Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"'Law professor' Obama embraces nuance on trail"

Boston Globe:
Candidate brings out his intellectual side--CONCORD, N.H. - Barack Obama defines himself on the campaign trail as the candidate of change, the "hope peddler" unintimidated by partisanship or cynicism, the Democrat who has transcended the battles of the Baby Boom generation.

But there is another central, if often overlooked, aspect of his candidacy: Despite his overt appeals to the heart, Obama is also running as an intellectual, making a case that wisdom - not bluster, belligerence, or bravado - is the quality most needed in the next president.
Obama's intellectual confidence, which has propelled his political career, is a hallmark of his campaign identity, a notable contrast to the resume-boasting of Hillary Clinton and the fiery populism of John Edwards - a contrast that Edwards himself tried to draw in the last few days by suggesting that Obama was too "academic" to win.

"An intellectual is by definition someone who questions and doesn't take assumptions at their face value, and I think that's one of the things that's inspiring about the guy," said Joel Barkan, professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

This element of Obama's character is evident in his embrace of nuance and rejection of simplistic either-or choices; in his academic analysis of policy and strategy; and in his impatience with what he deems foolish press inquiries and attacks by opponents.

Obama's intellectualism appeals to voters who consider it an elixir to what they see as President Bush's willful ignorance. "The guy's got a brain," said Cindy Kleeman, a 54-year-old clothing business owner from Bedford, N.H., who is still undecided.

But at times he comes across as a know-it-all, even condescending. Campaign appearances can feel like graduate seminars. That could present some risks as he courts primary voters in the home stretch, particularly in blue-collar areas.

Perceptions of past Democratic candidates as preachy sophisticates - a label that dogged Senator John F. Kerry in 2004 and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 - have doomed campaigns.

Obama is undeterred by that history - partly because his biracial, lower-middle-class background insulates him from such a caricature, some analysts say.

"Black means something in America, and patrician is not it," said John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and an Obama supporter.

Political analysts and historians see a parallel with John F. Kennedy, whose melding of Harvard-caliber intellect with Irish Catholic street credibility allowed him to inspire and lead the country without appearing aloof.

They see Obama more like Kennedy than Adlai Stevenson, whose presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 faltered partly because he was seen more as an egghead than leader.

"[Obama] is smart, but he's not Stevenson smart," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "He's not that way."

On the campaign trail, Obama expresses quiet rage against folly and incompetence in Washington. It is less an attack on President Bush than a broader critique of government's oversimplified policy debates, misguided priorities, and incurious leaders, all of which he blames for blocking progress on issue after issue.

"This is not rocket science," he told voters in Concord last week, explaining how Medicare rules keep prescription drug prices unnecessarily high.

Obama's self-assuredness is especially evident on foreign policy, with which he has limited experience. When Clinton attacked him as "naive" last summer for saying he would meet with rogue leaders, Obama said confidently that he would not be outwitted.

"I'm not afraid that I'll lose a propaganda battle with a bunch of dictators," he said in a September speech. "Strong countries and strong presidents shouldn't be afraid to talk to our adversaries to tell them where America stands."

His deliberative foreign policy approach is a striking departure from the pugilism of Republican candidates such as former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, who asked in a debate this month, "When our worst enemy's thinking about what he can do to the United States of America, who do you want sitting on our side of the table representing you?"

Obama's confidence in his views stems in part from his prescience on the Iraq war, the outcome of which he largely predicted in a 2002 address. He was proud enough of the speech to recently rerecord its best lines for a TV ad. "I am not opposed to all wars," he said in the speech. "I'm opposed to dumb wars."

But while supporters praise Obama as a deep thinker, that can be a hindrance in a political climate that values sound bites, bumper-sticker slogans, and the clarity of yes-or-no answers.

Indeed, Obama's stump speeches can be more cerebral and loping than cogent calls to action. He has struggled in debates to encapsulate his thoughts in digestible nuggets.

In a November debate, after two weeks of criticizing Clinton for being evasive whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses, Obama stumbled in trying to give a complex answer to the same question.

Last week in Manchester, a voter asked Obama to define "American unity," giving him a perfect opportunity to rhapsodize about conciliation. That's where Obama began, but then he launched into a digression on tax policy, the politics of abortion, how much England and France pay for healthcare, and using information technology to manage medical records.

"It's not clear that this is always strategically ideal," said Cass Sunstein, who taught with Obama at the University of Chicago Law School and is now an informal adviser. "But it is who he is."

Obama acknowledges that he has "had to learn to communicate in slightly different ways."

"I still have the law professor in me sometimes," he said in an interview earlier this month with Boston Globe editors. "But I don't feel as though I've lost my voice at this point. Yeah, I feel like I can still communicate some of that nuance and . . . some of those broader perspectives and understandings that I think are going to be important for us to be able to move the country forward."

Those who know Obama say his capacious mind and capacity for critical thinking were evident at a young age. He honed those skills in the rigorous academic environments of Columbia University, Harvard Law School, and the University of Chicago, which prizes what it calls "the life of the mind."

Obama's image as an academician hurt him early on in the Illinois Senate, and in his failed run for Congress in 2000 against Representative Bobby Rush. Critics and political opponents mocked his professorial demeanor.

He softened those edges during his 2004 Senate run. In this election, he has gone further, casting his intellectual approach as the antidote for an ailing nation.

"People are hungering to get beyond pettiness and divisiveness, and in fact to pull ourselves together to address common problems," said Martha Minow, who taught Obama at Harvard Law School and became a friend. "He speaks to that and he speaks to it with intellectual honesty."

It is little wonder, then, that Obama has drawn more support from academics than any candidate in the race.

Richard Epstein, a prominent conservative who taught with Obama at the University of Chicago, said he likes Obama but rejects the suggestion that he is an intellectual, arguing that he merely mimics an intellectual's mannerisms.

"It's not a title that's an honorific," Epstein said. "He's an activist."

Barkan said Obama is a once-in-a-generation candidate who combines charisma, inspirational power, and celebrity.

"All that is on top of real intellectual substance," Barkan said. But, he added, "I don't know whether Obama's time has come."

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