Finally a former law student of Barack Obama's, surfaces and goes public (house of representatives, Congress) - Politics and Other Controversies -Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress


I'm pretty astonished. Though Obama was widely advertised as a Professor (or at least a lecturer) on Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, I never heard of a single person say "Yes, I knew Barry back then, he was my (friend/teacher/roommate/boss/employee/drinking buddy/date/rival/etc.)". The man went through an entire PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, which usually exposes everyone they have EVER known (isn't that right, Herman Cain?)... but no associate or acquaintance of Barack Obama from his college days was ever brought out.

Why is it that conservatives live in an alternate reality that so rarely turns out to be true... even regarding the simple stuff?


Craig Cunningham, UCLS ’93

Craig Cunningham, ’93, one of the President’s first students and a supporter of his teacher’s political ambitions, felt that Obama was brilliant, talented, and had the potential to be a great leader. But Cunningham was also concerned about Obama’s political future.

“I did expect him to run for office, because I would hang around after class and we would talk about the state senate,” Cunningham explains. “But after he lost the congressional race to Bobby Rush I thought he was moving too fast, that he should slow down and not run for a different office for a while because he was trying to do too much at one time. And Chicago politics were not going to allow him to do that. I was worried. And I was really surprised when he told me he was going to run for U.S. Senate.”

“We African American students were very aware of him because at the time there really weren’t a lot of minority professors at the Law School,” Cunningham explains, “and we really wanted him to be a strong representation for the African American students. We wanted him to live up to the pressures and reach out to other ethnic minorities. And we were also very excited about possibly having an African American tenure-track professor at the Law School.”

Elysia Solomon, UCLS ’99

“In Con Law III we study equal process and due process. He was incredibly charismatic, funny, really willing to listen to student viewpoints—which I thought was very special at Chicago,” says Elysia Solomon, ’99. “There were so many diverse views in the class and people didn’t feel insecure about voicing their opinions. I thought that he did a really good job of balancing viewpoints.”

“I knew he was ambitious, but at that point in time at the Law School there were so many people on the faculty that you knew weren’t going to be professors for the rest of their lives,” Solomon explains. “We had [Judge] Abner Mikva and Elena Kagan and Judge Wood and Judge Posner. There is a very active intellectual life at the Law School and this melding of the spheres of academics and the real world is very cool. It’s what attracts teachers and students to the school.”

Jesse Ruiz, UCLS ’95

“When I walked into class the first day I remember that we—meaning the students I knew—thought we were going to get a very left-leaning perspective on the law,” explains Jesse Ruiz, ’95.

“We assumed that because he was a minority professor in a class he designed. But he was very middle-of-the-road. In his class we were very cognizant that we were dealing with a difficult topic, but what we really got out of that class was that he taught us to think like lawyers about those hard topics even when we had issues about those topics.”

Unsurprisingly, though, he was of greater interest to the minority students on campus. “I don’t think most people know his history,” Ruiz says, “but when he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review it was a national story. I remembering reading the story and thinking I gotta go to law school!”

In 1996, Obama ran for, and won, the Thirteenth District of Illinois state senate seat, which then spanned Chicago South Side neighborhoods from Hyde Park–Kenwood to South Shore and west to Chicago Lawn. Then in 2000 he ran for, and lost, the Democratic nomination for Bobby Rush’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He was very demoralized at that point and would not have recommended a career in public service to anyone,” Ruiz says.

“He had suffered a setback, he was facing a lot of struggles in Springfield, and it was a hard lifestyle traveling back and forth to Springfield. We sat at lunch and he talked about how if he had joined a big firm when he graduated he could have been a partner. We did a lot of what if. But then he decided to run for U.S. Senate. And the rest is history.”

Dan Johnson-Weinberger, UCLS ’00

Over time, Obama developed a reputation for teaching from a nonbiased point of view. He was also noted for widening the legal views of his students.

“I liked that he included both jurisprudence and real politics in the class discussions,” says Dan Johnson-Weinberger, ’00.

“Lots of classes in law school tend to be judge-centric and he had as much a focus on the legislative branch as the judicial branch. That was refreshing.”

“I was into state politics while I was at the Law School, so I am one of the few alums who knew the President as both a legislator and as a teacher,” notes Johnson-Weinberger. “I thought he would continue as a successful politician. But I never would have guessed that he would be our President.”

Joe Khan, UCLS ’00

“Most students were not that focused on Barack during the years I was there,” says Joe Khan, ’00. “For example, every year the professors would donate their time or belongings to the law school charity auction. Professor Obama’s donation was to let two students spend the day with him in Springfield, where he’d show them around the state senate and introduce them to the other senators. People now raise thousands of dollars to be in a room with the man, but my friend and I won the bid for a few hundred bucks.”

