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Elemental Obama

While political pundits debate whether a former Law School lecturer is too University of Chicago to be president of the United States, the U of C focuses on—what else?—what it means to be U of C.

By Lydialyle Gibson

Photo illustration by Allen Carroll; photo: AP Photo/Obama for America

This past spring, New York Times columnist David Brooks, AB’83, recited one of his favorite stories about Barack Obama for a packed audience of Alumni Weekend–goers. Late one evening in April 2007, in the midst of a phone interview with the candidate—who, tired and cranky, was still on the Senate floor—Brooks found himself getting nowhere with questions about foreign-aid programs in Africa. So “out of the blue,” he decided to ask about Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th-century American theologian and activist who was both a preacher and a professor and whose moral insights, after witnessing two world wars, the Great Depression, Nazi death camps, and Soviet gulags, led him from the social-gospel liberalism of his youth to the sadder, wiser ambivalence of Christian realism. Had Obama read Niebuhr? Yes, in fact, Niebuhr was a philosopher he particularly cherished. Well, what did Niebuhr mean to him? “And then for the next ten or 15 minutes,” Brooks told his Chicago audience, “Obama did a complete version of Niebuhr’s thought, unbroken.”

Brooks, who likes to joke that being a conservative columnist at the New York Times is like being chief rabbi at Mecca, was impressed enough to recount the exchange in the next day’s paper. He called Obama’s campaign “an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle”—a delicate task indeed: animated by a belief in human sinfulness and fallibility, Niebuhr’s view of history was built on ironies and paradoxes. As Germany’s Weimar Republic crumbled beneath Hitler’s vigorous ascent in 1932, Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society, “The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power.” But he was no cynic; he recognized power’s necessity as well as its corruptibility, and he believed that the world’s realities, however grim or obstinate, were no excuse for abandoning the struggle. In 1944, a year that saw the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, the courageous, calamitous Warsaw Uprising and the Nazi surrender of Paris, Niebuhr concluded, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Obama’s grasp of Niebuhrian complexities, and his ability to articulate them off the cuff at the end of a long day, “is a skill,” Brooks told his U of C audience, “that’s rare in American politics.” Glancing around the Donnelley Center classroom where listeners filled every seat and stood pressed against the back wall, Brooks noted, “This is bound to impress those of us affiliated with this institution.” 

But what about the rest of the country? Three days after Brooks’s visit to campus, during the waning minutes of MSNBC’s Hardball, host Chris Matthews mused on Obama’s apparent difficulty connecting with working-class, Middle America voters. Hillary Clinton had dropped out of the Democratic race the week before, but her supporters were not all flocking to Obama. Why? Matthews asked his roundtable of journalists: “Is he too University of Chicago?”

The answer depends, of course, on the definition of “University of Chicago.” Matthews and other journalists use the U of C’s name as shorthand to describe Obama’s professorial cool, cerebral meanderings, and what some perceive as elitism, which must surely, they reason, render him out of touch with ordinary citizens. But for those employed or educated at Chicago, the University-as-adjective conjures a multitude of attributes and idiosyncrasies: academic rigor, scholarly empiricism, a skeptical view of ideology, iconoclastic ideas. Where Obama fits into these categories isn’t always clear.

One thing is unmistakable, though: the University of Chicago is where he has drawn many crucial members of his political team. Graduate School of Business professor Austan Goolsbee is a key economic strategist. University trustee Valerie Jarrett has become one of his closest friends and top advisers, and fellow trustee John W. Rogers Jr., U-High’76, a South Side entrepreneur, is a friend and fund-raiser. University board chair James Crown heads Obama’s Illinois finance team. Former Law School colleagues Cass Sunstein and Geoffrey Stone, JD’71, serve as informal advisers. Obama’s chief strategist since 2002, David Axelrod, AB’79, studied political science in the College, and many of the senator’s earliest allies are also alumni, including former Hyde Park congressman and Mandel Legal Aid Clinic senior director Abner Mikva, JD’51. Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose combustible sermons at Trinity United Church of Christ sparked an uproar earlier this year, is a Divinity School alum—AM’75. Meanwhile, as might be expected with a hometown candidate, the number of Chicago professors who have given the campaign money, support, or expertise is legion.

Yet Obama doesn’t talk in much detail about the 12 years he spent teaching constitutional law at the University. His 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, which he wrote mostly from an office at the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle, devotes 150 pages to Obama’s life as a South Side community organizer during the 1980s—his efforts on behalf of laid-off steelworkers, public-housing residents, teenage mothers and their children. The story leaves off before Obama’s return to Chicago, when he began teaching at the Law School. Likewise, his speeches regularly cite the battles he fought in search of “jobs for the jobless and hope for the hopeless on the streets of Chicago.” When he brings up his Law School tenure, the reference is often oblique: he’ll say he taught constitutional law, but rarely notes where.

