I was consumed in the blast furnace that is the University of Chicago undergraduate experience, where I studied political science. It often wasn't pleasant, and the truth is that the place affected me far more than I cared to admit at the time. My two decades of grey matter were no match for a faculty that got credit for nothing but wielding the intellectual sword. (I'm sure there's plenty of departmental politics as well, but that wasn't my problem.)
President Obama -- too a much more rarefied extent -- must have experienced something similar during his nine years of teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. Yes, he's smarter than I am, and his brain was far more developed than mine, when the maroon whip fell. Nevertheless, this is a school with a point of view that communicates remarkably across the faculty as a whole. That's not to say that there isn't plenty of intellectual diversity, but there is one principle that always seems to hold sway -- a fondness for reality over ideology. Cynics beware, that doesn't mean a world without values. Rather, it implies a preference for policies that have a chance in hell of becoming a practical reality. Moreover, it recognizes, in the words of the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find that you get what you need."
With this lens, the first few months of the Obama administration start to snap into focus. On the foreign policy front, he's easing the nonsense with Cuba, burying some of the hatchet with Venezuela and trying to help the Mexicans forestall the development of a narco-state on our southern border. He's clearly sent signals to the Russians -- who seem to understand -- and to the Iranians, who maybe don't. (I fear that the conviction of a US journalist is a reaction by their hardliners to preserve a conflict that helps keep them in power.) As a result of all this, the US is generally more able to concentrate on the truly scary parts of the earth, like North Korea and Pakistan. Both have nuclear weapons and delivery systems: a madman controls the former while no one seemingly controls the latter. Perhaps that's why 25,000 more troops are on their way to Afghanistan: their ultimate destination may be Pakistan, with a mission to secure the nuclear weapons if the Taliban prevails.
Domestically, it's also clear that affection for reality prevails. As a result, there has been huge activity on the financial crisis, much of which isn't working but some of which is. And anyone who has listened to the President discuss the budget knows that he has laid out a ridiculously ambitious agenda, full in the knowledge that he's going to have to trade much of it away to get Congress to fund some of it He's made it abundantly clear that he's going to be a hard ass when it comes to energy, health care, education and the environment. To get something done on those fronts -- all of which require urgent attention -- he'll play ball. In other areas, he'll give ground. For those of us who have waited 8 years for good news, that can be frustrating, but it's the right strategy for a realistic president confronted with difficult times.