Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 2, 2008 in Politics | 3 comments

Obama’s Complexity

So I finally finished that NYT story published earlier this week, re: Obama’s teaching days at the University of Chicago Law School.

After that story first appeared, I vaguely recall some commentators on the right celebrating like kids in a candy shop. The cause of their delight were statements in the story, from Richard Epstein and Douglas Baird, who were colleagues of Obama’s while he was at the law school. Both men suggested that neither their perspectives (nor the larger school’s conservative-leaning culture and dialogue) had little if any discernible impact on Obama; that Obama seemed unwilling to step out of his predominantly liberal/progressive frame of mind.

Thus, in short, the reaction from the right was one big “Nanny-nanny-ooh-hoo. Told ya so. Obama’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Nothing more.”

Not so fast.

The NYT report makes it painfully clear that Obama was difficult to nail down on a wide range of subjects. As a result, he was an equal-opportunity disappointer of liberal and conservative minds. Near the end of the story, we read:

In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”

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.

Say what you will, but that’s the kind of mind I want in a president; one that’s willing to challenge and be challenged; to look at and embrace complexity. Of course, Obama has had to leave some of that behind in his quest for the White House, given the hunger we Americans have for the simplistic. The last two paragraphs of the NYT story, immediately following the two cited above:

So even some former students who are thrilled at Mr. Obama’s success wince when they hear him speaking like the politician he has so fully become.

“When you hear him talking about issues, it’s at a level so much simpler than the one he’s capable of,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was a lot more fun to listen to back then.”

What a sad statement on our politics and on us; how pitiful is it that we require a complexity-oriented mind to discard complexity, in order to get elected?

Then again, maybe Obama hasn’t lost all of his professorial chutzpah; maybe he still has that latent ability to baffle both right and left.

Though I remain undecided on my vote in November, I just don’t see the same gift for nuance (the same ability to comprehend and incorporate complexity) in Senator McCain.