During the campaign, two of the lefty memes that irritated me the most were “Obama’s smart“, and “Obama was an Ivy Leaguer” and, its close cousin, “Obama was a constitutional law professor”.
None of them is especially a qualifier for the office of President.
The “ConLaw professor” is the easiest disposed of; the President will never need to litigate the Constitution; he or she only needs to understand it. Indeed, all the ideal president really needs to know about the Constitution is how to follow it. Any good policeman or modestly-bright college graduate knows more than enough about the Constitution to be President. And the President who thinks they can outfox the Founding Fathers is especially dangerous.
The Ivy Leaguer bit is a little harder – but I think it’s getting to the point where going to an Ivy League school should be a disqualifier for the Presidency; indeed, maybe we should trade the whole “natural-born US citizen” requirement to drop in that restriction. I dunno.
But the fact is, the very best thing an Ivy League education, in and of itself, says about someone is that between the ages of 14 and 22 or so, that person understood how the paper chase was played well enough to earn spectacular grades and punch all the other Admissions Committee-friendly tickets and earn the scholarships it takes to afford to attend an Ivy. In vastly more cases, it means that they come from families that both impressed upon the young ‘uns the need to have that upmarket diploma (and its most important fringe benefit, access to the upmarket alumni network), and the means to make it happen. After about age 23, the best question for an Ivy grad is “what have you done for us lately?; too many wave their diploma around in their mid-thirties like Andy Bernard in The Office and his years at Cornell; they remind me of high school quarterbacks whose lives peaked at the homecoming game their senior year, and never quite got that good again.
And of course, while several great or at least decent presidents have gone to Ivy League schools, our best have been self-educated (Lincoln) or come from obscure midwestern schools (Reagan, who attended Eureka) and have had to earn their way through life on merit, rather than alumni connections.
But the “he’s smart” bit is the one that strikes me, ironically, as the dumbest “qualification”.
Betty McCollum notwithstanding, it’s hard for anyone to get anywhere in public life without being “smart” in some sense of the term or another, whether it’s Thomas Jefferson’s world-altering intellect or Lyndon Johnson’s brutal political “street smarts”.
But the least useful, it’d seem, is the bookish, “Lookit me, I’m an Ivy Leaguer and you’re not!”, air of unearned condescension that you get from the overpraised, the overweening, and…
To be blunt, Obama suffers from a lifetime of others excessively praising his intellect. It insulates him from ideas and facts that conflict with his pre-existing liberal rubric (so “every economist” believed his stimulus would work). It leaves him unprepared to engage in real debate with informed opponents (e.g. the health-care summit). It skews his understanding of how geopolitics works, as he imagines that his own wonderfulness can sway adversaries and override nations’ fundamental interests (the Middle East). Is he as well read as George W. Bush? As intellectually creative as Bill Clinton? As grounded in history as Harry Truman? Let’s get some perspective here.
It’s a deadly combination — intellectual arrogance and lack of sympatico with the public — that leads him again and again to stumble. And when his shortcomings lead to embarrassment or failure, he strikes out in frustration — at Israel, at the media, and at the American people. The image of himself clashes with the results he achieves and the reaction he inspires. No wonder he’s so prickly. You’d be, too, if everyone your entire life had told you that you were swell but now, when the chips are down and the spotlight is on, you are failing so badly in your job.
That, indeed, may be Obama’s great legacy; that “The Peter Principle” may soon be called “The Obama Principle”.