Pres. Obama has a manner of speaking that gives a strong impression of depth, thoughtfulness, and a calm and steady intellectual air. I believe it is this, his manner of speaking, far more than the content of his speeches, that led so many to conclude he was so smart. Speaking in broken fragments, with frequent pauses and slurring of speech to suggest a mind busy at work, his style betrays both great breadth and depth of thought.
I have several work-in-progress theories about why he speaks as he does, and I’m not yet convinced that I know which is right. A growing body of evidence favors one theory over the others, but until I am convinced, I will not declare myself for any of them.
Theory I: He’s Faking It
This was my initial theory. I believe that a careful observer of Washington could now conclude that my early suspicions were right. I thought Candidate Obama was faking his intelligence. I’d believe they had some focus groups and decided to run with it. It could have started when the campaign noticed that his natural bumbling seemed to actually be helping him somehow, if it wasn’t something he had already learned in his academic career.
He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about basic policy and worldview questions that anybody running for or occupying the office of president would have to know and believe so deeply as to need no deep and penetrating thoughtful analysis. This is what made me suspicious — I just can’t believe he’s actually figuring out his views on things as he goes. The simplest explanation is that it was all already there, with this speaking style that he had somehow discovered to be effective acting as a veneer.
Theory II: He’s Actually Thinking On-the-Fly
A scarier possibility, that I’m less inclined to believe, is the one that the “Obama is a very smart man and he won’t lead us astray” crowd made: if he really was thinking so hard, about such basic and obvious questions, it would seem like somehow, after years of public service and months of campaigning, he hadn’t settled upon clear views on basic issues. Was that supposed to give me comfort?
There is plenty of evidence out there that he isn’t walking around with a broad base of knowledge in his head, that he has trouble with orders of magnitude, that he is ignorant of milestone events in American history, that he does not understand how business works, etc. The problem here is that presidents prepare for all of their speaking engagements quite vigorously, and those gaps could be concealed for the sake of a speech or a question and answer session. So despite some evidence for this theory, the theory that he’s actually not very smart at all, I’m not committing to it.
Theory III: He’s Deceiving Us
This is a theory with a growing body of evidence, incorporating elements of both of the above theories but with an added twist: the faking is on his views and the on-the-fly thinking is on how to conceal them. I’m talking about the president using Rules for Radicals as his Elements of Style here. If he really does have a deep personal commitment to state power and collectivism, which he certainly did quite openly in his not-so-distant youth, then this is a possibility that should be very seriously entertained. Saul Alinsky’s ideas in Rules for Radicals have undoubtedly had their influence on this president, as a quick Google search will reveal.
Alinsky’s Rule #2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” The idea here is that people are uncomfortable with strange and unfamiliar ideas, and that makes them a much harder sell. The ideas of Alinsky and Obama are undoubtedly discomforting to very large portions of the American population. Maybe these are well-formed and clearly understood and deeply held ideas, as the thinking of any president ought to be. If this is the case, perhaps the thoughtful-sounding bumbling is because he has to use language with which he himself is uncomfortable, and believes he is tiptoeing through a minefield when he’s doing it. This is a view growing in popularity on the right, and, like the other two above, is consistent with observation.
I don’t know if any of these theories are right. They are all reasonable conclusions to draw, but as we collect more and more evidence, one in particular is becoming more and more harmonious with the facts. This is a subject that fascinates me, and that I believe is important to understand, so I will update periodically as significant new evidence emerges.
Of course, I don’t necessarily think that an analysis of how our president speaks needs to lead to a negative conclusion about him, just that all of the reasonable explanations I have found do work out that way when considered alongside what we know from his short history of governing. I’d love to be wrong, and am open to arguments.