of sophomores to transfer to Columbia, one of the middle tier Ivy League schools, and Obama took advantage of that.

He seems to have experienced some sort of crisis in New York that led him to give up drugs. In retrospect, that was the beginning of his ascent, but his autobiography depicts his New York years as depressed. His sister worried that he would end up homeless.

The record of his accomplishments at Columbia is meager. He published a single poorly-written article in a college newspaper. He managed to graduate, although without honors.

Nobody knows what his grades were, although David Remnick’s biography The Bridge quotes John McKnight, who later wrote a recommendation for Obama to Harvard Law School, as saying “I don’t think he did too well in college.”

Obama eventually got a job as a copy-editor at a newsletter company with CIA ties. He then moved to Chicago to take part in the struggle between blacks and whites during that city’s virulent Council Wars era.

He was nominally a “community organizer,” but he didn’t seem to get much organized. His most legendary accomplishment over the next three years: helping get some of the asbestos removed from a housing project. He published one forgettable article,  on community organizing, in the book After Alinsky.

Somehow, though, this lifelong history of futility propelled him to a fabulous career at Harvard Law School.

How Obama got into HLS has never been adequately explained. Affirmative action no doubt played a role. At HLS, he wrote, “As someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative-action programs during my career …”

Indeed, the great majority of elite black law students are beneficiaries of racial preferences. A 2005 study found:

“… without affirmative action, African American enrollment at the first-tier schools would decline by over four-fifths and at each of the next two tiers by approximately two-thirds.”

Also, Obama was a legacy due to his father picking up a Masters in economics before Harvard kicked him out for practicing polygamy.

Yet, considering his weak college grades, my guess is that Obama did quite well on the Law School Admissions Test compared to the black average. He apparently only applied to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, which suggests he knew he was a sure thing and didn’t need any safety schools.

A relatively strong LSAT performance might also explain Obama’s otherwise seemingly inexplicable self-confidence at Harvard. One classmate was Jacqueline Fuchs, bass guitar player in the 1970s girl group The Runaways with Joan Jett. Jett subsequently turned herself from a fifth wheel in The Runaways into an arena rock star in the 1980s through force of will. Fuchs marveled in 2008:

“.. Barack Obama reminds me of Joan Jett. … When I met Barack Obama, in our first year of law school, he had already put on his big-time politician act. He just didn't quite have it polished, and he hadn't figured out that he needed charm and humor to round out the confidence and intelligence. One of our classmates once famously noted that you could judge just how pretentious someone's remarks in class were by how high they ranked on the "Obamanometer," a term that lasted far longer than our time at law school. Obama didn't just share in class—he pontificated. … In law school the only thing I would have voted for Obama to do would have been to shut up.”

More naïve white people at Harvard Law with no experience with wanna-be stars were blown away by Obama’s act. He was the One they’d been waiting for. For example, famous Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe saw Obama as possessing expert insight into quantum physics.

Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, an honor that at the time appears to have been restricted to the top 1/6th of the class. His course selections appear to have been focused on the kind of "racism and the law" courses that prepared for his chosen specialty of anti-discrimination law. They are likely easier than other courses, and he was a famous teacher's pet. Still, even discounting all the hoopla surrounding him at Harvard and all the special favors done him as a high potential black student, his performance there was most respectable. 

Obama also won a political election among students as a compromise candidate to edit the Harvard Law Review. But despite his vocal volubility, Obama passed up the editor’s traditional prerogative of publishing a lengthy essay and only contributed a single unsigned note.

And being head of the Harvard Law Review doesn’t require strong organizational skills. The system is set up to have a new editor every year, and is designed to keep a bad one from wrecking the brand.

Obama went back to Chicago. His record as a lawyer was undistinguished. He was allowed by his firm to speak in court only once.

As a political leader, well, if he did nothing else, he built the Obama brand. But there’s little evidence of Obama possessing a carefully crafted Machiavellian masterplan. He was depressed to discover in 2000 at age 38 that black Democrats thought he wasn’t black enough. But white Democrats thought he was just right, so he then shifted his career strategy.

Obama was associated with the University of Chicago Law School for a dozen years, during which he published zero (0) academic articles. Yet, astonishingly, he was offered tenure anyway. His only national publications during these many years were his autobiography, which earned a few respectful reviews before being remaindered, and an appearance on National Public Radio in 1994 denouncing The Bell Curve.

It’s not that he can’t write. Although Jack Cashill has argued that terrorist Bill Ayers must have ghostwritten Obama’s memoir, the essay questions Obama wrote for his classes on racism and the law reflect an agile prose style and a comprehensive if unoriginal understanding of the legal issues.

In fact, Obama seems to like to write. As David Remnick reported, writing his two books struck him as less boring than the rest of his duties.

For example, numerous columns under Obama’s byline appeared in the Hyde Park newspaper and the black Chicago newspaper. Republican researcher Stanley Kurtz has read through these columns (which aren’t online), without discovering much worth noting, for good or bad.

It could be that Obama has been covering up his Deep Thoughts for all these years to maintain his political viability. But the more likely explanation is that while Obama enjoys writing (although not quite as much as he enjoys talking), he just can’t think of much of interest to write about.

Obama appears to be smart enough to be President, but not smart enough to be terribly interesting. But it’s okay for Presidents to be boring.

Yet Obama doesn’t seem to get that he’s the second coming of Gerald Ford. His swollen vanity makes him see himself as the New Lincoln. Obama told Lizza in 2008:

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

That level of egotism in a President is disturbing. If he knows “more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors,” then he needs to ask himself: Why, if I’m so smart, can’t I find better policy directors?

Adulation can be addictive, and Obama has been subjected to so much due to his race that it has to have taken a toll. The sad thing is that Obama doesn’t get the joke about why white people constantly tell him how smart he is. If he’d actually read The Bell Curve before denouncing it, he might have figured out that white people keep telling him he’s brilliant because he impresses them as much smarter than the average black. Being, say, 40 points smarter than the median African-American, however, wouldn’t put him at a Nixonian 140—it would put him at a George W. Bushish 125.

The interesting question is why his performance at so many other times in his life has fallen short of his halcyon days at Harvard. Obama seems to feed psychologically on elite white adulation, as at Harvard or as on the Presidential campaign trail. When it's in short supply, however, he seems to lose interest and energy, as his closest supporters have remarked.

What about various seemingly unforced errors as President, such as not releasing his Hawaiian birth certificate until halfway through his first term? A Boy Scout president like Jimmy Carter might have released it immediately to prevent public misapprehension, while I could imagine a master gamesman like FDR keeping it in his top drawer until the week before the election to maximize how bad his opponents look.

My guess would be that Obama was trying to play the latter game, but lost his nerve when Donald Trump, a celebrity even better at garnering media attention, made an issue of it.

The notion of Obama as an expert politician is mostly based on the idea that to become President he had to overcome huge barriers of racism. In reality, being black put the wind at his back. American culture has hungered for a black President for a generation, as long as he was a long way from the Marion Barry school.

For example, in the 1996 exit poll, as mentioned in Kennedy's new book, voters said that if the race had been between Bill Clinton and Colin Powell instead of Clinton and Bob Dole, they would have voted for the black Republican general by a thumping 48-36 margin (with Perot getting 8 percent).

In general, Obama never showed acute insight into even his own field of expertise, racial politics. It didn't occur to him that he should emphasize winning white votes rather than black votes until 2001. But that insight didn't lead to the logical corollary that he therefore needed to distance himself from the anti-white Rev. Jeremiah Wright until seven years later. For example, he gave over $20,000 to Rev. Wright's church in 2007, the year he started his Presidential campaign. It didn't occur to him that it wasn't a good idea for him to feature Rev. Wright at his campaign kickoff on February 10, 2007 until the day before.

Mostly, Obama benefited from the media flying air cover for him on any issue touching on race, and from the willingness of Clinton and McCain to lose rather than to go to the mat with him over Wright. But then just about everybody in American public life is pretty obtuse about race.

Moreover, a career devoted to self-promotion through of his personal story or race and inheritance didn't leave him much time, energy, or interest in mastering other fields necessary for being a good President (as opposed to a good candidate), such as economics and finance. Thus, he has been at the intellectual mercy of the various insiders he has had to rely upon like Summers and Geithner.

Now, it's possible that he will grow in office. Obama showed he could make himself a good law student in his late 20s, and he appears to have improved significantly as a prose stylist over that period, too. But, it's not clear whether his much petted ego will allow him to recognize his current deficiencies.

How do we make sense of Obama’s odd career of ups and downs? How does somebody go back and forth between being a nobody at Columbia, a rock star at Harvard, a bore in Chicago (virtually disappearing after his humiliating defeat by Bobby Rush in 2000), then the wildly popular Mulatto Messiah in 2008, and now the widely panned President Bummer in 2011?

Last year, Jonathan Last compiled a list of Obama intimates testifying to his bouts of listlessness:

  • “He was so bored being a senator,” one Senate aide said.
  • “The reality,” [Judson] Miner told [David] Remnick, “was that during his first two years in the U.S. Senate, I think, he was struggling; it wasn’t nearly as stimulating as he expected.”
  • Valerie Jarrett concludes, “He’s been bored to death his whole life.”

Last week, the rumor site Gawker floated a plausible-sounding trial balloon:

“We're told by a source inside the [New York] Times that the paper is preparing a story … taking seriously the notion that Obama may be suffering from a depressive episode.”

Manic-depression is hardly unknown in politics, even if it’s never talked about. It can be highly beneficial to a career if the timing is just right.

If Obama is bipolar, he has a much milder case than, say, Ross Perot. In early 1992, Perot decided he could be elected President on an Independent ticket. That sounded crazy, but within a few months, he was leading in the polls. But after being accused of racial insensitivity for addressing the NAACP as “you people,” he disappeared into a paranoid funk for the rest of the entire summer.

Perot then re-emerged from seclusion in the fall to campaign strongly and win 19 percent of the vote. And Perot’s crazy campaign really did his country some good: for a few years, it scared both parties into taking deficit-cutting actions. But the MSM never mentioned manic-depression, even though we could all see it.

Finally, my own belief is that Obama’s ineffectuality has probably made him a better President than if he were on top of his game. Time will tell, but my guess is that at this point Obama has been less destructive than George W. Bush. By fall 2003, Bush had launched the subprime bubble with his White House Conference on Increasing Minority Homeownership, started a war over nonexistent WMDs, and more or less invited in millions of additional illegal immigrants.

But if Obama hits another up cycle, watch out.


[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]

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