America Gets a Professor in Chief

November 05, 2008

The 2008 presidential election has broken so many political barriers that historians may overlook one unusual fact: When Barack Obama takes the oath of office next January alongside his running mate, Joe Biden, it will be the first time in history that the president, vice president, and both of their spouses have worked in higher education.

Taken together, the Obamas and the Bidens have amassed decades of experience at colleges and universities. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 until 2004, when he took office in the U.S. Senate. His wife, Michelle, has worked in the administration at the same university and is on leave from her job as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

The Bidens also have spent considerable time in academe. For the past 17 years, Mr. Biden has taught as an adjunct professor at the Widener University School of Law. His wife, Jill, is an English instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College's Stanton-Wilmington campus.

No one knows how the academic experiences of the executive-branch principals will shape the next administration. But that has not stopped presidential historians and higher-education officials from speculating about how a professor in chief might govern. On matters of both style and substance, they say, Mr. Obama comes across as professorial, a trait that could help or hurt him. Although his prepared speeches can soar with lofty prose, he can also turn deliberative when deviating from his script.

"He seems to be reflective when directly asked a question," says Joan Hoff, a research professor of history at Montana State University at Bozeman and author of A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush (Cambridge University Press, 2008). While academics might find that style of speaking "calming and reassuring," she says, it might come across as too wordy to the general public.

H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Woodrow Wilson (Times Books, 2003), says Mr. Obama's speaking style echoes that of President Wilson, another former professor and a president of Princeton University before being elected. That similarity should serve as a warning to Mr. Obama, says Mr. Brands, because Wilson was sometimes accused of being pompous, and "he got worse at that the longer he was in the White House."

The Graduate-Seminar Style

The academic style offers some advantages in developing policy. Many reports of how Mr. Obama has operated his campaign and his Senate office suggest that he runs discussions with advisers much like graduate seminars, by seeking a diverse range of options and opinions. If he kept up that habit in the White House, it could help prevent him from developing myopic policies unconstrained by facts on the ground, which many scholars have accused President Bush of doing.

But Mr. Obama must avoid the temptation to overdose on deliberation, says Ms. Hoff. The nation witnessed the hazards of that tendency during the presidency of Bill Clinton, another former law professor. "Clinton would talk everything to death and not come to a decision," she says, particularly with regard to delayed decisions about Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

Despite his academic background, Mr. Obama did not focus much on higher-education topics during his campaign. But Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, says Mr. Obama's victory "bodes well for education in general and for higher education." Although the economic crisis and continuing wars will leave little money for discretionary spending, Mr. Obama's proposal for reducing greenhouse-gas pollution would provide $15-billion a year for energy-related research, some of which would presumably go to college and universities.

A. Lee Fritschler, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and a former assistant secretary of education under President Clinton, argues that the Bush administration has taken too much of a hands-on approach to higher education—for example, by arbitrarily limiting research involving human embryonic stem cells. "I don't see Obama being interested in trying to manage universities," Mr. Fritschler says. "It would be a brighter day for higher education because at the top we would have people who understand it better."

The Obamas and the Bidens would also bring to the White House a more diverse set of academic experiences than did past presidents with academic connections, like Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led Columbia University before being elected. Ms. Obama, for example, has an insider's perspective on university hospitals, and Ms. Biden knows the world of community colleges.

Representatives of those higher-education sectors will certainly be looking for support for their causes. George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, has already established an e-mail connection with the vice president-elect's wife. It helps to have friends in high places.