The Hype Over Obama’s Intellect

Obama is intelligent – or so we are told. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank opines “there is too much going on in the poor guy’s head.” Obama’s IQ is “off the charts”, according to Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia (and contributor to Obama’s campaign) is quoted by Milbank as saying “He is a brilliant social and political analyst.” AP stringer Glen Johnson, writing in a puff piece on Obama in January 2007, was similarly impressed by Obama’s intellect. “Obama analyzed and integrated Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, as well as the concept of curved space as an alternative to gravity, for a Law Review article that Tribe wrote titled, ‘The Curvature of Constitutional Space.’”

They happen to be some of the same people who are now applying the label “dumb” to Texas governor Rick Perry just as they did to President George W. Bush – who scored 1206 (old scale) on the SAT putting him in the top 16% of prospective college students.

The basis for Obama’s supposed intellectual capacity is his Ivy League experience, starting with his graduation from Columbia followed by attaining his law degree at Harvard and ending with his teaching law at the University of Chicago. People view Harvard as the top university for America’s best and brightest. Add in his selection as editor of the Harvard Law Review and it is easy to understand how the meme that Obama is more intelligent than your average politician began.

Obama enrolled in Harvard in 1988 and was elected president of the Harvard Law Review in 1989. Consider that the Harvard Law Review is a student run publication with many proud alumni including Supreme Court justices who once worked for or edited the publication. But as Rey at Rey’s a Point explained in a post about the Review,

In recent years, the number of students completing the competition has ranged from 200 to 255. Between 41 and 43 students are invited to join the Review each year.

Okay using the harshest numbers: 255 yearly competition completions, 16% make it onto the team.

It isn’t as if the getting the position is particularly hard. Anyone who has gotten a job after 43 resumes were submitted and several interviews conducted during the hiring process can consider him/herself just as gifted. Besides, while Wikipedia notes the luminaries who worked for the Review, it doesn’t mention those who were selected president of the Review and now wait tables. I looked everywhere for a list of Harvard Law Review presidents and couldn’t find one. It would be interesting to see those who are waiting tables as well as those serving on the Supreme Court to get a sense of how prestigious the president of the Review is, not that waiting tables is a lesser profession than Supreme Court justice. Well, with apologies to all the Harvard educated waiters out there, maybe it is.

The true challenge lays in getting into Harvard. Once you are in it seems rather easy to find positions that sound prestigious simply because of their association with the venerable institution. And getting in would be easier for Barack Obama.   Asians and poor whites, especially those from rural states, find it much harder to enter schools in the Ivy League because of “diversity.” Obama’s race coupled with his degree from Columbia, another Ivy League school, guaranteed his admission to Harvard.

In fact it was much easier than that. Obama’s Kenyan-born father attended Harvard as a graduate student, receiving his masters in 1965. One of the lesser known discriminatory admissions practices is the admission of legacy students, those whose parents graduated from  the particular educational institution they are applying to. As a study in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, legacy students are 45% more likely to be admitted to elite schools than those whose parents did not attend. The legacy aspect of George W. Bush’s attendance at Yale has been used by his detractors to explain his apparent ignorance after attending Yale, while the legacy aspect of Obama’s Harvard admission has been completely ignored. Google “Bush Legacy Student” and “Obama Legacy Student” and you’ll see what I mean.

Obama taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago from 1992 – 2004 first as a lecturer and later, senior lecturer. These positions were not tenure track (Obama was offered tenure and declined), but allowed Obama the time he needed to develop his political career.

If Obama is so smart, why is he such a lousy leader? Consider that in his first two years he had a Democrat-controlled congress and high approval ratings, yet he outsourced health care and the stimulus to Congress, enacted the bank bailouts demanded by his Wall Street backers including billionaires George Soros and Warren Buffet and started during the last gasp of the Bush administration. He even continued Bush’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq; the only thing he added was a sense of Hamlet-esque hand-wringing to these decisions.

A meta-analysis conducted by students at the University of Florida and the University of Iowa found that intelligence and leadership are correlated (albeit weakly – see comments), yet Obama has shown poor leadership skills over the past 3 years.

