Barack Obama

Lessons from Professor Barack Obama

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The New York Times has a very interesting article on Barack Obama's teaching career at the University of Chicago Law School. There's a lot to chew on, though this quote from libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein certainly jumped out:

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."

This runs counter to the "Obamacon" narrative, where disgruntled libertarians and conservatives not only prefer Obama to John McCain, they explicitly see him as sharing some of their own concerns (and values). Epstein's quote suggests that Obama's right-leaning fans might be in for something of a letdown this fall.

But Obama's marks from faculty liberals weren't that much higher:

In his voting rights course, Mr. Obama taught Lani Guinier's proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation. Opponents attacked those suggestions when Ms. Guinier was nominated as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, costing her the post.

"I think he thought they were good and worth trying," said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago.

But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Mr. Obama would not say so directly. "He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier's proposals with total neutrality and equanimity," Mr. Franklin said. "He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth."

Whole thing here.

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  1. “He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier’s proposals with total neutrality and equanimity,” Mr. Franklin said. “He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth.”

    Isn’t that, uh, kind of his job?

  2. Epstein’s quote suggests that Obama’s right-leaning fans might be in for something of a letdown this fall.

    Don’t worry about it! Just keep hoping.

    Sheesh.

  3. But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Mr. Obama would not say so directly.

    Or because he was a good teacher.

  4. Obama’s right-leaning fans might be in for something of a letdown this fall

    Hah! More like Obama’s right-leaning fans are delusional masochists.

    Although I think it’s terribly misguided, I can almost understand the libertarian supporters of Obama: He’s not enthusiastic about the war, talks a good game on some privacy stuff, did drugs as a young man, etc.

    The Obamacons, on the other hand, are somehow blinded to his essentially maxed-out liberal voting score and would apparently like to see our president move us to a more 1970’s style economic climate.

    Nuts.

  5. “His most traditional course was in the due process and equal protection areas of constitutional law.”

    What a contrast with Bush. Republicans apparently want us to move to more Nazi-like police-state, law enforcement climate.

    Remember if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear!

  6. Obama’s right-leaning fans might be in for something of a letdown this fall.

    You think?

  7. Obama is not a professor. The article doesn’t make that clear.
    Obama doesn’t understand the constitution by the fact he tried to ban private ownership of firearms and he hasn’t tried to repeal McCain-Feingold, not to mention all the other unconstitutional proposals he is running on.

    This election is the choice between a schmuck(McCain) and a bigger schmuck(Obama).

  8. How do you not ever take a stand with your fellow law school professors? Professors love to argue and talk about their fields. That is half the reason you become a law professor is for the joy of being able to talk through your views with other elites in the field. How can anyone with an ounce of intellectual curiosity not want to sit down and go at it with Richard Epstein? Even if you think he is whacked, who wouldn’t want a shot at that guy every day?

    I don’t know quite what to make of that fact. It could be that Obama just isn’t very bright and was intimidated and afraid to really take a stand and engage with the likes Epstein for fear of being embarassed. Considering his Texas sized ego, that is unlikly. It could be that Obama really doesn’t think about these issues and had no interest in talking about them. Maybe he just doesn’t have a lot of intellectual curiosity. It could also be that he is cold and calculating and was afraid to say something that would someday come back to bite him. I think this is most likly.

    All and all it seems that he is not a particularly nice or soulful fellow. I for the life of me can’t figure out anything he has ever done that wasn’t calculated to benefit him and his career.

  9. It’s pretty disgraceful how Lani Guiner’s arguments got distorted and misrepresented during that confirmation battle.

    She was talking about things like Proportional Representation vs. Single Member districts vs. At Large districts, and Instant Runoff Voting, to provide a voice to electoral minorities, and the Republicans made it sound like she wanted to set aside seats based on race.

    It’s a shame, that might have been the best opportunity in a long time to get the public talking about how the electoral system works.

  10. Douglas Baird, another colleague, remembers once asking Mr. Obama to assess potential candidates for governor.

    “First of all, I’m not running for governor, ” Mr. Obama told him. “But if I did, I would expect you to support me.”

    Wow. Just, wow.

