The Friends of O
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If Obama quickly made friends among white liberals and African American businesspeople, he also hooked into Hyde Park's anchoring institution, the University of Chicago. Even without the law school connection, the link was inevitable. As Rogers puts it, "The vast majority of Barack's supporters from [Hyde Park] are either graduates or parents of the Lab Schools," the top-tier private elementary and high school associated with the university. Rogers and Jarrett graduated from the school. It happens that another Lab Schools parent who supports Obama is Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose eldest daughter, Nora, was a student there.
Obama had been courted by the university even before his law degree was in hand. Michael McConnell, a noted conservative law professor then at the U. of C., submitted an article to the Harvard Law Review while Obama was its president. He did such a fine job of editing that McConnell wanted to bring him to the university, says Geoffrey Stone, who was dean of the law school at the time. "We would make him a law and government fellow, he could work on his book [published in 1995 as Dreams from My Father], anything else he wanted to do," Stone says. "I met him here in my office; he was extremely impressive." Stone adds wryly, "My secretary and I agreed that one of these days he would be governor of Illinois." (McConnell is now a federal appellate judge in Utah; he declined to comment.)
Obama ended up teaching law part-time at the university—a role that led to a recent flap over whether he deserved the title "law professor," as some of his campaign materials have asserted. The former law school dean Douglas Baird says Obama was a "senior lecturer," a title which at the U. of C. is "a big, big deal. That meant he could pick up the phone and call any dean in the country and say, 'I want to join your faculty,' and they [would] say yes."
Not long after Obama joined the faculty, Mikva had retired from the bench and was also teaching at the law school. He, Baird, Stone, and another prominent law professor, Cass R. Sunstein, often met with Obama in the Quadrangle Club, the faculty club at 1155 East 57th Street. Reflecting on the school's influence on Obama, Sunstein recently wrote, "The University of Chicago Law School is by far the most conservative of the great American law schools. [Obama] is strongly committed to helping the disadvantaged, but his University of Chicago background shows; he appreciates the virtues and power of free markets." During an interview in April with the University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, Sunstein elaborated: "On the mortgage and credit market crises, he has been against Hillary Clinton's freeze [on interest rates] and he's been in favor of increased disclosure to make the market work. So if we could compare Clinton and Obama on some issues, you'll notice that he is more libertarian and more disclosure focused, where she is somewhat more mandate focused."
The university pioneered a discipline of "law and economics" that, broadly speaking, favors incentives over mandates, the market over regulations. "That was certainly abuzz during the time Obama was at the law school [from 1992 to 2004]," says the U. of C. economist Austan Goolsbee. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, his campaign needed an economics adviser. "They called all these people from Harvard—no one would give them the time of day," Goolsbee recalls. So they turned to him, and Goolsbee remains a senior adviser. "If you look at his platform, at his advisers, at his temperament, the guy's got a healthy respect for markets," says Goolsbee. "It's in the ethos of the [University of Chicago], which is something different from saying he is laissez-faire. He is a Democrat who thinks you can harness market mechanisms to achieve Democratic objectives."
Obama's critics say that he is in fact a conventional protectionist who campaigns against free-trade treaties such as NAFTA. Goolsbee set off a small commotion in February when he allegedly told a Canadian consular official that Obama's recent anti-NAFTA rhetoric was just politics and not a sign that he opposed the agreement. Goolsbee does not comment now on that incident but insists that Obama is sympathetic to free-market approaches to public policy.
Douglas Baird puts a slightly different spin on Obama's economic approach. "It isn't so much that [Obama] is market oriented as he is keenly aware of the fact that we live in a world of limited resources," Baird says. "That kind of outlook might strike some as being more market oriented."
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