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The Times' Distorted Professor Obama

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Today's New York Times features a lengthy story by Jodi Kantor about Obama's time as a teacher at the University of Chicago Law School. Since I took a class from Obama in the mid-1990s on "Race, Racism, and the Law," I thought I could offer some insights into Obama, and what this article gets wrong. Although the article offers some interesting insights, it also distorts Obama's past and tries to attack Obama's candidacy by using his experiences at the University of Chicago as a way to confirm many of the false assertions made about Obama: that he's a politician who doesn't stand for anything, that he's an aloof elitist, that he only pretends to listen to opposing viewpoints.

The author even tries to smear Obama as someone who taught law school with an eye toward his own political ambitions:

Mr. Obama’s years at the law school are also another chapter — see United States Senate, c. 2006 — in which he seemed as intently focused on his own political rise as on the institution itself.

It's not even clear what this means, but it seems to suggest that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach as a teacher and colleague in the law school was all a guise he used to avoid taking positions which, presumably, he feared might be dug up a decade later by reporters investigating his presidential campaign. This notion is, of course, thoroughly insane. What the author should have concluded is that Obama's years at the University of Chicago Law School show without a doubt that Obama's careful, thoughtful approach to issues today is not a centrist political cop-out; instead, it's a fundamental intellectual approach that Obama followed long before he ever sought political office.

According to Kantor:

Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama’s former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them.

This is a particularly odd comment, suggesting that Obama was simply using his students as a way to prepare for his political ambitions. In reality, Obama as teacher and Obama as politician was inspired in both roles by certain values and thinkers, and it's no surprise to see similarities.

There's a particularly offensive attempt to dismiss Obama as an affirmative-action hire given a job solely because of his race:

Mr. Obama had impressed Mr. McConnell with editing suggestions on an article; on little more than that, the law school gave him a fellowship, which amounted to an office and a computer, which he used to write his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” The school had almost no black faculty members, a special embarrassment given its location on the South Side.

Let me assure you, it takes a lot more than that to embarrass most of the University of Chicago faculty. They have been thoroughly comfortable with the idea of an overwhelmingly white faculty teaching overwhelmingly white students about the law in an impoverished black neighborhood. Obama wasn't hired because he was black; he was hired because he was smart, and having been the president of the Harvard Law Review is a major qualification. It's routine for hiring to be made based on a personal connection, and Obama was given some office space with the hope that he would teach there in the future. I've taken classes with Michael McConnell, and although I disagree with his very conservative views, he's not somebody who goes around making cynical quota hires. The University of Chicago faculty hire whomever they want, and there is no real pressure to create diversity.

The New York Times article also tries to dismiss Obama's willingness to listen to other viewpoints as just an act:

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.”

Epstein is someone who regards intellectual debate as a physical sport, and Obama's thoughtful personality is the exact opposite of Epstein. I think the problem was that too many of the faculty, including Epstein, never really listened to Obama, or many other people who didn't shout their views out.

There are plenty of ways that Obama was influenced by the University of Chicago faculty. One is understanding that laws with noble intentions can have unintended consequences. A second is the complicated view of rationality that more modern aspects of the Chicago School have embraced. Unlike the Milton Friedman origins of the Chicago School of Economics, which turned every datum into an argument for the unregulated free market, the newer version of the Chicago School emphasizes the role of irrationality and the place of government in addressing these flaws. Obama has been influenced by its liberal (Sunstein) and centrist (Goolsbee) proponents.

However, there are many other ways in which Obama recognized the limitations of the University of Chicago approaches. As someone who was out in the trenches, he never accepted the ivory tower theorizing as superior to the facts on the ground.

Indeed, Obama probably learned a great deal from recognizing the flaws of his colleagues rather than swallowing their ideas wholesale. Obama embodies the University of Chicago ethic of asking "What's your evidence?" far better than most Chicago professors.

According to Kantor,

he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage.

To the contrary, Obama greatly benefitted the law school by being someone who was engaged, with the real world. The problem was that his ivory tower colleagues weren't very interested in the world of politics.

Yet Kantor writes,

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."

