Op-Ed: The Presidential IQs
“Run through the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level test, his text of responses score at the 4th-grade reading level.” — Jack Shafer in Politico in advance of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech.
Definition.org, presumably an on-line dictionary of sorts, recently ran a list of U.S. presidents ranked by their IQ’s. Not wanting to think too deeply on how they managed to find all these IQ levels, I scrolled the list for the fun of it.
Here are some interesting finds:
- The only two presidents without a published IQ are Donald Trump and Barak Obama. Maybe their numbers go off the scale, as each likes to present himself as the smartest person in the room.
- Every president had an IQ of at least 120, which means classified as superior intelligence and above. This is about 25 percent of the population. We Americans don’t elect dummies, do we?
- Slightly more than half meant the qualifications to be admitted to Mensa, which only accepts intelligence levels in the top 2 percent of population.
- Three of the top five were Founding Fathers or their generation. No surprise there, surely.
- The other two are modern presidents known for the marital indiscretions. Does this point out the real difference between native intelligence and applied intelligence?
- The modern presidents popularly considered dumb actually were anything but. They simply didn’t agree with coastal elitist ideology. In other words, conservative.
But does an off-the-chart IQ guarantee a successful presidency. For purposes of this argument, let’s define as success as being able to accomplish one’s agenda and leave the nation better off than when first taking office.
Jefferson and Madison both had some success as we look back. Jefferson bought the Louisiana territory for a song, and Madison persevered to win the War of 1812 and free the United States of British economic domination. But consider the cost. Jefferson implemented an embargo of imported goods, all but eliminating federal government tariff receipts and ruining New England’s economy. Madison doubled down on this policy and literally bankrupted the new nation when it defaulted on its debt. Brilliant men to be sure, but I wouldn’t have wanted to live during their presidencies.
Two others are more of a mixed case. Kennedy wasn’t in office long enough to fully implement his policies. On the plus side, he stared down Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and pushed the beginning of a series of economic growth stimulators such as tax rate cuts. On the negative side is the Bay of Pigs..
John Quincy Adams entered the presidency after a brilliant diplomatic career but spent his term fighting with the Jacksonian Democrats who controlled Congress. He argued that the general welfare clause of the Constitution empowered the federal government to fund internal improvements like roads and education. For better or worse, that’s still how the politicians in Washington D. C. see their role.
The only one of the top five that I think has a case for being a successful president, and it pains me to say this, is Clinton. But here’s my caveat: His legislative success came after the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 and he intelligently learned to meet them halfway or more on key issues. He certainly has the best case of the five for presiding over economic prosperity.
So what does this all mean? I have no idea.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.