Eminentoes

Obama the Harvard Lawyer

Why does his campaign avoid mention of the time he spent at Harvard Law School?

By 9.19.08

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If Barack Obama wins on November 4, he will be the 26th lawyer elected president, but only the second from Harvard Law School (the first being Rutherford B. Hayes). With the election quickly approaching, voters should consider what Obama's HLS education means. In many ways it epitomizes his candidacy and reflects a man who is intelligent and thoughtful but also liberal, enigmatic, and completely out-of-touch with most Americans.

When the New York Times published an article headlined, "In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice," on January 28, 2007 (back when Obama's quest for the Democratic nomination seemed improbable at best) reporter Jodi Cantor noted, "Senator Obama's legal education is barely a blip, one of the least known chapters of his life." Over 18 months and one presidential nomination later, Obama's campaign still rarely mentions the candidate's time at HLS. Why not?

First, Americans generally frown upon lawyers (studies have shown only the media ranks below lawyers in consumer confidence). The Obama ticket consists of not one, but two lawyers. Senator Joe Biden graduated from Syracuse Law School, which almost expelled him for plagiarism. In Congress, Senator Biden is also a known ally of trial lawyers, an important Democratic constituency.

Second, despite HLS's prestige, Harvard embodies the liberal creed and remains doctrinally left-wing and politically correct. It helped nurture the Critical Legal Studies movement, whose advocates argue that law merely reflects biases and injustices and entrenches male, Caucasian societal dominance. Harvard's politically correct dogma bit its former president, Lawrence Summers, who was forced to resign in 2006 when he dared to suggest that innate differences conceivably could account for variable performance trends between the sexes in science and engineering. Members of the conservative Harvard Law School Federalist Society gave Summers, a Democrat, a standing ovation at its 2005 Student Convention to protest the persecution of him.

HLS boasts far more left-wing professors than centrists or conservatives. A 2005 study published in the Georgetown Law Review revealed that nearly 90 percent of HLS professors who donated more than $200 to political campaigns gave exclusively to Democrats. Despite strong Federalist Society and Republican chapters, the student body remains overwhelmingly liberal.

Claudio Simpkins, a member of HLS' Class of 2009, says he may be the school's only black student who backs John McCain. Simpkins believes that "the historical significance of Obama's rise alone won't solve America's problems," and he surmises that Obama's legal education was probably "a liberal one in which few of his deeply held convictions or beliefs were challenged."

Although Obama hardly was regarded as radical at Harvard, he navigated many of the same racial issues that face his candidacy. When Obama was elected as the first black editor of the Law Review, he said in the February 6, 1990 New York Times: "I personally am interested in pushing a strong minority perspective. I'm fairly opinionated about this." Obama's HLS professors included Charles Ogletree, a leading voice advocating taxpayer-funded slavery reparations. Although Obama never publicly supported that position, Ogletree was among Obama's mentors at HLS and now sits on Obama's black advisory council, along with former Harvard professor of Afro-American Studies, Cornel West, according to the National Journal. West also serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.

While a majority of American presidents possessed legal backgrounds, some would argue that lawyers are better suited for legislatures and courts. "Legislators, like lawyers (Kerry is both), believe that if you get the process right, if the right people are consulted along the way, and the right arguments are made at the right times, good decisions will follow. Executives know better." So explained William Stuntz, himself a politically moderate Harvard Law Professor, in a 2004 Tech Central Station article, titled "Sunrise in the West." Stuntz just as easily could have invoked Obama, rather than John Kerry.

Obama's seamless shifts in policy stances and caution in adopting positions and adhering to them display his lawyerly tendency. Lawyers, after all, are trained to consider arguments on both sides of issues. They often are paid to make either argument with equal ferocity, or to avoid embracing either perspective. When Russia invaded Georgia, John McCain quickly and unequivocally criticized the Kremlin. Obama's first response was muted and decidedly more neutral. He then revised his position several times so that it eventually resembled McCain's stance. When asked by Rick Warren last month at what point a baby obtains rights, Obama glibly dodged it by saying the question "above his pay grade." It reminds me of the advice often given to first year law students prior to taking exams, which is that the correct answer is not "yes" or "no"...it's "maybe."

Obama's challenge never has been to show people he is smart enough to serve as president; few would deny that he is. His HLS degree confirms his intelligence, although it certainly does not prepare him to be commander-in-chief. Whereas voters question Obama's liberalism, elitism, and values, Obama's Cambridge roots should only exacerbate these concerns.

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About the Author
Brett Joshpe is an attorney and entrepreneur in New York City. He is Of Counsel to the American Center for Law & Justice and co-authored the book Why You're Wrong About the Right (Simon & Schuster, 2008).