  11. “She was talking about things like Proportional Representation vs. Single Member districts vs. At Large districts, and Instant Runoff Voting, to provide a voice to electoral minorities, and the Republicans made it sound like she wanted to set aside seats based on race.”

    Joe has got to be the funniest thing you have ever wrote. The system provides a voice to electoral minorities, but is not a setaside. You truely excel at newspeak.

  12. Terry,
    Aren’t you going to call out the “libertarian militia,” like you do whenever you post here, or does your agent provocateur status not give you immunity from prosecution for threatening harm to a Secret Service protected presidential candidate?

  13. The real disgrace was how quickly Bill Clinton folded on her nomination. I know he didn’t have the political capital in 1993 that he had later in his presidency (pre-Monica, of course). But he could have fought the good fight for someone who was supposed to be a close friend and whose views were being horribly distorted.

  14. It could also be that he is cold and calculating and was afraid to say something that would someday come back to bite him. I think this is most likely.

    All and all it seems that he is not a particularly nice or soulful fellow. I for the life of me can’t figure out anything he has ever done that wasn’t calculated to benefit him and his career.

    Okaaaaay.

    [Slides away from John slowly, so as not to provoke a baseless character attack]

    …phew. Safe.

    Also, John, please let me know what part of doing coke or an occasional joint was calculated for maximum benefit for him and his career.

  15. “He was a successful teacher and an absentee tenant on the other issues.”

    This is actually kind of weird.

    My boss at a drive-in i worked at as a teenager said the same thing about me.

    I was a successful burger flipper and seller but was absent on the other issues.

  16. Obama is not a professor.

    To clarify this non-point: he was considered a professor by his employer. He was not tenure track, however.

    As for John’s quibble…I will note this from the article:

    But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.

    Seems like a good perspective to have if you are in the business of implementing rules as chief executive…and deciding whether or not to sign legislation that comes across your desk.

    Of course, he could have taken “a stance” for the purpose of debating with the tenure track folks…but he was not a tenure track guy and may not have seen any point, particularly if he had a more nuanced view.

  17. When I was in education school, my advisor used to say that “the teacher’s lounge is where good teachers go to die.” Maybe Obama didn’t want to waste his time with the petty politics of professordom, and preferred to spend time with his family when not actually teaching.

  18. Perhaps the liberals will be placated by his comments yesterday, implying reparations should be paid to blacks.

    Of course, like usual, his gave himself lots of wiggle room on the issue.

  19. I would have preferred that he debated with his colleges and showed up for those meetings. And I am not so sure that The University of Chicago influenced him as much as I once thought (and hoped) it did. Still I like someone who is in the business of complication, understood unintended consequences etcetera. Also I see none of those qualities in McCain.

    Of course he is extremely ambitious and cunning. He reminds me of Clinton, not huge amount of experience very smart, promising academic career, results oriented, political pragmatist, did drugs in college, and huge, huge ego.

    It scares me but the clinton years were pretty good in terms of socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Of course we wont have a republican house.

  20. John,

    With the current regime of universal gerrymandering we do essentially have seats set aside for minorities. I’m not familiar with the Guinier proposals, but if they were just about IRV and other alternate voting schemes, it truly is a shame that they were quashed.

  21. John,

    The system provides a voice to electoral minorities, but is not a setaside.

    No, it doesn’t, at least not at the federal level. Whoever wins 50%+1 gets the seat, and a faction that consistently gets 0.1% less than that gets zero voice in governing.

    You obviously don’t know very much about this topic, John. How about looking something up when you don’t know about it, instead of assuming that I must just be babbling and not making sense?

  22. He seems to have been more interested in classroom instruction than the law geek stuff.

    He seems to be more comfortable looking at issues from different perspectives than taking a position and defending it as the right one against all others. What’s the old joke? “A liberal is someone too broad-minded to take his own side in an argument?”

    Whether these attributes are advantages or disadvantages in a president is a matter of taste, I guess.

  23. “When I was in education school, my advisor used to say that “the teacher’s lounge is where good teachers go to die.” Maybe Obama didn’t want to waste his time with the petty politics of professordom, and preferred to spend time with his family when not actually teaching.”

