Obama @ Harvard

Today's NY Times has a fascinating story about Barack Obama's days at Harvard Law School, and especially his selection and tenure as the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review. This could be a good opportunity to play "six degrees of Barack Obama" and point out that I was a year ahead of Obama in law school, that we took a seminar together, and that the Larry Tribe law review article referenced in the Times piece for which Barack served as a research assistant lists me in the same asterisk footnote. (The article is The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Modern Physics, 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (1989). The footnote states, in part: "I am grateful to Rob Fisher, Michael Dorf, Kenneth Chesebro, Gene Sperling, and Barack Obama for their analytic and research assistance . . . ." Yes, that Gene Sperling, who later became President Clinton's National Economic Adviser.) I could point all that out, but I won't.

Instead, I'll note a substantive disagreement with what I take to be the main point of the Times article. It indicates that at the Harvard Law Review, Obama's management style was to listen to what everyone had to say on contentious issues, and then say something that permitted all factions to come away thinking that he agreed with them. Several people quoted in the story say that Obama's own views were never quite known. This approach may have succeeded in gaining the law review Presidency, the story says, but to capture the Presidency of the United States will require Obama to take strong positions that reward specific constituencies.

Hunh?? Wasn't the whole point of W's 2000 packaging of himself as a "compassionate conservative" precisely to send different signals to different people: moderates and perhaps even some liberals who were not paying close attention heard "compassionate" while conservatives heard "conservative?" And didn't it work in that it got him elected (sort of)? Moreover, I was struck by how similar the characterization of the opacity of Obama's views was to those of John Roberts in his days as a young lawyer. No one knew where he stood, and Roberts benefited enormously from that ambiguity during his Senate confirmation hearings. Admittedly, that's not quite the same thing as a Presidential race. A Presidential candidate cannot refuse to answer questions on the ground that they implicate decisions he'll have to make as President, in the way that Supreme Court nominees can. Still, I would have thought that the great challenge for a Presidential candidate trying to win a general election is to appeal to a broad swath of voters, to straddle tough issues even while appearing to provide strong leadership. At most, the story raises doubts about the ability of Obama to get the Democratic nomination (because primary voters are more ideologically committed), but it suggests that if he does, he'll be a formidable general election candidate.