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Obama’s leadership style – by colleagues on the Harvard Law Review

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Perhaps the best way to understand Barack Obama and the kind of President he will make is to view his leadership on the Harvard Law Review. His associates had these comments:

Bradford Berenson, Harvard Law, class of ’91; associate White House counsel, 2001-’03:

You don’t become president of the Harvard Law Review, no matter how political, or how liberal the place is, by virtue of affirmative action, or by virtue of not being at the very top of your class in terms of legal ability. Barack was at the very top of his class in terms of legal ability. He had a first-class legal mind and, in my view, was selected to be president of the Review entirely on his merits.
[…]
And ultimately, the conservatives on the Review supported Barack as president in the final rounds of balloting because he fit that bill far better than the other people who were running. …

We had all worked with him over the course of a year. And we had all spent countless hours in the presence of Barack, as well as others of our colleagues who were running, in Gannett House [the Law Review offices], and so you get a pretty good sense of people over the course of a year of late nights working on the Review. You know who the rabble-rousers are. You know who the people are who are blinded by their politics. And you know who the people are who, despite their politics, can reach across and be friendly to and make friends with folks who have different views. And Barack very much fell into the latter category. …

[After Obama is selected,] he does a very able job as president. Puts out what I think was a very good volume of the Review. Does a great job managing the difficult and complicated interpersonal dynamics on the Review. And manages somehow, in an extremely fractious group, to keep everybody almost happy.
[…]
I think Barack took 10 times as much grief from those on the left on the Review as from those of us on the right. And the reason was, I think there was an expectation among those editors on the left that he would affirmatively use the modest powers of his position to advance the cause, whatever that was. They thought, you know, finally there’s an African American president of the Harvard Law Review; it’s our turn, and he should aggressively use this position, and his authority and his bully pulpit to advance the political or philosophical causes that we all believe in.

And Barack was reluctant to do that. It’s not that he was out of sympathy with their views, but his first and foremost goal, it always seemed to me, was to put out a first-rate publication. And he was not going to let politics or ideology get in the way of doing that. …
[…]
He was unwilling to undermine, based on the way I viewed it, meritocratic outcomes or democratic outcomes in order to advance a racial agenda. That earned him a lot of recrimination and criticism from some on the left, particularly some of the minority editors of the Review. …

It confirmed the hope that I and others had had at the time of the election that he would basically be an honest broker, that he would not let ideology or politics blind him to the enduring institutional interests of the Review. It told me that he valued the success of his own presidency of the Review above scoring political points of currying favor with his political supporters.

Christine Spurell Harvard Law, class of ’91

Honestly, we were just very polarized on the Law Review, we really were. It’s like you go to a college campus, and the black students were all sitting together. It was the same thing with the Law Review; the black students were all sitting together. Barack was the one who was truly able to move between the different groups and have credibility with all of them.
[…]
He grew up in a multiracial environment. I don’t know what he’s like now with conservatives, but I don’t know why at the time he was able to communicate so well with them, even spend social time with them, which was not something I would ever have done. …

I don’t think he was agenda-driven. I think he genuinely thought, some of these guys are nice, all of them are smart, some of them are funny, all of them have something to say. …
[…]
I pulled so many all-nighters, I thought I should be rewarded. But he put the good of the Law Review ahead of my agenda. That’s what makes him such a great leader. …
[…]
But Barack, being a much better leader than me, allowed for open and robust discussion. He actually believed and showed that he believed that when you debate things openly and intelligently, the best ideas will win. So there were protracted debates, and he permitted them. And he permitted things to go to votes.

Janny Scott, The New York Times

Apparently, while he was an editor of the Law Review, he was involved in the editing of a piece by Michael McConnell, who was a conservative constitutional law scholar who later was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Federal Court and was considered as a Supreme Court nominee, or was one of the people listed around the time of [Justice Samuel] Alito and [Chief Justice John] Roberts’ appointments.

According to a professor at the University of Chicago, Douglas Baird, he got a call, or got a note, from Michael McConnell, who … was definitely an alumnus of the University of Chicago Law School, saying, “I encountered this really remarkable, brilliant guy at Harvard Law Review when they were working on my piece, and you should have this guy on your radar.” And so it was this very conservative legal scholar who brought Obama to the attention of the University of Chicago.

Cassandra Butts, Harvard Law, class of ’91; Obama adviser

…. And they thought that he would be able to bring together the factions that had developed as a result of the ideological divisions on the Law Review, on the left and the right. …
[…]
He had a very quiet, yet very calm presence. And his leadership style was such that people were drawn to him and they embraced him as a leader, and they put him forward as a leader. …
[…]
What I like to say to people is that Barack never meets a stranger, and that’s one of the things that makes him so effective as a politician. When he meets people, when he sees people, when he’s interacting with people, he isn’t inclined to stereotype people. He ultimately has met you before in some other experience, or someone just like you. …

Barack was not and is not predictable. He’s thoughtful. He’ll tell you what he believes. But it isn’t always what you expect. … His ideological approach is to the left and there was an expectation that as the president of the Law Review that he would side on the part of his more progressive colleagues. But he recognized that his role was such that he had to bring both sides together. And in order to publish the Law Review and to be productive in his term as president, he had to figure out how to make it work and how to make both sides work together, which meant that he wasn’t always going to side with his progressive colleagues, that he had to take the interests and the ideas of the people on the right into account.
[…]
It is Barack’s natural inclination to reach across the aisle. It’s personality. And it’s also just his intellect. … He’s not interested necessarily in dominating the conversation. He wants to bring people into the conversation. He wants to understand different points of view. And understanding those different points of view informs the way he thinks about issues. …

Finally, several of the people Frontline interviewed for this story repeatedly stated that Obama “has an iron fist in a velvet glove.” In other words, he can speak softly but is determined. That characterization is very much like Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.” It signifies that Obama will not be run over in international diplomacy. He won’t be weak willed…but he will, with his velvet glove, attempt first to win others over to his side.

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Written by Valerie Curl

November 3, 2008 at 12:21 AM

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