While perusing Right Web internet data last week, we noticed a considerable bump in traffic for our profile of Bret Stephens, a deputy editorial page editor and weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page is an important bastion of neoconservative opinion. Stephens appears to help set the tone for much of the Journal’s editorial content on matters of foreign policy.
We pay careful attention to our profile traffic, since bumps for certain profiles often point to trending topics and voices. So it was somewhat disappointing to discover the apparent source of such interest in Stephens. Our own increased traffic coincided with a well-circulated recent column he wrote on President Obama entitled “Is Obama Smart?” In it, Stephens breaks with frustrated political progressives and paranoid conservatives alike in offering his own assessment of the president’s intellect:
“How many times have we heard it said that Mr. Obama is the smartest president ever? Even when he's criticized, his failures are usually chalked up to his supposed brilliance. Liberals say he's too cerebral for the Beltway rough-and-tumble; conservatives often seem to think his blunders, foreign and domestic, are all part of a cunning scheme to turn the U.S. into a combination of Finland, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.
“I don't buy it. I just think the president isn't very bright.”
Stephens’ piece is light on the details; much of the “support” for his argument entails his frustration at the president’s supposed failure to tack to the center on issues like health care in the face of difficult political winds, though most progressives will tell you that this is hardly a viable assessment. More generally, Stephens cringes at Obama’s apparent confidence in his own abilities, even invoking Socrates’ admonition, in Stephens’ words, that “wisdom begins in the recognition of how little we know”—perhaps as a head nod to the self-styled Platonists who comprise the Straussian school of neoconservatism.
There are a number of schools of thought on the president’s skills as a tactician; many on the right perceive a surreptitious plot to guide the country leftward under the fig leaf of moderation, while many on the left see the president as weak-kneed or ineffective. Still others, most notably Glenn Greenwald, attribute the president’s shortcomings on domestic and foreign policy to his actual views, arguing especially that Obama is simply disinclined to break completely with the neoconservatives, hardcore nationalists, and other assorted right-wingers who guided the foreign and domestic policy of his predecessor’s administration.
Stephens’ criticisms of Obama are nothing new. In other op-eds, Stephens—who was previously the youngest-ever editor-in-chief of the rightwing Jerusalem Post—has lambasted Obama’s Israel policy, especially as it concerns the relevance of 1967 borders, the issue of Palestinian refugees, and the future role of Hamas. While Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has remarked that he “can hardly remember a better period of [U.S.] support” for Israel than exists currently, the Likudnik Stephens has nonetheless deemed Obama “anti-Israel.”