Reporters, on the other hand, seldom fail to mention his University of Chicago connection. Since he announced his candidacy, journalists have streamed into Hyde Park and the quads in search of the elemental Obama. Combing classrooms and residential streets, they’ve dissected Hyde Park’s unusual racial and religious alliances, its penchant for electing nonconformists like Harold Washington, Paul H. Douglas, and Leon Despres, PhB’27, JD’29. Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson visited campus and found the University’s conservative reputation “wobbly”—Milton Friedman, AM’33, and Allan Bloom, PhB’49, AM’53, PhD’55, being dead—and Hyde Park reminiscent of Berkeley, California. Lefty historian and former Hyde Parker Thomas Frank, AM’89, PhD’94, answered with a Wall Street Journal op-ed asserting (to his chagrin) the Law School and economics department’s conservative vitality. Case in point: although much of campus is abuzz with Obama, many GSB faculty members, affirms one staffer, line up solidly behind Republican John McCain.

The scrutiny doesn’t surprise Charles Branham, PhD’81, a Lab Schools history teacher and DuSable Museum senior historian. “They’re trying to situate him in a place,” says Branham, who’s leading a Graham School course on Obama this fall. Personal experiences have long defined and clarified candidates’ political choices, “and part of that is a sense of place,” Branham explains. “That’s why being the ‘man from Hope’ was so important for Bill Clinton.” Obama is harder to situate, but looking for him in Hyde Park, papers like the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe have found the neighborhood “rarified” and the University a bit eggheaded. Hyde Park and Chicago are places apart, they insist, from mainstream America.

John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College and a diligent student of University history, isn’t so sure: is the U of C really so removed? “I always say about the University, and the College especially, that this place is only intelligible in the sense that we’re here,” Boyer says. “We’re not an East Coast school.” The spot where the University took root was less an ivory tower than a “northern Wisconsin farm,” Boyer insists: a working meritocracy. William Rainey Harper “was intent on creating a democratic—with a small d—school that would be open to anyone, but also one where who your mother or father was didn’t matter. It wouldn’t get you into this place, and it wouldn’t get you out.”

Still, the University that sprang to life wasn’t quite the one “those good Baptists” Thomas Goodspeed and Frederick Gates thought they were founding. In 1890, four years after the Old University closed its doors at 35th Street and Cottage Grove, Chicago’s trustees surveyed the city for a new site. They settled on Hyde Park, a neighborhood they believed to be, in 27-year-old Gates’s words, “a location of the higher middle and aristocratic classes.” “So kind of like Winnetka,” Boyer sums up. “The great irony, of course, is that a little more than 100 years later, this is a multiethnic, multiracial, middle-class community that is not filled with aristocrats and inherited wealth.”

Hyde Park’s otherness is apparent every day, Boyer says, in the way it’s regarded by the rest of Chicago: “held in awe and esteem and a certain kind of distrust and uneasiness.” Its relationships with City Hall and its South Side neighbors are complicated, sometimes prickly. But he wonders whether Hyde Park isn’t “really, in a broader sense, a microcosm of the values of Chicago.” Tough-minded pragmatism, hard work, results. “I always say the University has two souls”—one molded by Harper, an evangelical liberal Baptist with a soaring vision for the University to “create a new elite to make the world safer for social justice and democracy and truth,” and the other soul inherited from Robert Maynard Hutchins, whose fierce intellectualism was directed inward. Advising students to “leave experience to life,” Hutchins conceived the University as a bastion of learning.

Ultimately, believes Boyer, who, like many outside the Law School, knows Michelle Obama better than her husband (she worked with Boyer as director of the campus community-service program), the University’s character didn’t influence the young senator so much as the city’s machine politics. “He knows that world, and there’s that side of him.” Obama reminds Boyer of Paul Douglas, a Chicago economics professor and social reformer alongside Jane Addams who went to Washington in 1949 as an Illinois senator. “Paul Douglas was an iconic activist here, a lefty professor at a time when it was unpopular,” he says. “Both men were in the machine but not of the machine.”

The University’s imprint shows up more clearly, Boyer adds, in the stories he reads about Axelrod. “It’s uncanny, if you look at his analytic skills, his disciplined approach to problem-solving,” he says. “Axelrod is a creature of the College.”

Law School faculty members, meanwhile, do see certain Chicago values reflected in their former colleague—rigor, pragmatism, respect for competing ideas. They describe a gifted teacher whose habits of mind fit the Law School well. Much has been made of the conservative faculty’s fondness for Obama: Michael McConnell, JD’79, whose paper Obama edited at the Harvard Law Review; Douglas Baird, who recruited him to Chicago; Daniel Fischel, JD’77, who sought to boost his academic career. Obama’s legal arguments were empirically, not ideologically, grounded, they say, and he listened well to opponents. His disagreements weren’t vehement. Geoffrey Stone recalls his “intellectual empathy.” Adam Bonin, JD’97, a former student, says Obama made sure every point of view got aired in class. “If he wasn’t hearing it from a student, he’d make the argument himself,” Bonin says. Baird explains his ability to see complexities. “At the Law School, you don’t expect to get up and say something like, ‘Affirmative action is an obvious good,’ and get no argument. Constitutional law, voting rights, affirmative action—these are complicated topics, and he was good at thinking about them in a complex way, at hearing different points of view and defending his opinion.”

