Much of what we know about Obama comes from people he sucked up to (David Remnick's biography The Bridge, for example, is unconsciously hilarious as various personages Obama has kissed up to go on and on about they told all their friends the first time they met him that he should be President). The more interesting perspectives have come from those people who observed him without being in a position to forward his glorious career, such as his Harvard Law School classmate who had been the bass player for The Runaways.
From the comments, here's another plausible sounding perspective on Obama at HLS:
I went there [Harvard Law School] one year behind Obama, had one class together. I graduated cum laude, and my measured IQ last time was 156, and I got perfect score on LSAT. But I am also a little bit ADHD-ish, and I don't think I studied as diligently as most of my peers. I mention this because (besides being defensive about not doing better) while the HLS population is quite smart, they are even more different from average in discipline and diligence, and while Obama was not the smartest guy there, he was f****** amazing in terms of discipline. Over all, I think his package of mental gifts are well superior to mine.
First of all, not all classes were blind graded. On many there were signed papers. And in my class, Obama sat in the front row every day and gazed at the professor with an adoration that Nancy Reagan would have been embarrassed to beam at Ron. He worked them incredibly assiduously. And very successfully. That helped his scores. That isn't LSAT intelligence, but it requires an interpersonal skill that is way beyond mine, and I hazard, way beyond anyone reading this. That is very demanding, and he had that ON TOP OF very respectable raw IQ.
I know that because there are a lot of classes that are blind graded, not easily gamed, and you can't be a dope in them and get magna. Even without his brilliant suck-up skills, he would make the top half of the Harvard distribution.
Steve is right to focus on his ability to paraphrase opponents' arguments to disarm them. Someone of glaringly average intelligence -- like say, Amanda Marcotte -- is a complete failure at that.
As far as his hesitation to make decisions, I don't ascribe that to lack of intelligence. It is part conscious strategy. He never gave a substantive opinion in class -- he just paraphrased others. People loved it, and thought he was brilliant. Those of us who thought that made him a pussy were few and far between. And he kept to that strategy with iron discipline. You might think of it as like the post-modern philosophy in chess: never commit until after the other guy does, and then you have the chance to decide what to do when you have learned more. I agree there are a lot of problems with that strategy for being president, but it sure does seem to work like gang-busters for getting to be president.
Though I think it is more than strategy, cause he does it even when it is stupid. I think that was his survival skill for being the only black kid in Hawaii and Indonesia. I mean think about it, that has to be terrifying, and living in that kind of fear for so long has to leave a mark. Clinton learned from his abusive alcoholic parents to lie lie lie, and do whatever feels good. Obama learned from his disinterested, abandoning parents to never let yourself be vulnerable by committing to anything.
Anyway, my main point is: I don't want this guy to be president, and I don't share his beliefs, and I think he is more than half a crook (see e.g. Michelle's bag collecting disguised as a phony baloney job at U of C hospital). But anyone is a fool who takes his talents lightly.
One thing that's fascinating about Obama is that he had such a hard time understanding that he had a Rev. Wright problem. He donated large amounts of money to Wright's church in 2005, 2006, and 2007, which appears on his publicly released tax records. He named his 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope after a Wright sermon. Wright was going to give the invocation at Obama's presidential kickoff rally in Springfield in February 2007 up until somebody convinced Obama to disinvite Wright the night before.
Wright understood all this better than Obama. As Wright told the NYT in 2007 about why he was disinvited, when people find out I went to Libya with Farrakhan and met with Gadaffi ...
And yet, as David Plouffe has admitted, the Obama campaign staff was blindsided by Wright videos finally appearing in the MSM on Feb. 13, 2008. They were just lucky Wright was on a cruise at the moment. When he got back and went on his media tour six weeks later, he made Obama's famous race speech look like a pack of lies.
Ultimately, Wright supposedly spent the fall campaign in email hell in Africa, which sounds like smart planning on the part of the Obama braintrust ... finally.