    ***

    As Henry Kissinger said, “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

  24. “He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth.”

    He allowed open and honest debate? In a classroom? He may pass Jimmy Carter as history’s greatest monster for that.

  25. I’ve just discovered a new data point.

    See you all at “camp”, and don’t forget to be BHO.

  26. taking a position and defending it as the right one against all others

    I was privileged to see some academic heavy weights debate the concept of providing students with “the right answer” over some BBQ’d ribs once. One of the heaviest hitters in the debate was of the opinion that it was not important to provide students with a balanced view, but, rather to show them the truth. His ego was big enough, or his imagination small enough, that he thought he knew what the truth was. He got shredded in the debate by those who were less certain of their position, because they knew everything he did, but also more. The nuanced view is the more sophisticated view on almost every topic, imho, and closer to right.

    If Obama didn’t feel the need to engage someone like Richard Epstein who thinks he knows the truth, it may have been because he was busy trying to implement real policies in the real world to get real results. Or it may have been because he saw Richard Epstein as an Ivory tower thinker with little to offer in the way of intellectual discourse.

  27. The University of Chicago has issued this statement about whether Barack Obama was a professor.

    From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year.

    Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching.

  28. Re: Richard Epstein

    I don’t know his work well enough to comment on whether he really is an ivory tower, I know the truth kind of guy…

    But I am always suspicious of intellectuals that can easily have an adjective attached to their name. If he really is “libertarian professor of law Richard Epstein” then I wonder how much dogma distorts his positions.

    Of course if you are convinced that libertarianism is the correct position, it would be easy to assume that he came to be a libertarian by examining the issues objectively and coming to the correct conclusions.

  29. Hah! More like Obama’s right-leaning fans are delusional masochists.

    Sort of like the stupid fucking libertarian-leaning Bush fans. Masochists indeed.

  30. Joe:

    Of course the UC says he was a “professor.” Although on their website they currently deliniate the present faculty titles, very clearly in fact, this shows a clear difference between senior lecturer’s and Professors (uppercase P). If they were all “Professors” then why do these other titles exist?

    The UC has everything to gain and nothing to loose by equating the terms and seemingly making them irrelevant! They, are also big donors of the Obama campaign as I understand.

    He was not a Professor, in the classical sense! I am tired of this guy getting titles he hasn’t earned…sooo annoying.

    McCain is no better, either, with all this Maverick talk. Please…

  31. Disclaimer: I know nothing about how law schools work.

    That said, I’ve taught at 3 different institutions (traditional private university, for-profit private college, and state university). Every school has its own names for things. A person who has the title “Adjunct Professor” at one school may be doing the exact same work as a person with the title “Lecturer” at another school. There are schools that use the name “Teaching Fellow” for graduate students who grade papers, while at other schools a “Teaching Fellow” may be a person with a Ph.D. holding a postdoctoral fellowship and teaching a class (as the lead instructor). I held the title of “Adjunct Professor” at a place where I taught for a brief time. Was I a Professor? Well, my title was “Adjunct Professor.” OTOH, I probably had a workload similar to a “Senior Lecturer” teaching one class per quarter. Is that person a Professor? Well, the title is different. What really matters is the job description. If you are the instructor, the person who runs the class and decides the content (within the confines of the description of the course as decided by the university) and gives the grades (i.e. you aren’t just a teaching assistant) then as far the students are concerned you are a professor.

    Now, why didn’t Obama debate his colleagues? I don’t know the exact role of a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in a law school, but I believe that Obama had an outside job at a law firm while teaching at U. Chicago. I don’t know how often he was around outside of class, or how much interaction there was between him and the full-time faculty. In departments where I’ve taught (both as a part-timer and as a full-timer) a lot of part-timers aren’t around unless they have a class to teach. Moreover, part-timers usually have less job security, and in the caste system they aren’t hobnobbing with the full-time tenure-track faculty. As a tenure-track professor, I do interact with some of our part-timers, but only the ones who are around a lot and close to me in age. When I was part-time, I only really interacted with a few tenure-track professors, usually my chair and one or two people with similar interests.

    OTOH, I understand that law schools try to bring in distinguished members of the local legal community (law firm partners, judges, prosecutors, etc.) on a part-time basis, and perhaps these part-timers, by virtue of their standing in the community, have a different relationship with their tenure-track colleagues.

