Reflections on Obama By Someone Who Knows Him

One of the memes of the Clinton campaign is to try to paint Obama as an empty suit. There’s been considerable evidence that this is untrue, and we see it again in a description of Obama by Cas Sunstein, a former colleague of Obama at The University of Chicago:

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 ability to get along with conservatives is seen as a positive attribute by independents and more his more open minded Democratic supporters, while many Clinton supporters see this as a negative. Sunstein provides further insight into Obama’s support from some conservatives:

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.

I’ve often disagreed with the conventional wisdom that Clinton and Obama share the same views. I’d lump Clinton in with Bush and McCain, while seeing Obama as the only major candidate remaining who offers anything other than a symbolic third term for George Bush. One of the areas where Obama differs from Clinton and Bush is over transparency in government:

Transparency and accountability matter greatly to him; they are a defining feature of his proposals. With respect to the mortgage crisis, credit cards and the broader debate over credit markets, Obama rejects heavy-handed regulation and insists above all on disclosure, so that consumers will know exactly what they are getting.

Expect transparency to be a central theme in any Obama administration, as a check on government and the private sector alike. It is highly revealing that Obama worked with Republican (and arch-conservative) Tom Coburn to produce legislation creating a publicly searchable database of all federal spending.

I’ve often noted Obama’s libertarian tendencies, and this is seen again in the above comment that “Obama rejects heavy-handed regulation.” Sunstein notes this in other areas, including health care:

Obama’s healthcare plan places a premium on cutting costs and on making care affordable, without requiring adults to purchase health insurance. (He would require mandatory coverage only for children.) Republican legislators are unlikely to support a mandatory approach, and his plan can be understood, in part, as a recognition of political realities.

But it is also a reflection of his keen interest in freedom of choice. He seeks universal coverage not through unenforceable mandates but through giving people good options.

It should not be surprising that in terms of helping low-income workers, Obama has long been enthusiastic about the Earned Income Tax Credit — an approach, pioneered by Republicans, that supplements wages but does not threaten to throw people out of work.

Some people have confused Obama’s willingness to consider conservative ideas as being similar to Clinton’s triangulation. Sunstein realizes that Obama is doing something quite different than simply ignoring principle where politically expedient as the Clintons are prone to do.

But Obama is no a compromiser; he does not try to steer between the poles (or the polls). “Triangulation” has no appeal for him. Both internationally and domestically, he is willing to think big and to be bold. He publicly opposed the war in Iraq at a time when opposition was unpopular.

He favors high-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators. He would rethink the embargo against Cuba.

He proposes a $150 billion research budget for climate change. He wants to hold an unprecedented national auction for the right to emit greenhouse gases. He has offered an ambitious plan for promoting technological innovation, calling for a national broadband policy, embracing network neutrality, and proposing a reform of the patent system.

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  1. 1
    Mauigirl says:

    Great post – everyone should read this. I am so worried now that Clinton could still win – as you say it’s just more of the same – yes, she has better positions on the issues than the GOP, but her way of governing won’t be that different.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    Yes, their way of governing will be quite similar. Depending upon which issues you concentrate on there may or may not be differences on the issues. For the issues I’m most concerned about (the war, civil liberties, social issues, presidential power, government transparency) Clinton is far closer to Bush and McCain than to Obama.

  3. 3
    janet says:

    Good post–this is the type of information about Obama that appeals to my life long republican doctor brother in law who says he will vote for Obama over McCain.

    However, he also stated with certainty, he would never support Clinton over McCain.

  4. 4
    drew says:

    And Janet – your point about your friend not supporting Clinton over McCain is such a good point. Hillary is too polarizing – she’ll ruin the election if she’s nominated. I do hope the Obama pulls through.

    This quote from an article on perfectly asserts my feelings on Obama.

  5. 5
    drew says:

    Sorry… I do stuff like that all the time.

    Here it is:

    “The country, Democrats especially, exhausted and fed up with the Bush years, wants something new. The division within the party, however, exists in how individuals define change. For some, a change away from George W. Bush is enough. These folks support Clinton. For others, change means a shift away
    from the entire way that politics has been practiced over the last 16 years. These voters support Obama.”

    Here’s the article, again.

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