Commentary Magazine


Topic: University of Chicago Law School

Is Obama Not So Smart? Check Your Facts

Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

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Real Clear Politics this morning linked to a column by Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette entitled “Obama Is Not That Bright.” In it he wrote,

Could it be that Mr. Obama’s “superior intellect” is a myth created by journalists to mask what may be the thinnest resume of anyone ever elected president? An example of puffery is the description of Mr. Obama as a former “professor of constitutional law.” Mr. Obama was a part time instructor at the University of Chicago Law School, without the title or status of professor. And, according to blogger Doug Ross, he wasn’t very popular with the real professors.

“I spent some time with the highest tenured faculty member at Chicago Law a few months back,” Mr. Ross wrote in March 2010. “According to my professor friend, [Obama] had the lowest intellectual capacity in the building. … The other professors hated him because he was lazy, unqualified.”

As readers of this blog have probably noticed, I’m not the national president of the Obama Fan Club, so this was music to my ears. But was it true? It’s the oldest dictum in journalism that, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out,” a splendid idea all too often honored in the breach. So I checked it out.

Fortunately for me, that was easy because the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, Douglas G. Baird, is my first cousin (the “G” stands for Gordon). So I asked him about the quote and about the possibility that the reason Obama has refused to release his academic records was that his grades weren’t all that good. Here’s what he wrote back:

… The idea that Obama had lousy grades is demonstrably untrue. He graduated magna from Harvard Law, which means that he was at least in the top 15 or 20 percent of his class at HLS. Most of the exams are blindly graded. I don’t want to argue about the relevance of grades, but the idea that they weren’t very good is just not right.

It also mischaracterizes his position at Chicago to say that he was only a part-time instructor. Not being full-time was a matter of his choosing. (He wanted to pursue a political career. Our efforts to persuade him to teach fulltime at Chicago didn’t succeed. With respect to this, I should emphasize that I’m not speaking with second-hand knowledge. As dean at the time, I was the relevant decision maker.) Moreover, he was a “senior lecturer.” This is not your typical part-time instructor. At the time, it was a position reserved for people who would otherwise be full-time faculty, but who choose not to. (He got full medical benefits, large office, secretary, and faculty-type perks that were given only to [Richard] Posner and [Frank] Easterbrook [who are vastly distinguished appellate federal judges as well as senior lecturers at the law school], and not any other adjuncts.)

To say that some professors hated him because he was unqualified is mystifying. His credentials (president of HLR and magna) are completely traditional law professor credentials. His classes were consistently popular. He spent relatively little time schmoozing with faculty or hanging out with them (and this, at least in retrospect, has made at least one conservative colleague speak ill of him), but this is different from him being unqualified.

Someone who says Obama is not smart is someone who hasn’t met him. I’m completely confident you wouldn’t like him if you met him and you would think him ideological and not warm and fuzzy, but I would be stunned if you didn’t think he was smart.

Doug is undoubtedly right that I wouldn’t like Obama if I met him, which I haven’t (White House invitations have been notably sparse the last three years for some mysterious reason). And his ideological mindset is a big reason for that. A rigid ideology, after all, can make very bright people act stupidly.

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