David Franklin, UCLS

In his voting rights course, Obama taught Lani Guinier's proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation. Opponents attacked those suggestions when Guinier was nominated as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, costing her the post."I think he thought they were good and worth trying," said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago. But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Obama would not say so directly. "He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier's proposals with total neutrality and equanimity," Franklin said. "He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth."

Kenworthey Bilz, UCLS

"Anybody who's thinking they want to go into academia, conservative or liberal, kind of knows they have to take equal protection," says Kenworthey Bilz, who took equal protection from Obama in 1997 and is now a professor at Northwestern Law School. "I can very confidently say he didn't strike me as liberal or conservative."

"He was not an ivory tower academic," said former student Kenworthey Bilz, who had him for the low-ranked 1997 Constitutional Law class. "The class was not his first love. He was basically in the trenches. These were real problems to him. That kind of on-the-street realism was really refreshing."

Patrick Jasperse, UCLS

“He was very engaging, approachable and human,” recalls Patrick Jasperse, now a Justice Department trial attorney based in Washington.

Andrew Janis, UCLS

While a state senator, Obama held classes early on Monday and late on Friday during legislative sessions, running right through the school's popular Friday evening wine-and-cheese hour. Obama was so popular, students signed up for his class anyway.

"We'd be in class and get messages that he would come in 45 minutes late and everyone would wait for him," said former student Andrew Janis, now a New York lawyer.

"Some professors are just kind of going through the motions with you," Janis said. "He actually seemed to take everyone's point of view seriously."

Adam Bonin, UCLS

It was 1996, and there I was, in a seminar room with maybe fifteen students, not knowing that I was learning from the man who might be the next President of the United States.

Spring quarter of my second year, I took Voting Rights and Election Law as a seminar with Professor Obama. Now, let’s be clear: in a school with a lot of Somebodies – Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Cass Sunstein and David Currie – he was a relative nobody, and even compared with other younger faculty, it was Larry Lessig and Elena Kagan who had more of the hype. But Obama was teaching a course in a subject I wanted to study – at a point when I realized that law school was too short to be spent in classes that felt obligatory – and that made it an easy decision.

And he was ... different. For one thing, better dressed. Sleek sweaters and blazers as opposed to ill-fitting, coffee-stained suits with mismatched ties. But he was also less formal, more relaxed – he never taught the class as though he knew the answers to all the questions he was posing and was just hiding the ball from us until we could find them. Confident, sure, but never cocky.

What’s more, he taught Voting Rights in a different way than others do. He didn’t use a textbook, for starters, but rather had us each purchase an eight-inch high multilith of cases, law review articles and statutes that he had personally compiled. And they weren’t all the "big" cases either – no, our class started by reviewing some early-19th century cases about the denial of the franchise, so that as the course moved forward we saw "voting rights" not as some static thing to be analyzed, but a constantly- and still-evolving process to be affected. Over the course of a few months, we studied changes in the franchise, changes in the rights of political parties, campaign finance law and redistricting, among other topics. We learned the law, but we also learned it on the level of real-world impact: based on a whites-only party primary, how many people would be denied a voice? What kind of policies would result from such a legislature?

Much in the Chicago tradition, he wanted all voices to be heard in the classroom, and when there a viewpoint that wasn’t being expressed or students were too complacent in their liberal views, he’d push the contrary view himself. These classes were conversations.

And the conversations extended outside the classroom. I spent plenty of time in Prof. Obama’s office, talking to him about the paper I was working on. Just the two of us, one on one, with him always provoking me to think deeper, work harder ...

Salil Mehra, UCLS

A favorite theme, said Salil Mehra, now a law professor at Temple University, were the values and cultural touchstones that Americans share. Mr. Obama’s case in point: his wife, Michelle, a black woman, loved “The Brady Bunch” so much that she could identify every episode by its opening shots.

Adam Gross, UCLS

“Are there legal remedies that alleviate not just existing racism, but racism from the past?” Adam Gross, now a public interest lawyer in Chicago, wrote in his class notes in April 1994.

D. Daniel Sokol, UCLS

But the liberal students did not necessarily find reassurance. “For people who thought they were getting a doctrinal, rah-rah experience, it wasn’t that kind of class,” said D. Daniel Sokol, a former student who now teaches law at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Mary Ellen Callahan, UCLS

He wanted his charges to try arguing that life was better under segregation, that black people were better athletes than white ones. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re offending my liberal instincts,’ ” Mary Ellen Callahan, now a privacy lawyer in Washington, recalled.

In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”

David Franklin, UCLS

In his voting rights course, Mr. Obama taught Lani Guinier’s proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation.“I think he thought they were good and worth trying,” said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago.

But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Mr. Obama would not say so directly. “He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier’s proposals with total neutrality and equanimity,” Mr. Franklin said. “He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth.”

