Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Professor

The NY Times has an interesting article about Obama the Professor, and the time he spent as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. It's an interesting read mostly thanks to the anecdotes about Obama, and it's fairly even-handed, but it's also full of a lot of speculation about Obama's motivations that I find to be...well, speculative at best. Here's one section that I think legitimately tells us something about Obama the candidate now:

Liberals flocked to his classes, seeking refuge. After all, the professor was a progressive politician who backed child care subsidies and laws against racial profiling, and in a 1996 interview with the school newspaper sounded skeptical 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.

But the liberal students did not necessarily find reassurance. “For people who thought they were getting a doctrinal, rah-rah experience, it wasn’t that kind of class,” said D. Daniel Sokol, a former student who now teaches law at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

For one thing, Mr. Obama’s courses chronicled the failure of liberal policies and court-led efforts at social change: the Reconstruction-era amendments that were rendered meaningless by a century of resistance, the way the triumph of Brown gave way to fights over busing, the voting rights laws that crowded blacks into as few districts as possible. He was wary of noble theories, students say; instead, they call Mr. Obama a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.

What a professor teaches in his class can be a fairly good indicator of what he personally believes, especially if the class is one that focuses on social policies and there's much leeway for the professor to control the content of the course. So I think this says something positive about Obama, as something of the pragmatist that he appears to be still today. But there were sections I found to be not nearly as useful, in which Obama's former colleagues and classmates discuss their opinions of him:

“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.”

Several colleagues say Mr. Obama was surely influenced by the ideas swirling around the law school campus: the prevailing market-friendliness, or economic analysis of the impact of laws. But none could say how. “I’m not sure we changed him,” Mr. Baird said.

Because he never fully engaged, Mr. Obama “doesn’t have the slightest sense of where folks like me are coming from,” Mr. Epstein said. “He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues.”

Clearly, Obama has had his eye on political office for a long time. Wisely, he did not engage in the sorts of ideological bickering that academics are well-known for, or take stands on controversial issues that could come back to bite him. There are some people who think it is some kind of sin for someone to live their life in a manner that befits someone who is or intends to enter politics (that is, carefully and prudently) but I honestly don't know why. Of course my speculation is even less well-founded than that of Obama's former colleagues, but it would appear from the article that although he enjoyed teaching, he has always had his eye on another goal.

And somehow I doubt, as Mr. Epstein seems to believe, that Obama has no idea where folks like him "are coming from." His colleagues admit that Obama was a thoughtful listener and observer, and I'm sure he learned considerably more than they give him credit for; he simply was not as free to express as much as he might've liked, knowing that anything he put to paper then could come back to haunt him in a future high-stakes campaign. And he has every reason to think that, as in a parallel piece here, the NY Times has gone to the trouble of re-publishing online the syllabus from Obama's 1994 "Racism and the Law" seminar course, as well as the text and answers from several of his final exams. As a recent graduate of law school, I can tell you that these documents are considerably less insightful and interesting than one might think they are at first. The NY Times blog post says this: "(As for the documents, if you’re not a lawyer, you will probably find the “Racism and the Law” syllabus a more satisfying read than the constitutional law exams.)" Perhaps, but only slightly so, and only law professors could truly find any of this to be that interesting, and only in the context of measuring Obama's tests against the ones they craft themselves. The syallbus really only indicates what Obama thought was important enough to teach, which says something, but not as much as one might think given that any responsible professor will cover certain topics regardless of his personal preferences. As for the text of the exams themselves, and the memos that accompany some of them regarding the answers, the only possible information that one could glean from them about Obama himself is that he regarded some topics as more useful than others in teaching basic matters of constitutional law. Is that because he found those topics particularly interesting? Or because he found them the most useful in testing the subject matter? Who could say? And even if it's the former, exactly what does that say about his "true" political beliefs, that he finds some topics that are test-worthy more interesting than others?

Obama is, as far as Presidential candidates go, a relative unknown. So I understand the desire to dig into as much of his past personal and public life as possible, to figure out his opinions and beliefs on issues that are of importance to us today. But as the NY Times itself demonstrates, this desire results in reporters digging through old exams and answers to discern Obama's true opinions. What would they make of actual law review articles, that take definite stands on difficult issues that can't easily be reduced to soundbites? Can it be that much of a surprise that Obama was not so eager to put nuances opinions and thoughts down on paper, where they could later be easily twisted in bad faith by political opponents? Hardly.

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