Obama's Intellectual Style

After our debate with the College Republicans this past Wednesday (smoked em, natch) I was talking to the faculty advisor of the CRs, and I promised him I'd pass on this information to him. He said, revealingly, that at least if Obama wins he'll take comfort in knowing it will piss off the hippies (it's always about spite, no?) when US troops are still in Iraq on January 21st. As we digressed into a discussion about which ideological groups held sway over Obama, I took the opportunity to point out that one of the things that I like about Obama is the way he isn't afraid to seek counsel from opposing sides.

Indeed, I've often heard of his reaching out to both prominent conservative and liberal thinkers before making major decisions. It's not that he's "centrist," or "moderate," because those words are hollow and meaningless; it's that he has an intellectual curiosity to seek out opposing points of view, and an intellectual robustness to sift through them and still come down on the correct side of things.

I think this piece by Cass Sunstein is a prime example of this phenomenom.

Not so long ago, the phone rang in my office. It was Barack Obama. For more than a decade, Obama was my colleague at the University of Chicago Law School.

He is also a friend. But since his election to the Senate, he does not exactly call every day.


On this occasion, he had an important topic to discuss: the controversy over President George W. Bush's warrantless surveillance of international telephone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists. I had written a short essay suggesting that the surveillance might be lawful. Before taking a public position, Obama wanted to talk the problem through.

In the space of about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the President's power as commander-in-chief, the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.

Obama wanted to consider the best possible defence of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened and offered a counter-argument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said that he thought the programme was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time.

This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama's mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal. He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side.

This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years -- a careful and even-handed analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view.

Obama's FISA vote has been widely criticized from the left, and with good reason. But his fault, in my view, was ultimately assuming too much good faith from the Bush administration. It's reassuring to know he investigated the issue thoroughly, certainly more thoroughly than I did.

Sunstein continues;

The University of Chicago Law School is by far the most conservative of the great American law schools. It helped to provide the academic foundations for many positions of the Reagan administration.

But at the University of Chicago, Obama is liked and admired by Republicans and Democrats alike. Some of the local Reagan enthusiasts are Obama supporters. Why? It doesn't hurt that he's a great guy, with a personal touch and a lot of warmth. It certainly helps that he is exceptionally able.

But niceness and ability are only part of the story. Obama also has a genuinely independent mind, he's a terrific listener and he goes wherever reason takes him.

Those of us who have long known Obama are impressed and not a little amazed by his rhetorical skills. Who could have expected that our colleague, a teacher of law, is also able to inspire large crowds?

The Obama we know is no rhetorician; he shines not because he can move people, but because of his problem-solving abilities, his creativity and his attention to detail.

In recent weeks, his speaking talents, and the cult-like atmosphere that occasionally surrounds him, have led people to wonder whether there is substance behind the plea for "change" - whether the soaring phrases might disguise a kind of emptiness and vagueness. But nothing could be further from the truth. He is most comfortable in the domain of policy and detail.

Sunstein goes to to cover some examples, but I'll just highlight his closing.

My own concern involves the importance of internal debate. The greatest American presidents (above all Lincoln and Roosevelt) benefited from robust dialogue and from advisers who avoided saying, "how wonderful you are," and were willing to say: "Mr President, your thinking about this is all wrong."

Because Obama himself is exceptionally able, and because so many people are treating him as a near-messiah, his advisers might be too deferential, too unwilling to question. There is a real risk here. But I believe that his humility, and his intense desire to seek out dissenting views, will prove crucial safeguards.

In the 2000 campaign, Bush proclaimed himself a "uniter, not a divider", only to turn out to be the most divisive President in memory. Because of his own certainty, and his lack of curiosity about what others might think, Bush polarized the nation. Many of his most ambitious plans went nowhere as a result.

As president, Barack Obama would be a genuine uniter. If he proves able to achieve great things, for his nation and for the world, it will be above all for that reason.

That Obama is not the progressive standard bearer some were hoping for is both unfortunate and part of his appeal, and not just to different people. It is frustrating though, to hear conservatives betray their own ignorance and call him "the most liberal senator" without regard for reality.

And to the College Republicans' faculty advisor, could you honestly compare the intellectual rigor of Obama and that of McCain? Is there any doubt that McCain's erratic shifts in policy and rhetoric are hastily executed political calculations, not the products of careful deliberation? Really? Have you heard about Sarah Palin?