Still, they aren’t sure how different Obama would be if he’d never set foot on campus. “It’s hard to know how a place changes a person,” says Stone. Baird says Obama is “the person he always was.” Libertarian Richard Epstein put it bluntly to the New York Times: “I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him.”

Many of Obama’s economic ideas, however, can be traced to Chicago. Cass Sunstein, who’s starting a new job at Harvard University this fall (he’ll maintain a visiting position at Chicago), makes the case: “Though he’s not a dogmatic follower of Milton Friedman, Obama is someone who is fully appreciative of the virtues of markets and how regulation can be counterproductive.” Sunstein points to specific proposals that originated with Chicago thinkers, including resonances from Nudge, the 2008 book on “libertarian paternalism” that Sunstein coauthored with GSB economist Richard Thaler. On health care: “It’s noteworthy,” Sunstein says, “that his approach is not a mandate; he didn’t want to coerce any adult to buy health insurance.” On the housing mortgage crisis: “His policies are oriented toward transparency and disclosure—measures that are market-improving rather than market-eliminating.” Climate change: “His solution is a market system that allows trading in greenhouse-gas emissions rights, and an auction to buy those rights.”

Many Chicago economists, however, find more merit in McCain’s economic plan. GSB professor Steven Davis has signed on as a McCain economic adviser, and he and several University colleagues—including Nobelists Gary S. Becker, AM’53, PhD’55, and Robert Lucas, AB’59, PhD’64, as well as GSB professor Steven Kaplan—joined 300 other economists in a June statement endorsing McCain’s proposals. “Higher tax rates are exactly the wrong policy to restore economic growth, especially at this time,” the statement read, arguing the Republican would “open new markets for American goods” and create jobs by, in part, avoiding “isolationism and protectionism.”

The race was whittled down to McCain versus Obama by the time Brooks gave his Alumni Weekend talk in early June, and the columnist seemed downright gleeful about a campaign between his “two favorite politicians.” Much of what he likes about Obama, he said, could be summarized in two words: “law professor.” Later, Brooks elaborated. “Around U of C people, Obama is pretty U of C. Meaning, cerebral, reasonably Socratic, always emphasizing the complicated nature of any question.” But Obama is nothing if not adaptable, and somewhere at his hard-to-define center lies a “hard-core politician,” who “never had more than one foot at the University.” More than once the Law School offered—and Obama refused—a full-time, tenure-track position. “That would be a very good offer to anybody not totally committed to a political career.”

Nevertheless, Hyde Park and the University have become part of Obama’s identity. And the candidate’s ready analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr still thrills. Alluding to another of Chris Matthews’s infamous lines about Obama, Brooks added, “For somebody who’s taken the Common Core, that, as Chris Matthews would say, sent a tingle up my leg.”

…or is he too South Side?

By Lydialyle Gibson

What caught Michael Dawson’s ear was the second half of Chris Matthews’s Hardball question: if not too U of C, Matthews wondered, is Barack Obama “too South Side of Chicago?” A University political scientist who studies racial divisions and African American political behavior, Dawson is also a native South Sider—he grew up in Hyde Park and South Shore during the 1950s and ’60s. What Matthews was really asking, Dawson says, is plain: “It’s a not-very-coded way of saying, ‘Is he too black?’” He finds the question “insulting, of course,” but also unthinking. Politically, he notes, Obama has proven more centrist than most African American voters on issues like free trade, affirmative action, gun control, and national security. What’s more, he adds, “This is a question that reflects an ignorance of the South Side,” an area covering more than a dozen neighborhoods. “The South Side is home to approximately 800,000 black people,” he says. “It has some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country and some of the most affluent in the city. Different class lines, different types of schools, different religious communities—there’s nothing homogenous about it.” To brand Obama as “South Side” is to “homogenize an extraordinarily diverse black experience in ways that are quite unconscious.”

And then there is Hawaii. Dwight Hopkins, a Divinity School theologian and a member of Obama’s former congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ (where he says he knew the senator, but not well), sees as much aloha as African Americanism in Obama. “For the first 22 years of his life, he is Hawaiian,” Hopkins says. Born on Oahu just after the 50th state was admitted to the Union, Obama had a multihued menagerie of childhood acquaintances: Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Samoan, black, and white. “He grew up with the narrative of Hawaii, not the black-white paradigm of the mainland USA,” Hopkins says. On the islands, “whites are a minority population, and blacks are not seen much at all. It is only when he comes to the South Side that his blackness fills in in a profound way.” Those formative years in the Pacific, Hopkins argues, mark Obama’s adulthood sensibilities: “Hawaii means a spirit of openness, embracing, of the melting pot, of family.”

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