Commentary Magazine


RE: Why Isn’t He Better at Being President?

Jennifer asks a good question that is more and more on the minds of citizens and the punditocracy alike. Obama is so smart and so eloquent, and yet he has not, at least yet, succeeded as president domestically or in foreign affairs.

One answer, perhaps, is that being a successful president requires skills and attributes that Obama simply does not possess. Being “smart” is not among those attributes. Everyone who gets elected president is smart, for anyone who wasn’t could never make it through the world’s longest and most difficult political obstacle course. George Romney — no dummy by a long shot — came a cropper with a single ill-considered remark about having been brainwashed regarding Vietnam.

But being “supersmart” is not only no help; it is, I think, often a hindrance. Six future presidents were elected to Phi Beta Kappa as college undergraduates: John Quincy Adams, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Of those six, only Roosevelt could be considered a great president. Three of them, Adams, Taft, and Bush, were defeated for re-election, and Arthur couldn’t even get nominated for a second term. (His presidential reputation has been improving of late, however.)

And intellectuals, of course, are all too capable of thinking themselves into disaster. Remember George Orwell’s famous crack about “an idea so stupid only an intellectual could have conceived it.”

One might think that engineers, trained to deal with real-world forces, might make better presidents. But the only two engineers to reach the White House were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, both terrible presidents.

So what makes for successful presidencies? It might be fruitful to compare what the two greatest presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had in common. Neither were intellectuals (Roosevelt hardly ever read a book as an adult), but both were very “savvy,” not the same thing as smart. Both were master politicians, able to assemble and maintain coalitions. Both had immense charm. Both were first-class orators. Both had a great sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. Both were comfortable in their own skins and not given to introspection. Both had an abundance of self-confidence but no trace of arrogance. In both, the inner man was inaccessible, and no one felt he really knew what made either man tick. And both had that indispensable handmaiden of greatness — luck.

How many of those attributes does Barack Obama have?