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Sunday, September 09, 2012

Of sidelines, collegiality, and Barack Obama's spectacular ineffectiveness

I've never doubted the reports that the University of Chicago Law School would gladly have put Barack Obama on a "tenure track" if he'd wanted that. They would have converted him from a "lecturer" or "senior lecturer" — both polite ways of pointing out to other academics that someone is neither tenured, nor on a tenure-track — into an "assistant professor." And then, in addition to teaching, he'd have had to produce appropriate proof of sustained scholarship, which in this profession means researching and writing serious articles for publication in law reviews like the one he helped edit when he was a student at Harvard Law. If his articles met the very subjective standards of the faculty, and if his teaching and other professorial work was acceptable, he'd have been granted tenure, and the title of "associate professor"; he'd have started participating in the faculty senate, voting on tenure decisions and law school policy; and eventually he'd have become a full professor (the "Professor of Law" that he's so often and so misleadingly claimed himself to be when away from the law school), and he'd probably eventually have ended up with an endowed chair (e.g., "the Fenster Q. Bigcontributor Chair in Socio-Legal Comparative Studies," or some such). And if Chicago hadn't embraced him for such a career path, literally hundreds of other law schools would have, and gladly, simply on the basis of Obama having been the first black editor-in-chief (a/k/a "president" in their odd nomenclature) of the Harvard Law Review.

Of course, as any career academic or even any one-time graduate student is keenly aware, "faculty politics" is some of the most intense and competitive politics around. But it's not always purely cut-throat; instead it must also be collaborative to be successful. Every academic's individual prestige is linked with that of his institution, and while they are rivals in some respects, all members of a faculty have a shared interest in seeing their institution prosper and grow in repute (and funding) over the long term. That they can and do cooperate to build great institutions of higher learning, and that leaders emerge among them to show the way, is why it's not a mockery that "college" and "collegiality" share the same linguistic roots.

But Obama chose not to go that path, for whatever reasons. He probably had a key to the faculty lounge and washroom, but by his choice, he was never part of the permanent, full-time faculty of Chicago Law School, or any law school.

Similarly, although Barack Obama could have had his choice of partnership-track associate positions at the top law firms in the country, he chose to be merely a non-owner part-time employee, "of counsel" at the small and not particularly distinguished Chicago law firm he joined after Harvard Law School.

Barack Obama was never anyone's fellow tenured faculty member, nor anyone's law partner and business co-owner. He never even tried to be.

I thought of that bit of Obama's personal history when I read this appalling story from Bob Woodward in the Washington Post. It's titled "Inside story of Obama’s struggle to keep Congress from controlling outcome of debt ceiling crisis," but the URL under which it was published contains a short and succinct indictment (italics mine, of course): "A president sidelined." It begins:

President Obama summoned the top four congressional leaders to the White House on Saturday morning, July 23, 2011. The night before, House Speaker John A. Boehner had withdrawn from negotiations to raise the $14 trillion federal debt limit and save the government from a catastrophic default. “Nobody wanted to be there,” Boehner later recalled. “The president’s still pissed.”

They had about 10 days left before the government would run out of money. Given the global importance of U.S. Treasury securities, failing to extend the debt limit could trigger a worldwide economic meltdown.

Boehner said he believed that he and the others — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — had a plan. He told Obama: We think we can work this out. Give us a little more time. We’ll come back to you. We are not going to negotiate this with you.

Obama objected, saying that he couldn’t be left out of the process. “I’ve got to sign this bill,” he reminded the leaders as they sat in the Cabinet Room off the Oval Office.

“Mr. President,” Boehner challenged, “as I read the Constitution, the Congress writes the laws. You get to decide if you want to sign them.”

Reid, the most powerful Democrat on Capitol Hill, spoke up. The congressional leaders want to speak privately, he said. Give us some time.

This was it. Congress was taking over. The leaders were asking the president to leave the meeting he had called in the White House.

Sidelined! Well, yeah, everyone else on the team has effectively sidelined him because he doesn't know the plays, doesn't know how to play his position, pays no attention to the snap count, draws a penalty flag with every other step he takes, and yet trash-talks endlessly. It's not unusual for a player to be sidelined. But it's pretty unusual when the other players sideline the nominal quarterback.

