Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 July 2007

What to Do About Obama’s Brains

One of the most depressing things about our presidential campaign so far is how few people know how smart Senator Obama is. I’ve described him as smarter than any two of his presidential rivals put together. That’s probably an understatement.

Everyone knows there is something special about Obama, but hardly anyone can figure out what it is. A whole lot of people—including mainstream media commentators who ought to know better—think it has something to do with his race.

That preposterous idea plays right into four centuries of vicious American racism. If Obama’s racial background alone made him what he is, then Colin Powell would be concluding a successful presidency, Jesse Jackson or his son Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. would be a serious presidential candidate, and Harold E. Ford, Jr., would be Senator from Tennessee.

By itself, African ancestry is still a disadvantage (albeit a waning one) in national electoral politics. Regrettably, it may remain so for another generation or two. Press coverage on the issue tells us so: people don’t chatter incessantly about unalloyed advantages; they just acknowledge them and move on. Obama has been successful so far because his extraordinary personal qualities, including his brains, overcame that disadvantage. His steel hardened in the cauldron of American racism; he survived and got smarter and stronger.

What is depressing is how few people even know of Obama’s unique credentials. As a student he was President of the Harvard Law Review. This student-edited journal is legendary for its quality and its prestige. It selects it leaders by secret ballot purely on brains, writing ability, and leadership. At the University of Chicago School of Law, Obama taught constitutional law—a field in which that school is one of the top three in the nation. Only two presidents since Woodrow Wilson have had anything like those intellectual credentials: Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar.

Yesterday former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the smartest people on the planet, endorsed Obama as having a "better grasp" of foreign relations than his rival Hillary Clinton. No surprise there.

As for Obama’s family background, the most important thing about it is that both his parents got Ph.D.s.

I’m not hinting at hereditary intelligence. I’m talking nurture, not nature. A Ph.D. is not some glorified college degree. It requires years of work on a particular problem—original research in a recognized field of study. After doing all that work, the degree candidate has to stand before a committee of smart, egotistical professors and convince them he or she has solved a real problem that no one else ever solved before. That’s why the Ph.D. degree is a minimum qualification for serious scientific research.

Both of Obama’s parents went through this grueling intellectual boot camp. What does that mean? It means that, in Obama’s family, shooting from the hip was discouraged and intellectual diligence was the norm. Real knowledge and deep thinking prevailed over the easy answer. They were Obama family values. Isn’t that precisely the kind of background we now need so desperately in a leader?

Look at the rest of the presidential field. Hillary Clinton didn’t even read the crucial intelligence report before casting her vote to go to war in Iraq. Lately she has been touting “no-fly” zones to “solve” the genocide in Darfur, although the humanitarian community says that “no fly” zones would cut off vital humanitarian aid to the starving refugees and cause catastrophe. Rudy Giuliani, still the Republican front-runner, told us that New York’s fire fighters died at Ground Zero because they were too “heroic” to obey the command to evacuate the doomed towers. Now the firefighters’ union tells us what really happened: the firefighters’ radios didn’t work, so they never even heard the order to evacuate. And who was responsible for the inoperative radios? New York City and its mayor, Giuliani, who had known about the bad radios for eight years. As for Mitt Romney, he is a caricature of the pandering politician. His answer to every question is “what answer would you like today?”

At best these wannabes are lazy politicians; they think only of what they can sell or (in Guiliani’s case) concoct an horrendously cynical lie to excuse failure. They have such contempt for us, the people, they don’t even think we’ll remember their lies or discover how little homework they’ve actually done. Obama is the only serious politician in the lot.

What the others offer is Bush light. Before anyone asked a question, Bush and his neocons knew that the answer was invading Iraq. They’ve been giving the same answer to whatever question comes up ever since. Want to protect us from WMD? Invade Iraq. Want to get rid of a vicious dictator? Invade Iraq. Want to make the Middle East a utopian democracy? Invade Iraq. Want to avoid Al Qaeda taking over the Middle East? Stay the course and make our invasion a success. Don’t want to see terrorists climbing over your window sills into your bedroom? Stay the course. Want to counter Iran’s growing power and influence? Stay mired in Iraq’s civil war. Whatever the question, Iraq is the answer, as it has been from the very first weeks of the Bush Administration, and long before 9/11.

