Is Obama the smartest person in the room?

Is President Obama the smartest guy in the room?

According to Peter Baker, in his profile of the president last Sunday,

“[O]ne prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama’s problem is that he is not insecure — he always believes he is the smartest person in any room…”
–Peter Baker, The Education of a President, New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2010.

Yet Obama seems to be lacking in at least one key skill. For,

“C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.”

(To know how to hide one’s ability is a great skill.)

–François, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes (245)

Whether or not Obama is the smartest person in the room is beside the point, particularly in an age when two or three smart people, under the right circumstances, are often smarter than the smartest among them.

Human intelligence is not unidimensional (see, e.g., Howard Gardner’s books on mulitple intelligences). One can be smart in one dimension and not so smart in another. Speed of mental processing can be easily mistaken as indicating thought superior to the slower and more methodical thinking of someone who, for example, takes a broader number of variables into account based on his or her experience.

More importantly, perhaps, brilliant or creative suggestions by advisers may be thwarted by the fear of appearing unintelligent, or not as smart as the president. It has been widely reported that the president can be abrupt and cut aides off sharply if he feels they are repeating points in his briefing papers or information he already knows.

He should bear in mind that his advisers’ task is to brief a president, not a kíng.

Obama also appears to limit access for informal conversations to a small circle of trusted White House aides. Here the risk of “groupthink” is real, and not eliminated by acknowledging it intellectually as a possibility. Outside this circle, he doesn’t seem to have advisors who are empowered to directly challenge his thinking on central points.

Baker reports, “Obama has been aggravated by friction among his advisers. “He’s a little frustrated with the internal dysfunction,” the aide said. “He doesn’t like confrontation.”

Ordinary people don’t want a president who believes he is smarter than everyone else.

The paradox is that the president is an immensely engaging figure. Recently, on the morning TV program The View, the contrast between his cold, cerebral and rather defensive tone and body language when talking about public policy issues, on the one hand, and his warmth, spontaneity, and engaging personality when addressing less weighty issues, was sharply displayed.

His future success with the public may depend on his studiously avoiding giving any any impression that he thinks he is smarter than other people (and that they don’t “get it” because they are not as smart as he is), while learning to infuse his policy discussions with greater warmth and empathy. Simple conversations with people from Main Street, in which the president is fully present and listening–not explaining–could go far to win voters back.

Except when addressing specialized audiences, he should generally avoid in public highly sophisticated technical arguments which most voters are not likely to easily grasp.

The president’s political problem is that the people he speaks to, in the language of intellectuals and Wall Street, have done quite well in recovering from the recession, while the dumb chumps on Main Street have been left holding the bag.

Obama will not resolve that problem by explaining how the dumb chumps just don’t get it.

The president doesn’t need to be the smartest person in the room. But he needs to be smart, smart enough to hide his great abilities from ready view.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.