Obama's Problem as 'The Smartest Person in the Room'

Since Obama first stepped on the national stage, pundits have fallen all over each other in a race to declare that Obama is special type of genius.  Tom Shales of the WaPo recently called Obama "the smartest kid in the class."  Billionaire Julian Robertson claimed, "Obama, from all I read, thinks that on every occasion that he is the smartest person in the room.  And I think he often probably is. ..."

Robertson may be half-right.  Obama apparently does consider himself the smartest person in every room.  According to Peter Baker of the NYT, "One prominent Democratic lawmaker told me Obama's problem is that he is not insecure -- he always believes he is the smartest person in any room and never feels the sense of panic. ... [Emphasis added.]"

How do Shales, Robertson, and even Obama know that the president is the smartest kid in the class or the smartest guy in the room?  There is an interesting and little-discussed quandary (in logic it is called an aporia) in the assertion that person X, whoever that might be, is the smartest person in the room.

Before we examine this problem, let's set down some parameters.  What do these people mean by "smartest"?  Since the discussion is about politics, it is fairly safe to assume that "smartest" does not refer to some standard test for intelligence.

Thinking it through, Obama's admirers cannot be referring to his IQ.  In terms of IQ, Obama is clearly not the smartest person in any room he enters.  The fact of the matter is that Obama's IQ scores have not been made public. Guesses by enthusiasts of his IQ range from 140 to 170 [i].  Obama's detractors calculate a much lower IQ.  Even conceding the highest score of 170, Obama will not always be the smartest person in any room.  He would rarely be the smartest person at a local MENSA convention and never be the smartest person at a meeting of the ISPE.

Perhaps "smartest" denotes "having the greatest overall knowledge" -- i.e., real-world smart.  Is Obama the most knowledgeable person in any room?  This too seems unlikely.  Imagine a party attended by a physicist, a historian, a neuroscientist, an English professor, and President Obama.  Let's assume they all have roughly the same IQ.  The smartest person in the room (in terms of knowledge) will depend on what topics are discussed.  If the subjects are plasma energy, Thucydides, synapse firings, and the proper use of the gerund, Obama will not be the smartest man in the room.  Keep in mind that prior to becoming a politician, Obama's claim to real-world intellectual status was as an instructor in, not a professor of, constitutional law.

There is another possible definition of "smartest."  Obama could have the most "street smarts."  This kind of intelligence would entail being the most cunning and devious person in any room.  Let's call this "Machiavellian smart."  Here, Obama might take the prize.  As we will see below, no one except Obama would know, and be able to truthfully assert, that Obama is the "Machiavellian smartest" person in the room.  That would spoil the scam.

As Machiavelli said, "It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver."  Of course, this "double" deceiver must not be caught in the act of deception.  If by "smartest" Shales and Robertson (and everyone else -- except Obama -- who makes such a claim) mean that Obama is the "Machiavellian smartest," they would be willing dupes to an ongoing hustle.  Machiavelli described such associations this way: "One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived" [ii].

I am not implying that Shales and Robertson have been bamboozled -- although they are clearly gushing in their praise of Obama's "smarts," whatever those might be.  I am asserting that they do not and cannot know what they are talking about when they claim that Obama is the smartest person in any room.

A claim by Y that "X is the smartest person in the room" depends on how "smartest" is defined and on whether or not Y is in the room with X [iii].  Consider, once again, a room containing a physicist, a historian, a neuroscientist, and an English professor.  Y agrees to tell us who is the smartest person in the room.  (In this example, "smartest" means "highest overall knowledge.")

If Y is smart enough to accurately establish which of the four people in the room has the best grasp of a variety of topics, Y must have an even better understanding of those subjects than the people in the room.  Inside the room after his interviews are completed, if Y is honest and capable of making the determination, Y will say, "I am the smartest person in the room."  If Y conducts the survey outside the room (say, through a conference call), then Y can truthfully and objectively report which of the four people is the smartest in the room.  In either event, Y must be smarter than all the people in the room to inform us of the name of the smartest person therein.

A room full of outstanding con artists (or politicians) presents Y with an entirely different scenario.  "Machiavellian" became an adjective defined as "cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics or in advancing one's career" for a reason.  Moral person Y will be hard-pressed to detect the greatest Machiavellian "double deceiver" in a room filled with them.

Note that it will be impossible for those of us outside of the room to determine whether or not Y is part of some greater deception if Y identifies X as the "smartest person in this room," where "smartest" means most devious.  If Y is "smart" enough to detect the "smartest" con artist, it is highly likely that Y is either the biggest of the swindlers -- or  that Y is covering for the greatest con man in the room.  In either event in this scenario, if Y claims that "X is the Machiavellian smartest person in the room" there are reasons to doubt Y's conclusion.

Getting back to the quote from the NYT, notice that the unnamed Democrat source says that Obama "always believes he is the smartest person in any room."  There is something creepy about this claim -- if it is true.

Everyone reading this essay has been, at one time or another, the smartest person in a room.  We knew it at the time.  But what kind of narcissism and/or Machiavellian cunning must reside in the heart of a person who "always believes he is the smartest person in any room"?

A friend of Socrates named Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates.  The priestess for the oracle replied there was no one.  Socrates did not relish the proclamation that he was, in effect, the smartest person in any room.  In fact, Socrates challenged the pronouncement:

"It seemed to me ... that the people with the greatest reputations [for wisdom] were almost entirely deficient, while others who were supposed to be their inferiors were much better qualified in practical intelligence." [iv]

This is called "humility."  The smartest person in one room fully understands that he may not be the smartest person in the next.  That's a large part of what it takes to be "the smartest person in the room."

Larrey Anderson is a writer, a philosopher, and Senior Editor for American Thinker.  He is the author of the award-winning novel The Order of the Beloved and the memoir Underground.  He is working on a new book called The Death of Culture.

[i] The website that claimed Obama's IQ was 170 (give or take a few points) offered this irrational defense of why Obama had not released his test scores: "Obama's campaign is apparently NOT HAPPY about The Washington Post preparing to disclose this [a purported high IQ score], because they fear it adds to his reputation as not an 'everyman' and being too 'elitist.'"  This explanation assumes that a highly intelligent person is, ipso facto, an elitist -- whatever "elitist" might mean.  It seems evident that most people would respect, and even desire, an intelligent president.  One would think that WaPo would rush to publish such an IQ score if it were verifiable.  Which is more likely: not revealing an IQ score because it proves the president's intelligence is "average" or because it shows the president is a genius?  (Hint: one does not have to be the smartest person in the room to answer that question.)

[ii] Take the three definitions of "smart" I have presented in the reverse order: (1) street smart, (2) knowledgeable, and (3) high IQ.  Now think of them in the context of this quote from Machiavelli:

There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the other appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others.  This first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless.
[iii] For the remainder of this discussion, I have dispensed with the notion of IQ as equivalent to "smartest."  Obama would have to have an IQ well over 200 to be the smartest person in any room.  Such is clearly not the case.

[iv] Apology, 23a.