Is it possible that he isn’t as intelligent as his supporters think, and that his supposed brilliance is in fact due to a career path in the Ivy League that while commendable would not be considered extraordinary if it weren’t for the color of his skin? To suggest this may be the case is to court charges of racism, but given how freely the charges are made against anyone who dissents with the President and his administration I suppose one must go ahead with the accusation anyway.

The fact is that Barack Obama’s father and mother were both academics. Obama attended a prep school in Hawaii which, along with the academic credentials of his parents, allowed him to enter Columbia. The degree from Columbia improved his odds of being admitted to Harvard, but nowhere near as much as the boost provided by his legacy status through his father’s attendance. While at Harvard, Obama joined the Law Review and was selected as president. Once finishing at Harvard, it would be expected that Obama would be offered a position at another Ivy League school, such as the lecturer position at the University of Chicago.

There are thousands of Ivy League graduates who have followed a career path such as this. Most Ivy League professors currently in academia would have a similar curriculum vitae, albeit with completely different achievements, some more notable than Obama’s academic successes, some less. While all would be considered more intelligent than the average person (especially by the average person), few would match Obama’s supposed brilliance for one reason: there aren’t many Ivy League leaders and decisionmakers with black skin.

Would Beschloss say a Jew who went to Columbia, got his degree from Harvard and taught at the University of Chicago, had an IQ off the charts? How about a African-American guy from Pin Point Georgia? It is impossible to disentangle Obama’s race from his academic success, but I am coming to believe that while it had less to do with his overall success, it was an important factor at critical points – such as in his selection as the president of the Harvard Law Review and the offers of tenure at the University of Chicago. For all its talk of diversity, the Ivy League still remains a bastion of wealthy liberal white people – from the composition of the boards and trusts that manage endowments down to the level of college deans. Obama would have been an inviting academic to use to show how “diverse” the Ivy League had become. He had the “right” background (Ivy League educated parents and Ivy League education). Coming from that background Obama shared the Ivy League culture. He was a true Ivy Leaguer who was special in only one way: his skin color. Obama looked different but at heart he was “one of them.” It would only be natural for the wealthy elite controlling Ivy League to elevate one of their own to higher status in their world regardless of his intellectual ability.

This is not to say that Obama is stupid, or that he would make a terrible professor. Quite the opposite; I believe that Obama is intelligent and from what I’ve read his students in Chicago enjoyed his classes. Like George W. Bush Obama benefited from his family connections and his upbringing, only his skin color and liberal upbringing sets him apart. But the reality of the presidency has laid bare what liberal guilt or affirmative action hid in academia: Obama isn’t as brilliant as either his supporters or he himself believes.

If the charge of racism is to be leveled, it should be at the liberal elite that elevates a relatively mediocre academic to increasingly higher levels of status, while distancing itself from a true genius of color: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But unlike Obama, Thomas wasn’t “one of them” – so his intelligence isn’t celebrated the way Obama’s is.

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  1. Pj:

    Scott – I have no comment about your general thesis, but the study on leadership you cite actually says this: “Overall, results suggest that the relationship between intelligence and leadership is considerably lower than previously thought.” Indeed, although a good leader must consistently demonstrate solid decision making skills based upon sound judgment, in my experience true leadership comes from a variety of traits, skills and achievements far beyond just the intellect.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    Agreed. In fact a cursory look at the literature on intelligence finds that there is no such single thing as “intelligence,” but different types – emotional intelligence, social intelligence, etc. What I hoped to do was question the meme “Obama is intelligent”, and to do so I tried to determine its basis: his Ivy League upbringing. Then when I looked at his Ivy League upbringing I found that he followed the “legacy path” just as his predecessor in the White House did. Yet Bush is criticized for his experience as a legacy student, while Obama is not. Is this a big deal? No. Eventually History will judge the success of their presidencies without favor or bias.

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  4. Dave Schuler:

    Funny you should post on this subject. I did myself a while ago. I think the “hype” should be chalked up to a difference between Democratic pundits and Republican pundits. For reasons I don’t entirely understand Democratic pundits are very concerned that their presidents be extremely intelligent. The insistence variably takes the form on exaggerating the intelligence of Democratic presidents and maligning the intelligence of Republican presidents. It may be a fascination with technocracy. I don’t really know.

    My own view of the president’s intelligence is that he’s probably roughly one standard deviation above average. That’s pretty typical for a member of the professional class. It’s about where GWB was, too.

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    Obama is an idiot.

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