The dust is now beginning to settle in the US and the realisation is that, for the first time, the presidental election is going to have a serious black candidate. Indeed, most of the talk has been about his race as a stumbling block to his winning the big prize. Certainly, his race will be an issue and much will be made of that as well as the name he bears. As far as I am concerned, however, this is not the major stumbling block for Obama to become president. No, the major problem he has is that he’s smart and doesn’t mind showing it.
While this sounds somewhat flippant, it is actually as serious point. Most of the American electorate donm’t seem to trust a smart politician (and who can blame them?). Tracing the list of holders of the office from the second world war it’s easy to see why:
- FDR: one of the greatest leaders the country ever had and a fearsome intellect;
- Truman: something of an everyman and a safe pair of hands;
- Eisenhower: clearly trading on his military triumphs, but you don’t need to be smart to be a general;
- Kennedy: charismatic, but only just managed to scrape past Nixon to gain office. Had he not been assisinated, would we still have this idealised view of what he did?
- Johnson: old-style, rather saturnine southerner who managed to carry on some of the civil rights work that JFK started, but also took US troops in Vietnam. So not that smart then.
- Nixon: The only real intellectual heavyweight since FDR. And look where he ended up. Probably the principal reason why Americans don’t trust a clever man in the highest office to this day;
- Ford: decent, but only got the job by being the last man standing after Watergate.
- Carter: won because he was the down-home peanut farmer form Georgia. A bright guy but he didn’t play on that for the electorate. Unlucky. and much underrated;
- Reagan: the start of the cult of dumb. Need I say more?
- Bush Snr: got the job by virtue of his closeness with Reagan, and the fact he was running against the patently crap Michael Dukakis;
- Clinton: fearsomely intelligent, but you wouldn’t have known that from the campaigning. Used his enormous charisma and marketed himself as a good-ol’ Arkansas boy to get the seat. And even kept up the pretence a little after he won;
- GWB: at heart I don’t think Bush is that stupid (I don’t think that’s actually possible), but he seems to embrace ignorance in an entirely unhealthy way.
The fact is, looking at that list post-WWII, US voters don’t go for clever. And McCain looks spectacularly dumb from this side of the pond. Looks like Obama’s going to have to think his strategy through really carefully to have any chance of convincing the great American public.