Obama Too Cool For School
Two pieces by Jodi Kantor in the NYT looking at Barack Obama’s days teaching at the University of Chicago are drawing widespread interest in the blogosphere. The first, “Teaching Law, Testing Ideas, Obama Stood Apart,” is a series of anecdotes woven together to present the picture of a gifted teacher who had one foot in the classroom and another in politics and who refused to do anything, including writing scholarly articles, which might be used against him in a campaign. A companian blog piece, “Inside Professor Obama’s Classroom,” provides some primary source documents, mostly course materials.
The overnight reaction has come mostly from the Right. Daniel Halper draws our attention to this passage:
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. [Lani] Guinier’s writings had hurt her.
“He figured out, you lay low,” Mr. Epstein said.
Halper thinks this signifies a man with too much ambition, a point AllahPundit also makes. Perhaps. It’s also a remarkable demonstration of discipline. Clearly, Obama loves to debate ideas and to engage. That he could be so careful for so long in an attempt to achieve something so incredibly unlikely as the presidency is stunning. (Perhaps especially so to me, since the ability to keep a low profile and hide my views to advance my career has never been among my talents.)
Pejman Yousefzadeh draws our attention to this, a passage that struck me as well:
“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.”
The statement is an odd one about a man who’s about to take his party’s presidential nomination and would seem the favorite to win that office in his mid-40s. But, yes, he’s a man who got what he needed out of each stop in his career without fully giving of himself.
Pejman cites it, though, as a rebuttal to Cass Sunstein’s suggestion that Obama’s time at Chicago should comfort conservatives, since surely free market economics must have rubbed off. Instead, “The University of Chicago is an entry on his resume. It has had no impact whatsoever on his thinking.” That’s overstating it a bit — Kantor makes it clear that Obama was using the classroom as a means of honing his ideas and delivery — but fundamentally true. Obama has known who he is and what he thinks for a long time and everything since has been about getting to where he wants to be.
UPDATE (Alex Knapp) I admit that I am extraordinarily amused by the right-wing kerfuffle over this article. If you had told me, just one year ago, that you would hear conservatives complaining that a left-wing college professor was not imposing his ideology on his students, I would have gladly bet good money against that proposition. This is why I love election years. They’re the years where black is white and up is down.