Byron Rodriguez, UCLS

Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama’s former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them. Byron Rodriguez, a real estate lawyer in San Francisco, recalls his professor’s admiration for the soaring but plainspoken speeches of Frederick Douglass.

“No one speaks this way anymore,” Mr. Obama told his class, wondering aloud what had happened to the art of political oratory. In particular, Mr. Obama admired Douglass’s use of a collective voice that embraced black and white concerns, one that Mr. Obama has now adopted himself.

“When you hear him talking about issues, it’s at a level so much simpler than the one he’s capable of,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was a lot more fun to listen to back then.”


David Strauss, Colleague

“Many of us thought he would be a terrific addition to the faculty, but we understood that he had other plans,” explains David Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor. “Although I don’t think any of us imagined that things would work out the way they did.”

During his tenure in the state senate, Obama continued to teach at the Law School, some nights traveling straight up from evening sessions at the State House to his classroom.

“But the students never thought of him as a part-timer,” Strauss adds. “They just thought of him as a really good teacher.”

Professor David Strauss, the only teacher with higher ratings than Obama in his last year at the school, said, "The students thought he was great. He thought about things in unconventional ways."

Douglas Baird, Colleague

Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former Dean, shared Cunningham’s concern that winning the seat was a long shot for Obama. “I remember having a cup of coffee with him when he said he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate, and I looked at him straight in the eye and said, ‘Don’t do it, you’re not going to win.’”

[Baird] remembers once asking Obama to assess potential candidates for governor. "First of all, I'm not running for governor," Obama told him. "But if I did, I would expect you to support me."

Dennis Hutchinson, Colleague

Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs. "He tested his ideas in classrooms," said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of "Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?" as Hutchinson put it.

Richard Epstein, Colleague

"I don't think anything that went on in these chambers affected him," said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. "His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he's always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he's never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings."

Nor could his views be gleaned from scholarship; Obama has never published any. He was too busy, but also, Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Guinier's writings had hurt her. "He figured out, you lay low," Epstein said.

Epstein, who once almost sold his Hyde Park home to Obama and would buttonhole him to talk about things like state mandates for health insurance, offers one reason why: "He was always a terrific listener. He'd sit there and **** his head, take it all in."

Of course, as Epstein points out, Obama's willingness to listen didn't necessarily mean he was willing to be convinced. "What you don't get, alas and alack, out of all this is a change in point of view," Epstein says. "If you ask me whether I had any influence on his intellectual or moral development, I'd say no, not even a little."

Abner Mikva, Colleague

Obama had other business on his mind, embarking on five political races during his 12 years at the school. Teaching gave him satisfaction, along with a perch and a paycheck, but he was impatient with academic debates over "whether to drop a footnote or not drop a footnote," said Abner Mikva, a mentor whose own career has spanned Congress, the federal court system and the same law school.

Cass Sunstein, Colleague

"Those are tremendous ratings, especially for someone who had a day job," Professor Cass Sunstein said. "We wanted him to join the faculty full-time at various different junctures. That's not a trivial fact. . . . If we want to hire someone, the faculty has to think they're tremendous. But he liked political life."

Daniel Fischel, Former Dean, UCLS

In the spring of 2000, not long after Barack Obama was trounced in the Democratic primary for a South Side Chicago congressional seat, Daniel Fischel staged an intervention. Meeting with Obama in the main lounge at the University of Chicago Law School, where Fischel was then dean and Obama was a part-time senior lecturer, Fischel offered Obama some unsolicited advice. "I told him that it was obvious his political career was going nowhere," Fischel recalls, "and that he really ought to think about doing something else."

The particular "something else" Fischel had in mind was a full-time tenured professorship; to sweeten the offer, Fischel said the law school would even hire Obama's wife, Michelle, to run its legal clinic. Although the move would require Obama to give up his state Senate seat, Fischel tried to convince his junior colleague that Chicago professor might be a more natural role than Chicago politician for a cerebral guy like him. "I mentioned people who'd been faculty members like [Antonin] Scalia and [Richard] Posner and [Frank] Easterbrook and many others who had gone on to very distinguished careers outside of academia or in combination with academia," Fischel says. "I told him he could be a faculty member as well as a public intellectual."

Obama declined Fischel's overture, saying that he wanted to give elected politics another shot.

"What I know from my dealings with him at the law school is that he does really attempt to understand the points of view of other people who look at the world or a particular issue differently than he does," says Fischel. "He's much more intellectual, much more thoughtful, much more interested in discussion, debate, and dialogue than the typical politician. And that gives me some confidence about him, even though from my perspective he's much too liberal. I've never voted for a Democrat in my entire life. He's the first one I might vote for."

Saul Levmore, Current Dean, UCLS

Saul Levmore, the school's current dean, whose politics are hard to characterize but generally right-leaning, says, "We were intensely interested in him. We were looking for him to say, 'I'm giving up politics, I want to be an academic.' We were always in recruiting mode with him."