And therein lies Obama’s real advantage. He’s different. He thinks.

Even during the presidential debates, you can see his mind working thoughtfully. A lot of viewers don’t like that about him. They want raw meat and applause lines. Instead, Obama gives them thoughtful answers with some nuance. He makes them think, something they have not done for so long it hurts.

Perhaps we’ve become so fond of Bush’s and Rove’s demagoguery that raw meat is what we want. If so, that’s what we’ll get. Our democracy will flush down the toilet of history in a cascade of thoughtless blunders like those of the last seven years.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog pleading for voters to consider the Bush Administration’s low wattage in the brains department. Now we’re experiencing all the suffering that comes from having leaders who can’t or won’t think. The title of that post says it all: “Intelligence Does Matter.” It still does, now more than ever.

Obama’s candidacy offers an alternative. All of his writings reflect his intelligence and thoughtfulness. This blog contains detailed analyses of his health care plan and his anti-terrorism plan, showing how brilliant they are on many levels, and I won’t repeat them here. But one point is worth emphasizing: Obama’s health-care plan reveals genuine and deep understanding of economics. His understanding is so extraordinary that he should wear a brightly colored sash, everywhere he goes, announcing “I get economics!” Few Democrats do, and Hillary Clinton is no exception.

The problem is that few voters today want to hear about economics or anything else that requires real knowledge and skill. They would rather hear the latest sound bite confirming their own hunches and prejudices, so they can move on to more interesting things like Paris Hilton. And therein lies another problem for Obama and his campaign. He can’t show off his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability in sound bites.

But he can in writing. To read him is to love him. Obama has a great writer’s skill with words. I’m not talking rhetoric here; I’m talking substance. Like every great writer from Pushkin to Lincoln, Obama uses just the right word to hit the nail on the head. So his writing seems simple. But his thoughts are anything but simple. He has a brilliant mind that illuminates the complex and makes it seem simple.

Anyone who cares about our country and wants to be an informed voter should read his book The Audacity of Hope. At very least they should read his speech on his health-care plan or his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Few people know, for example, that Obama wrote that last speech all by himself. As his book explains, he worked sans speechwriters, consultants, and spinmeisters. Yet he put his finger on America’s pulse and took it so brilliantly that seasoned politicians still speak with awe about that speech three years later. Implicitly they give Obama the greatest compliment any rival can ever give, asking “Why didn’t I think of that myself?”

So why don’t we all know about Obama’s brains? Is he hiding his light under a bushel?

I wish in knew the answer. Maybe Obama’s campaign is just getting started using its huge war chest (now over thirty million dollars, after expenses) to show us how smart he is. I hope so.

But a more depressing answer is also possible. America has always had a nasty anti-intellectual and anti-elitist side. Never has that side been more ascendant than in the Bush Administration. Maybe the Obama campaign is still afraid of the know-nothing attitude that Bush, Cheney and Rove so effectively instilled in our national psyche.

I hope not. I would be the first to admit that Obama’s senior, professional advisors—let alone Obama himself—are far smarter than I on what “sells” to the American people. If they think emphasizing Obama’s credentials, brains, and thoughtfulness would sound elitist or put voters off, I defer to their experienced political judgment.

But maybe, just maybe, the voters are tired of know nothings who claim they have all the answers without the need for thought. After seven years of abysmal failure, maybe they understand that a not-very-bright “regular Joe” like Bush is not the best person to lead a modern, technological nation of 300 million people. Maybe they are ready to consider once again electing a leader who is smarter than they—a lot smarter.

If voters want a smart person qualified by credentials and training to solve real problems, Obama is the best we’ve got. Somehow, his campaign has to get that message out. Maybe, in this YouTube age, the campaign needs to find some way to translate his thoughtfulness into the medium of video. That’s hard to do but not impossible.

However hard it may be, the effort is vital. Obama has two clear advantages over his rivals: (1) his tolerant, non-ideological style and (2) his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability. If he can’t successfully inform voters about both of those advantages and why they matter, I fear for the future of our country.

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