Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Is Senator Barack Obama Truly Too Elite To Be Elected President? Further Thoughts on Obama's Intelligence and Education as Possible Barriers to His Victory


Friday, May. 16, 2008

In an earlier column, I raised the matter of whether, and how, Senator Barack Obama's conspicuous intelligence may act as a barrier to his being elected president. I am returning to that subject now because it is clear, as the presidential primaries come to a close and the presumptive nominees – Obama for the Democrats, and Senator John McCain for the Republicans – begin their efforts to define each other for the general election, that this is going to be an issue.

As I noted in my prior piece, Republicans have consciously and consistently run presidential campaigns portraying their candidates as smart enough to be president, yet a far cry from the kinds of "liberals" and "intellectual elitists" with whom most Americans would shrink from sharing a few beers. Of course, Republicans simultaneously have labeled their Democratic opponents as just that kind of far-left elitist.

Frankly, I have been waiting for this GOP anti-intellectual strategy to backfire, and for Americans to declare that they have had enough of these efforts to dumb down the presidency. After all, eight years of President George W. Bush's anti-intellectual stance, staggering inarticulateness, and clear pattern of incompetence may well encourage Americans to vote for a chief executive/commander-in-chief with brainpower commensurate with the demands of the job.

For the moment, though, Republicans are busy placing Senator Obama in this liberal, intellectual, elitist mold, and they are succeeding. Americans have not yet fought back forcefully, insisting that they want the kind of intelligent, educated president they deserve.

Framing Obama as an Arrogant Intellectual Elitist, When In Reality He Was a Successful Striver from a Family of Modest Means

Barack Obama was raised by a single mother who, from time to time, needed food stamps to survive. He attended one of Honolulu's better schools only because his grandparents recognized his natural intelligence early and encouraged it by living in a two bedroom apartment so they could help with his tuition. Ultimately, he attended Columbia and Harvard Law, thanks to scholarships and student loans.

Nevertheless, Republicans are going to punish Barack Obama for succeeding – even though it is hard to believe that, if they are of modest means, they would not urgently want the same for their own children, and that if they are wealthy, they would not deeply admire friends' children who succeeded despite obstacles, as Obama has.

Ironically, Obama has done exactly what conservatives preach: pulled himself up to the top by his own hard work, and taken advantages of his God-given gifts. He was not only president (in essence, editor-in-chief) of the prestigious Harvard Law Review – an exceptional accomplishment for any Harvard Law student, but also the first African- American ever to hold the post. Yet this is just one of many distinctions that will be used as evidence of his elitism.

Obama has authored two books without ghostwriters. He was a law professor at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School. He can employ soaring and moving rhetoric when speaking, and he has read widely and deeply (and even enjoys the works of diverse, controversial and complex philosophers). He thinks and speaks extemporaneously with remarkable clarity and logic. In the time of, say, Lincoln, similar skills and accomplishments would mark one for the presidency. Today, all this surely will be held against Obama as the campaign proceeds.

It has already started. Obama's opponent in the primaries, Hillary Clinton, who is every bit Obama's intellectual equal, first painted him as elitist, and John McCain jumped in right behind her. The elitism charge was triggered by remarks that Obama had made at a San Francisco fundraising event, which really were not elitist at all. Yet despite the emptiness of the charge, the news media jumped on this issue as well.

Obama has even been forced to defend his wife, Michelle (who was educated at Princeton and Harvard Law, despite humble beginnings and as the result of a great deal of hard work) as well as himself. "I do think that one of the ironies of the last two or three weeks was this idea that somehow Michelle and I were elitist pointy-headed intellectual types," Obama told reporters "When the fact is, our lives, if you look back over the last two decades, more closely approximate the lives of the average voter than any of the other candidates."

The elitism claim truly is a bogus charge, but watch it grow into an issue during the general election.

The Nature of Elitism in a Political Context

Ironically, in this context, is the fact that the word "elite" comes from the Latin word eligere – meaning "to elect." To paraphrase typical dictionary definitions, the elite are considered the best, the wealthiest, the select few who exercise authority. "Elitism" is rule or leadership by an elite, be they in charge by merit or merely because they have the power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, elitism came to the forefront because of the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite. But it was the demagoguery of conservative Alabama Governor George Wallace, running for president in 1968, that made elitism a political pejorative.

During his 1968 presidential bid, Wallace attacked the "Washington elite," alleging that they were manipulating the lives of middle-class voters, and failing to understand the interests of "common and everyday people of America." Countless other conservatives soon followed Wallace's lead, and within a decade they made "elitism" a derisive and derogatory term (just as they did with the term "liberal" as well).

In truth, Wallace himself was as elite as they come. As are almost all those who hurl the charge of elitism at others. Our nation, both the public and private sectors, operates under the leadership of various elites. Doctors and lawyers and other professionals are all members of elites as are corporate managers. Readers of FindLaw are members of an elite. Elected officials and those seeking office are all members of elites. So when the Republican elite charge Democratic opponents with elitism, they are merely throwing stones from within their own glass house. Yet they still have managed to get away with it.

The term "elite" gets its sting because it suggests arrogance, lack of understanding for those who are not among the chosen few of society. Thus, it becomes an emotional issue, and most all of us vote with our gut (emotions), not our brains (reasoning powers).

Intellectual Elitism and Presidential Politics

In recent years, Democrats have nominated presidential candidates who are far more intelligent that their Republican counterparts. Common sense might suggest that high intelligence is necessary to be president, and conclude that we should applaud such nominations. Election politics, unfortunately, usually punishes the more intelligent nominee.

Start with Nixon. Hubert Humphrey had a remarkable mind and while Nixon was no slouch, Humphrey always struck those who knew both men well as way ahead of Nixon in intellect. Nixon was a grind; Humphrey, a quick study. The question of which of the two had greater raw intelligence was, however, viewed as a toss-up by most American, so elitism was a non-issue in the 1968 election. In 1972, Nixon easily disposed of a Ph.D. in history, George McGovern – even though MdGovern was a former B-52 pilot who was far better educated than Nixon, not to mention possessed of better judgment as well.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter (a nuclear physicist by training) made Gerald Ford seem something of a dunce (indeed, Lyndon Johnson had once said that Ford was incapable of chewing gum and thinking at the same time). Carter's Southern drawl, however, made his intelligence less than conspicuous, enabling him to win at least one term. But Ronald Reagan, whom no one will ever accuse of being an intellectual (his favored briefing material as president was Reader's Digest) trounced the elitist Carter in 1980, and then the far more mentally agile Walter Mondale in 1984.

Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry all were far brighter than their GOP opponents (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush), but only Clinton made it to the White House. Clinton played down his intelligence and education (Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law), and played up his bubba image. (Similarly, Hillary's tossing down boilermakers during the current primaries, and challenging Barack to a bowling match, were designed to play down her intelligence -- not to mention her own Wellesley and Yale Law education.)

In short, if past is prologue, and Senator Obama appears too smart, or the GOP successfully paints him as an elitist, he will have trouble winning in November. But maybe Bush's horrid presidency has changed the rules. Maybe Americans are ready to reconsidering wanting to elect the less intelligent candidate. And maybe Democrats can effectively deal with this bogus charge. I will return to these issues and this important subject in my next column.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard