Commentary Magazine


Anecdotes from Professor Obama

In connection with an article coming out in tomorrow’s New York Times, reporter Jodi Kantor has uploaded materials from Professor Barack Obama’s constitutional law classes at the University of Chicago. Political junkies will find the documents interesting, and they can be accessed here. But most telling are the anecdotes recounted throughout the article. Here are a few:

The Chicago faculty is more rightward-leaning than that of other top law schools, but if teaching alongside some of the most formidable conservative minds in the country had any impact on Mr. Obama, no one can quite point to it.

“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Mr. Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”

[. . .]

In a 1996 interview with the school newspaper, sounded suspicious of President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reach across the aisle.

“On the national level, bipartisanship usually means Democrats ignore the needs of the poor and abandon the idea that government can play a role in issues of poverty, race discrimination, sex discrimination or environmental protection,” Mr. Obama said.

[. . .]

While students appreciated Mr. Obama’s professorial reserve, colleagues sometimes wanted him to take a stand. When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial antigang measure, allowing Chicago police to disperse and eventually arrest loiterers who had no clear reason to gather, Mr. Obama discussed the issue with unusual thoughtfulness, they say, but gave little sign of who should prevail — the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the measure, or the community groups that supported it out of concern about crime.

“He just observed it with a kind of interest,” said Daniel Kahan, now a professor at Yale.

Nor could his views be gleaned from law review articles or other scholarship; Mr. Obama has never published any. He was too busy, but also, Mr. Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Ms. Guinier’s writings had hurt her.

“He figured out, you lay low,” Mr. Epstein said.

Conservative and liberal pundits alike will, of course, glean what they want from this article. But push aside Kantor’s fluff, and I believe one can better understand the workings of “a guy with political ambitions for his entire adult life [who] has not left a paper trail,” as Jim Geraghty wrote on The Campaign Spot.