Jonathan Chait

Who's Smarter, Obama Or Bush?

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Former Bush aide Tevi Troy's essay in National Affairs, "Bush, Obama, and the Intellectuals," is kind of strange. It begins by promising to confound the popular impression that Barack Obama is an intellectual and George W. Bush is not:

America's intellectual class seems to adore President Barack Obama nearly as much as it reviled his predecessor. While George W. Bush was routinely derided for his purported lack of intelligence and learning, Obama has been embraced by the intellectuals as one of their own to a degree unmatched by any president since perhaps Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke for many when he argued after the 2008 election that "American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual." Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker even sought to make it official, calling Obama a "certified intellectual."

This difference in attitudes says as much about the state of American intellectuals as it does about Bush and Obama.

But the vast majority of the piece is devoted to another point. Troy surveys the ways presidents since Kennedy have employed intellectuals as -- though he does not use the word -- propagandists. He argues that presidents are wise to keep intellectuals in house and assigning them the role of whipping up support among thought leaders. He positively cites his former colleague Peter Wehner's service in this role under Bush.

Troy does attempt to defend Bush's intellectualism, though he largely does so by implication. His case, unsurprisingly, is unpersuasive. Troy concedes that Bush's regular guy image played some role in his anti-intellectual image, but he primarily blames this impression upon the liberal bias of the intelligentsia. He bemoans what he calls "the shrill partisanship of many on the intellectual left" and "a relentlessly hostile liberal intelligentsia." Obama, by contrast, has received a friendlier reception because he "shares the cultural predilections of many liberal intellectuals."

Nowhere in his essay does Troy consider the possibility that Obama has a more intellectual reputation because he is, in fact, smarter, better-informed, and more intellectually-engaged than his predecessor. It must be liberal bias. This would be a hard argument to prove if, as Troy implies, Bush's intellectual detractors were all liberal intellectuals. I would say that these detractors disdain Bush because they're intellectuals, Troy would reply that they do so because they're liberal, and we'd be stuck.

Fortunately, we have the testimony of numerous non-liberals. This included Bush's admirers. There is Richard Perle, who later recalled of meeting Bush, "he didn't know very much." David Frum wrote in a generally fawning book, "Bush had a poor memory for facts and figures. … Fire a question at him about the specifics of his administration's policies, and he often appeared uncertain." Bush's own wife said of him, "George is not an overly introspective person. He has good instincts, and he goes with them. He doesn’t need to evaluate and re-evaluate a decision. He doesn’t try to overthink. He likes action." Dmitry Medvedev, who is not a liberal intellectual, recently compared Obama's intellect very favorably with that of his predecessor.

Much of the ballast for Troy's defense of Bush lies in his citing the fact that Bush had some intellectuals working in his administration, which of course is nearly impossible to avoid in the modern day. One of the names he cites is John DiIulio. If that name doesn't ring a bill, he's the man who subsequently wrote this about the Bush administration:

I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical nonstop, twenty-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

In sum, I don't think the ideological bias of liberal intellectuals is responsible for the broad impression that Obama is far more intellectual than Bush.

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