    Anyway, titles and relationships in academia are complicated things.

  32. I think Epstein was commenting on O’s lack of understanding of what life is like for a “real” academic, the meetings, department politics and “colloquia.” The point is that they lead different lives.

    He’s also quoted as saying B.O. was a great listener, so I don’t think he really is saying B.O. is oblivious to libertarianism. From what I gather skimming the article, the reporter apparently didn’t bother to ask anyone at U of C if they were now persuaded to support Obama for President despite having substantive differences with him; or none agreed to comment.

    But it is true, B.O. is not an economic libertarian or, to the degree that he has this tint, it’s one among many influences on his thinking. We really should be looking at his economic policy team, rather than his U of C law colleagues, for clues about all that…………

  33. BTW, there are places where a “Lecturer” is part-time, and other places where a “Lecturer” might have full-time pay and benefits (perhaps not at the professorial level) and even job security, but has lower service and research expectations and higher teaching expectations. Those full-time quasi-tenured Lecturers are far rarer than the part-time ones, but they exist. The bottom line in academia is that you really can’t judge much from a title, unless the title is “Full Professor”, “Associate Professor”, or “Assistant Professor.” All of the other titles have different meanings at different places.

  34. The NYT article actually gave a very different impression of Obama than the two (most critical) quotes Root picked out. It suggests that he was focused on his political career rather than his academic one. On the other hand, he was a good teacher who was certainly liberal, but offered complex approaches to policies and encouraged his students to try to make arguments for the other side.

  35. You know what, MR?

    I am going to take the word of the people who 1) run a university and 2) employed Barack Obama, over that of you, when deciding what job the man performed at that university.

    The University of Chicago divided their staff up into professors and non-professors. They call the job Barack Obama did a professor. Case closed.

  36. I am going to take the word of the people who 1) run a university and 2) employed Barack Obama, over that of you, when deciding what job the man performed at that university.

    Pft. Appeal to authority.

  37. joe-

    To be fair to MR, universities are known to blow smoke about all sorts of things. Obama’s status as a professor is not one of those things (in the classroom there’s no difference in authority between the freshest young adjunct and the most renowned holder of an endowed chair), but I can hardly blame somebody for being skeptical of a university press release.

    If a university press office announced that the sun will rise in the east, I’d face west the following morning.

  38. Pft. Appeal to authority.

    When the truth relies on that authority – when the question of whether of not Barack Obama was a professor is determined by what the University of Chicago has to say – then what else are you going to appeal to?

    You know how I know my name is joe? Because my mother says so. ZOMG teh apeel!

  39. ZOMG teh apeel!

    Now, this is gold.

  40. joe,

    I only know about you what you tell me.

    Tap. Your turn.

  41. This is the dumbest fucking conversation I have ever been unfortunate enough to take part in, and that’s before Anonymous chimed in.

  42. You make me roffle like a waffle filled with falafel the way you act as if you take everything as a serious partisan attack. You’d make H&R worth reading, joe, if you were only someone else.

    Thanks for being there when we need you.

  43. I love those old democratic chestnuts, like ‘one faction, one vote.’

  44. There is simply nothing wrong with being an antisocial genius. So he didn’t want to mingle with other faculty. I work in an office and when the clock ticks to 5:00, I’m out to the door faster than the wind. I don’t go get drinks after work or socialize with the people i work with. I keep it personal.

  45. Although I think it’s terribly misguided, I can almost understand the libertarian supporters of Obama: He’s not enthusiastic about the war, talks a good game on some privacy stuff, did drugs as a young man, etc.

    And the fact that McCain is a war loving, authoritarian who is the antithesis of a libertarian.

    Not that I disagree that Obama’s appeal to libertarians (aside from not being McCain) is weak.

    As for Obamacons, the “not McCain” factor is, I think, even stronger. For those conservatives who feel that the Republican party has gone horribly wrong, an Obama presidency may be a small price to pay for (hopefully) a wake up call to the Republican party.

    Though one could certainly argue that all of these people would be better off expressing their anti-McCain feelings by voting third party.

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