Commentary Magazine


Brilliant No More

How many times has a pundit or Democrat gushed over Obama’s “brilliant” mind? As conservatives pointed out to the swooners on the left, there was very little evidence of it — no inventive Third Wave philosophy of governance in his pre-presidential career, no significant legislative or intellectual achievement — other than writing a self-promoting and somewhat fictional account of himself — and actually very poor people skills (Maureen Dowd has only now figured out that he is thin-skinned and emotionally robotic). But it was heresy to suggest that he was a conventional liberal thinker, less interesting than Bill Clinton and less rigorous than Ronald Reagan.

Now that his presidency is in dire straits, perhaps the mainstream media are more receptive to that perspective. As Noemie Emery writes, to the extent that he was/is “brilliant,” it’s in the mundane task of running meetings:

He does seem a genius at chairing a forum, as at the “nuclear summit” in April, where the Washington Post claimed that he shone as a teacher, “calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose, and offer alternatives,” coaxing consensus and forging agreements among 45 countries at hand. The problem was that the value of these things was limited, as the attending countries weren’t menacing anyone, while Iran and Korea, who were not in attendance, went on happily building their bombs. He isn’t a sphinx, he’s a seminar leader who’s out of his element. And more and more out of his depth.

And honestly, he’s not that great at running meetings. His Afghanistan-war seminars dragged on. His health-care summit bombed when Rep. Paul Ryan and others stymied him with facts and figures.

Now that Obama’s policies and political standing are faltering, the media mavens are puzzled, as Emery notes. How can it be that he’s failing when he’s so smart? It never dawns on them that they confused slickness with smarts and urbanity with insight.

Whether it is Obama or Elena Kagan, it’s rather easy to impress the chattering class — an Ivy League degree, poise before the cameras, verbal acuity, and disdain for conservative ideas usually do it. It matters not what these figures have produced (legal opinions, legislation, etc.) but with whom they circulate and where they’ve studied. To a great degree, social elitism has replaced meritocracy as the left’s yardstick.

Unfortunately for Obama, he will be judged by what he does, not how he looks doing it. And frankly, his polish and charisma (conservatives never saw the latter, but others did) are crumbling under the pressure to finally produce something (jobs, a responsible budget, a plan for disarming Iran). There is a reason, as Emery points out, that no president has been “a blogger, a pundit, an editor of the New Yorker, or a writer for Vanity Fair.” It turns out that the rationale for the media’s lovefest — he’s just like me, but better! — was not relevant to the presidency.