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September 17th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President: #971 'Don't get smart'

Reporter's Note: President Obama is a very clever man. I think most of Washington agrees on that. The question in today’s letter, however: Is he too smart for his own good?

Dear Mr. President,

Were you ever told “Don’t get smart with me!” when you were a kid?

When I was little I didn’t understand that phrase. It seemed to me that a reasonable parent would, to the contrary, very much want his or her child to “get smart” at every chance. I mean, if the converse is “stay stupid,” why would anyone object to the former option?

As I grew older I came to realize what the saying means; “Don’t be impertinent. Show some manners and respect others in the room; including their intelligence.”

With all the greatest respect, I think this is something you ought to keep in mind as you try to win back the public’s confidence in your leadership, your handling of the economy, and your claims to re-election. You are undeniably smart, but for all of the advantages that brings your way, it also presents certain dangers.

Smart people can easily appear condescending and elitist. They can be too quick to dismiss the ideas of others whom they consider less brilliant. They can become so convinced of the smartness of their actions that they can blunder far more disastrously than a dull witted person ever would. (After all, the dullard rarely summons the hell for leather confidence to attack a big matter with much force, and he certainly can’t rally an army behind him in the process.) And smart people can often be provoked into rash decisions, hasty fights, and foolish mistakes by any suggestion that they are perhaps not as smart as they think they are.

I know all of this, because I am pretty smart and I’ve made all those mistakes many times. I’m willing to bet that you’ve made them, too.

There is a difference between being smart and being wise. America knows you are smart. Make no mistake about that. You must now show them that you are wise. Because a wise president will outlast a smart one any day, and likely better serve the country too.

Regards,

Tom