Diary

The University Of Chicago And Its Influence On Barack Obama

Remember this essay by law professor Cass Sunstein–who taught at the University of Chicago but will now be going to Harvard? In it, Sunstein assures readers that as a result of teaching at one of the more right-of-center law schools in the country, Barack Obama has had a unique and valuable exposure to right-of-center thinking that makes him impossible to pigeonhole as a conventional contemporary liberal. Quoth Sunstein:

[Obama} is strongly committed to helping the disadvantaged, but his University of Chicago background shows. He appreciates the virtues and power of free markets. In some of his most important disagreements with Senator Clinton, he suggested caution about mandates and bans, and stressed  the value of freedom of choice.

Comes now this article in the New York Times. Its take is . . . er . . . different:

At a formal institution, Barack Obama was a loose presence, joking with students about their romantic prospects, using first names, referring to case law one moment and “The Godfather” the next. He was also an enigmatic one, often leaving fellow faculty members guessing about his precise views.

[. . .]

But 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. Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was well liked at the law school, yet he was always slightly apart from it, leaving some colleagues feeling a little cheated that he did not fully engage. 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.”

[. . .]

Nor could his views be gleaned from 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.

The Chicago law faculty is full of intellectually fiery friendships that burn across ideological lines. Three times a week, professors do combat over lunch at a special round table in the university’s faculty club, and they share and defend their research in workshop discussions. Mr. Obama rarely attended, even when he was in town.

“I’m not sure he was close to anyone,” Mr. Hutchinson said, except for a few liberal constitutional law professors, like Cass Sunstein, now an occasional adviser to his campaign. Mr. Obama was working two other jobs, after all, in the State Senate and at a civil rights law firm.

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.”

Now, to be completely fair, there are liberals quoted in the story who were law students of Obama’s and who believe that he was never close to them either. And of course, Obama was never seeking to be an academic. He wanted to be in the world of politics and he kept his views and his stances somewhat enigmatic so that it would be easier to succeed down the line. That’s fine; it’s what politicians do anyway and no one should be surprised.

But we should stop thinking that Barack Obama is some sort of Democratic Burkean whose mind carries with it a healthy imprint from the right-of-center, free market thinking that the University of Chicago is famous for. His former colleagues would love to say that they were an influence on a man who could potentially be the next President of the United States. And they can’t say it. Cass Sunstein says it but Cass Sunstein is attached to the Obama campaign. And his words are undercut by a whole host of his colleagues who believed that intellectually, Obama had no use for the ideas that reigned and reign supreme at the University of Chicago.

Barack Obama is, of course, free to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe. But his pedagogical career does not lend any uniqueness to his political views. He is a smart guy who probably would have done well in academia if he had decided to go down that road. He is also a smart guy who is doing very well indeed in the political world.

But above all else, he is a conventional Democratic politician. The University of Chicago is an entry on his resume. It has had no impact whatsoever on his thinking, Cass Sunstein’s testimonial to the contrary notwithstanding. Genuine free marketeers, “Obamacans” and “Obamacons” should take note.