President Obama in a meeting with congressional leaders on the budget deficit on July 14, 2011, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Fair-use photo credit: AFP/Getty|Mandel Ngan via denverpost.comYet it is not really surprising, because:

Barack Obama never learned to work and play constructively with others, so he certainly never learned how to effectively lead others.

The closest he ever came was when he was elected as a compromise candidate to head the Harvard Law Review. That was a great honor, but ask yourself: Other than the fact that he was the first black editor-in-chief, have you heard a single other notable fact about his service in that one-year slot? Oh, the HLR published on schedule (more or less, as law reviews tend to do), and it sailed along with the same standards of quality and scholarship that had built its reputation over more than a century. But frankly, the Harvard Law Review — like the Texas Law Review, on whose board I served in 1979-1980, or most other top law reviews — is easily capable of surviving for a year on auto-pilot regardless of the leadership skills of any single editor-in-chief. And I'm reasonably sure that during Obama's tenure, the HLR didn't have to borrow billions from the Chinese to put out its next issue either.

By all accounts, the only legislation of consequence that Obama ever passed as a state senator was that which was drafted by others and decided by the party bosses that, for symbolic reasons, he should sponsor. He passed absolutely nothing of consequence in his brief tenure as a U.S. Senator, served in no important leadership positions, and left not a single fingerprint on the institution of the United States Senate.

And now, when the United States and the world desperately need someone who can not just make speches, but actually lead — not just in public, but in private with his sleeves rolled up to deal with competing congressmen and constituencies — Barack Obama does not know what to do. He has the power of the Presidency, but not a clue how to use it effectively, so he is not taken seriously by any of the other players whom the Constitution makes part of the process of government.

And not only can Obama not lead, he can't even cooperate effectively.

I would feel slightly sorry for him, if he were not destroying my children's future.

"Lead, follow, or get out of the way," it's said. The 2012 election now represents President Obama — refusing even to get out of the way.

Posted by Beldar at 12:39 AM in 2012 Election, Budget/economics, Congress, Obama, Politics (2012) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Sep 9, 2012 1:50:06 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: I have a limited disagreement with you. The Won is a successful leader. The proof? He became Prez of the HLR, he was admitted to Harvard/Columbia/Occidental/the tony Hawaiian prep school whose name I forget. He entered these institutions with grades that he won't reveal, but by all indirect measures are not stellar. Didn't that take "leadership" i.e. a willingness to play the race card without qualms? Too, it worked. Ergo, he's a successful leader. The difficulty is, he is now in an environment where that "skill" is far less successful with many, not all, of the players. The press still grovels, legs a tingle. The universities and sizable swaths of politicoes also grovel, though with increasing anger, as The Won's ineptitudes devalue their own skill sets. The citizenry is beginning to see that those who holler "raaaaaaaacccisssttt!" at every opportunity aren't wearing clothes.

No, the problem is not the hollowness of The Won. It is with the institutions that collapsed before such a meretricious performance, i.e. Columbia/Harvard/UChicago/the press. We've long disagreed on this point, but I no longer believe that an Ivy League degree, particularly in the "soft" subjects, means much. Note the recent supposed scandal at Harvard, where a gang of undergrads, "collaborated inappropriately" on a take home final, and the Prez, that dreadful Drew Gilpin Faust, is shocked, shocked at such behavior. If so, she's a fool. But she's not a fool, just a cynic performing damage control so the racket that has paid off so well for her can continue. This is what enabled The Won to flourish.

The day such frauds as Bill Ayers/Cornel West/"Skip"Gates are canned from the faculty, tenure or no, is the day the institutions will have a shot at recovering. I don't believe such a harsh measure will happen. So the fraud will continue, with someone else being to blame.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 9, 2012 10:17:44 PM | Permalink

I'm tickled that my longtime blogospheric friends at Power Line linked this post in their "Picks" section of their homepage.

(3) Lavaux made the following comment | Sep 10, 2012 2:25:16 AM | Permalink

I was one of 8 write-on competition winners in my Law Review, i.e. I didn't qualify for Law Review by having high grades but by proving that I was a better legal writer and thinker than 80 of my peers. Our Chief Editor, however, had the second highest grades in our class. With my grades I could never have been elected (or would have run or served) for Chief Editor. So I'm wondering how Obama (1) qualified for Law Review, and (2) won election as its Chief Editor?