I very much doubt this. Richard Epstein is an over-the-top libertarian, and his views are very consistently, and loudly, expressed at every opportunity. I think Obama, like me and everybody else, figured Epstein out very quickly. Personally, I enjoy Epstein and his machine-gun-mouth spewing out oddball ideas all the time. But Epstein is never really interested in finding out where other people are coming from, and certainly not interested in changing his mind about anything. He's exactly the kind of person Obama would tend to ignore, the ideologue with a passion only for hearing himself. Epstein was annoyed that Obama never played his intellectual mind games, and instead sought to make real changes in the political world.

The article is also insulting toward Obama's students, calling some of them "groupies" and declaring that "Liberals flocked to his classes, seeking refuge."

Refuge? Maybe some liberals like the idea of a professor whose ideas weren't as crazy as the usual right-wingers, but the truth is that there were many progressives teaching at the law school when Obama was there, and most of the conservative professors were very tolerant of liberal thinkers, too. The appeal of Obama, more than any other professor, was his ability to listen to different points of views in a serious way, and yet still move students in the direction of understanding the law. That's precisely what makes Obama so powerful as a politician: He has the ability to listen to people who disagree with him, and yet still move people in a more progressive direction. That may be the most important skill Obama honed in his years at the University of Chicago.

I don't want to give the impression that this article is entirely negative. There are many positive aspects of Obama reported in the article.

Mr. Obama had a disarming touch. He did not belittle students; instead he drew them out, restating and polishing halting answers, students recall.

But overall, Kantor takes the overwhelmingly positive comments about Obama's years at Chicago and tries to twist them into a negative portrayal. Consider this quote:

In what even some fans saw as self-absorption, Mr. Obama’s hypothetical cases occasionally featured himself. “Take Barack Obama, there’s a good-looking guy,” he would introduce a twisty legal case.

Here the author of the article misinterprets Obama's self-deprecating humor as arrogance and "self-absorption," part of the "elitist" motif being used against Obama, and uses some anonymous "fans" to justify it. I find it hard to believe that multiple students brought up these jokes by Obama to attack him. Obviously, you can see why Obama has been forced to play down his sense of humor in the campaign, because the mainstream press simply can't understand a joke with this kind of subtlety.

The article hints at Obama's "budding political caution" as a reason why he didn't loudly proclaim his views in class, once again pushing the narrative of Obama as a typical politician unwilling to stand for anything. Kantor's article repeatedly tries to falsely smear Obama as indecisive and political:

When two fellow faculty members asked him to support a controversial antigang measure, allowing the 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

Really? Perhaps it was a case of Obama trying to be polite and listen to two faculty he disagreed with, or simply his willingness to hear about a novel proposal. But it's simply false to suggest that Obama never took a stand. To the contrary, in the Illinois Senate Obama did the opposite of what a pandering politician would be expected to do: He refused to accept the attack on individual rights in the name of going after gangs.

Obama voted against a proposal to criminalize contact with a gang for any convicts on probation or out on bail. And in 2001, Obama opposed making gang activity eligible for the death penalty: "There's a strong overlap between gang affiliation and young men of color.... I think it's problematic for them to be singled out as more likely to receive the death penalty for carrying out certain acts than are others who do the same thing." Defending the violation of rights of gang members hardly fits with the story of the wavering Obama being created in this article.

The New York Times article concludes with this dismissive comment:

So even some former students who are thrilled at Mr. Obama’s success wince when they hear him speaking like the politician he has so fully become. “When you hear him talking about issues, it’s at a level so much simpler than the one he’s capable of,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was a lot more fun to listen to back then.”

This seems to be an attempt to attack Obama by dismissing him as just another elitist politician speaking down to the American people. During the campaign, Obama often spoke at a serious intellectual level. But whenever he did so, the media ignored him, or attacked him. It's because of the dumbed-down press coverage of issues that Obama has to simplify what he says. But if Obama wasn't running a University of Chicago law class at a higher intellectual level than what the general public hears from the press, he wouldn't be doing his job. Far from being a reason to condemn him, this should be the clearest evidence yet of Obama's skills as president. The current guy in the Oval Office turned out to reveal all of his intellectual abilities in his folksy campaigning style, and the result has been a disaster for the country.

We desperately need a president who's smarter than the average American. And we desperately need a media willing to report the truth about candidates without trying to spin the story against them in a way that badly distorts reality.

Read more at John K. Wilson's Daily Kos Diary.