Watching Barack Obama become President of the United States made me proud and hopeful, but I also found the experience somewhat amusing. I think many of us who were his Hyde Park neighbors and Illinois state senate constituents feel the same way. We may have always believed he was extraordinary, but because he was familiar it is sometimes hard to believe that he is now, as president, the purveyor of such power and the object of such scorn.
I don’t know Barack Obama personally, but I had a kind of political intimacy with him during the years I lived in Chicago. He is familiar in a way that makes it impossible for me to see the President through the same prisms of perfection or loathing that many employ when assessing him.
I distinctly remember the last time I had a personal interaction with him. We were both standing in line at the 55th Street Walgreens. He was wearing flip-flops, short basketball shorts, and an old t-shirt. He was buying ice for a family picnic. Hardly the icon of fashion cool he became within two years of that moment.
I remember the first time I heard him give a public speech. He was a last minute replacement for an ill Professor Cornel West during the University of Chicago’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. (Pause for irony) The address was adequate, but neither memorable nor particularly inspiring. Hardly the soaring rhetoric that he so regularly and effectively delivers now.
I remember the first time I saw him campaign. He was running against Bobby Rush for a congressional seat on the Southside of Chicago. He could barely fill a community center room with 25 people. Hardly the teeming crowds who now stand in lines for hours in inclement weather to hear him speak or who braved bitter cold to see him inaugurated.
These early encounters with Obama remind me that he is President not solely, or even primarily, because of innate gifts, but because he moves up a learning curve more swiftly and fully than anyone else in public life. My consistent support for President Obama, despite my real differences with him on a number of policy issues, is deeply rooted in my understanding of his openness to and capacity for learning.
I trust that when he does not have the answer he will seek it. I trust that when he fails with one strategy, he will adjust. I trust that when he needs a new skill, he will learn it. I trust that when he needs advice, he will seek it.
During the years that I was on faculty at the University of Chicago, my graduate students in political science often took courses with Professor Obama. They universally reported that he was a fair, but exceedingly tough practitioner of the Socratic method. He was willing to entertain any idea, question or observation, no matter how outrageous. But he always subjected the students to a series of logical interventions and arguments that often left students exhausted and sometimes a bit embarrassed. They quickly learned to challenge Professor Obama only if they had fully considered the implications of their arguments and prepared significant evidence in support of their case.