Next, I've got the good sense to never undertake jobs I can't do adequately, e.g. securities compliance, patent filings, criminal litigation. I'd love to have the fees and prestige generated by these kinds of cases, but I don't know enough about them to serve adequately and the client would suffer, which is professionally tabu. So I'm wondering why Obama took his current gig or wants to keep it when he must know that he isn't adequate? Doesn't he love his country or its people? I don't get it.

(4) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 10, 2012 2:52:08 AM | Permalink

Lavaux, thanks for your comment. My reference to Obama's selection as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review having been on the basis of a political compromise came from this contemporaneous reporting from the New York Times. It's somewhat confusing to me, at least, because HLR called all of its second-year members "editors," and the article doesn't differentiate clearly between selection to such a role as a second-year student and election to a substantive editorial position (like Chief Justice John Roberts' position as the "managing editor" in his third year at Harvard). Nevertheless, the process for selecting the editor-in-chief (a/k/a "president") of the HLR sounds very political, to a degree that my law review peers and I would have found extremely distasteful.

Our outgoing boards at Texas selected their successors based entirely on perceived merit, which in turn was based overwhelmingly on the quality of thinking and writing exhibited in the required student "note" from each second-year member. We'd abandoned the casenote/comment distinction, and the only practical difference between our student notes and faculty articles was that the former weren't being written in direct pursuit of academic tenure. Of course one also had to have done one's share of scut-work — endless proofreading of marked up galley proofs against page proofs, endless cite-checking — to even be eligible.

Also at Texas — and my sense is that this was quite common at other law reviews — whether a member had "graded on" or "written on" wasn't considered to be particularly relevant to the evaluation of merit. Indeed, many of those who graded on (as I did) wondered (as I did) if we could also have managed to also write our way on, but were very glad we hadn't had to try. Virtually everyone who wrote on had demonstrated both ability and determination, and consequently almost all of them stuck, whereas quite a few who graded on ended up quitting (typically because they'd gotten bored or distracted, or they'd decided the hard work wasn't adding to their job prospects since they already had great grades).

For a long, long time, Obama and his campaign vigorously resisted admitting even that Obama had himself written and published anything while on the HLR, but that mystery was finally solved. The short, unsigned, and thoroughly sterile casenote they finally identified was average in all respects for that genre in the HLR, but — because of its narrow scope and limited ambition — it wouldn't have even qualified a Texas Law Review member to even stick around for his third year, much less made him a front-runner to become EIC. I have a hard time imagining that anything about Obama's casenote made him stand out among all his other classmates who'd made the HLR in the same year. On the other hand, it's easy for me to imagine that he might have worked essentially the same PR job on those voting for the HLR's new "president" as he worked on the American voting public in 2008.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Harvard Law, the HLR, or Obama have ever commented on whether Obama wrote onto or graded onto the HLR. And I haven't been able to get a clear answer to the question of whether their selection methods were entirely blind, or whether instead they reflected deliberate affirmative action criteria that might have benefited Obama. To my knowledge, no reporter has ever dared ask Obama that to his face, and it remains as much a mystery as his college grades at Occidental and Columbia or his LSAT score.

(5) Alan R. Lockwood made the following comment | Sep 10, 2012 11:13:31 AM | Permalink

I've written a book that reveals Obama's LSAT score as well as a treasure trove of info on Obama's college and law school courses, teachers, grades, extracurricular activities, and on how he became an editor and then the president of the Harvard Law Review. There’s an entire chapter proving that it's highly likely that he got affirmative action in his admission to Harvard Law and another about the articles he published in the law review....

[Editing note: I have edited Mr. Lockwood to omit some of his self-promotion, including a link back to his commercial website peddling his self-published book, but if anyone's so inclined they can probably find their way back to Mr. Lockwood's book's website and buy it. I don't want there to be any hint of a shadow of a suggestion, however, that I have endorsed it or participated in its promotion. I haven't read it, I can't vouch for it or him, and I am very skeptical about his claims. — Beldar, Mon Sep 10 @ 4:55pm]

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