Quantcast

The Obama I Remember | The Nation

  •  

The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The Obama I Remember

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.

Today, as I watched President Obama interact with Republicans during the televised Q&A I saw another Obama that I remember: the law professor.

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.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.

I keep hearing from Democrats who say the President lacks courage, who ask why he bothers to speak to Republicans, and who cry out for him to wield his majority as a weapon against the GOP. Apparently he should march to Capital Hill, armed with tens of thousands of progressive blogs and tweets and demand a single payer health care system.

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.

Over the past year it has been frustrating to watch this model of governance meet with such obstinate opposition. But the opposition is not a reason to abandon the tactic. It is a reason to redouble the efforts to change the course of our democratic discourse.


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.

Today, as I watched President Obama interact with Republicans during the televised Q&A I saw another Obama that I remember: the law professor.

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.

That Barack Obama showed up today. The President put on a clinic in public discourse, political argument, intellectual dexterity and moral courage. It was a reminder of what democracy could be if we engaged our opponents with substance, patience and civility rather than invectives, gamesmanship and boorishness.

I keep hearing from Democrats who say the President lacks courage, who ask why he bothers to speak to Republicans, and who cry out for him to wield his majority as a weapon against the GOP. Apparently he should march to Capital Hill, armed with tens of thousands of progressive blogs and tweets and demand a single payer health care system.

President Obama is modeling a different kind of democratic engagement. It is a model he adhered to during the election and he continues to follow it now. President Obama refuses to believe that we can have a functioning democracy if the majority refuses to speak to the minority. He takes seriously his responsibility to govern in the interest of both his supporters and his opponents. He remains committed to the possibility that he and his Party may not always be in sole possession of good ideas.

Over the past year it has been frustrating to watch this model of governance meet with such obstinate opposition. But the opposition is not a reason to abandon the tactic. It is a reason to redouble the efforts to change the course of our democratic discourse.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.