Is Obama an Intellectual?

With Donald Trump questioning the President’s intelligence, I was not surprised to find Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post” dutifully extolling it in an op-ed piece this morning.  During Bush’s administration, the right more or less agreed with the left that George Bush was not one of our leading lights. The left, unwilling to make a similar concession regarding Obama, overcompensates by repeatedly calling him brilliant.

Wherein lies his brilliance? Well, no one really knows. Brilliance is not like beauty; it is not self-explanatory—one requires at least occasional demonstrations of it. These are notoriously wanting. His transcripts, as Mr. Trump reminds us, remain sealed. There are two books in the Obama canon (neither of which, I admit, I’ve read). There are also hundreds of speeches. Presumably Mr. Milbank could appeal to this body of evidence, contradictory as it may be. Does he? No. He says, rather vaguely, that there is a lot going on in the President’s head. We are, throughout the piece, treated to the opinions of academics who confirm this insight of Milbank’s. One of the professors Milbank consulted hailed Obama’s “integrative complexity,” which he had the goodness to define as the ability to balance competing claims. Another professor provisionally called Obama a “complex thinker,” though he had yet to apply his model to Obama.  A professor at Cornell said he was “rational,” no doubt a jibe at his “irrational” predecessor.  

Mr. Milbank, anticipating the skeptic who wonders what results these wonderful qualities of the President’s have yielded, revives the old saw about how intellectuals are unfit for politics. He wistfully writes, “In an ideal world, complex and rational thought would be virtues. But in politics, these attributes can make Obama seem ambiguous, without toughness or principles.” Obama, in other words, is too good for us; he is beyond our comprehension. If he condescends to us, it is because he has no choice, looking down, as he does, from such a height.