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Introducing Barack Obama, The Professor-in-chief

This story was written by Jessica Riegel, Daily Pennsylvanian

In an election that made history on many levels, Barack Obama's presidency will mark the first time the president, vice president and both their spouses have worked in higher education.

Vice President Joe Biden is an adjunct law professor at Widener University, Jill Biden teaches at a Delaware community college and Michelle Obama worked in the administration and hospital system at the University of Chicago.

And Obama, most notably, spent over a decade teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, raising the question of how his professorial past will affect leadership styles and national priorities.

"He certainly shows a capacity for abstract intellectual inquiry, but that's not where his heart is," said Political Science professor Rogers Smith. "He aspires to be an active leader in the world."

Smith - who has spoken with Obama's former students and his Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe - said Obama is an effective teacher because he seeks different points of view and creates an atmosphere in which all political perspectives are articulated. That will likely translate into an Abraham Lincoln-style Cabinet of high-powered opponents who disagree with each other and Obama himself, he predicted.

"He'll bring to the presidency his capacity to explore different points of view in order to make better decisions," Smith said.

But the downside of being deliberative is being perceived as indecisive, he added.

Political Science professor Richard Johnston agreed that the political system "has not placed a premium on intellectualism" because it doesn't mesh with notions of American populism - evidenced in an extreme way by Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's appeal to the middle class.

Looking to history, Johnston said that Woodrow Wilson - who served as Princeton's president before entering the Oval Office - is the pinnacle professor-in-chief, which could be considered a liability.

Some historians argue that Wilson's rigid moralism prevented him from achieving goals like American participation in the League of Nations, Johnston said. Those shortcomings stemmed from a disconnect between being realistic and imposing an idealistic scheme on the world.

"The demands of the White House are intrinsically not demands of the classroom," he said.

But, he added, Obama has so far displayed not only that he has "a sharp political mind" but also that he "gets" the political system.

Political Science professor Marie Gottschalk noted that Obama is not a typical professor because he is a legislator and did not seek tenure.

But she warned against predictions based on educational background because there are so few professor-presidents for comparison. Such guesses have been faulty in the past - like the forecast that George W. Bush, the first "MBA president," would be more efficient and organized than predecessors.

More significant than the mere fact that Obama taught is where he taught, Gottschalk said. His intense exposure to the Chicago School of economics is already clear through his emphasis on free-market credentials, and it could lead him to appoint advisors with conservative economic approaches.

Smith said Obama will make education a priority because of his time as a professor and his experience with school reform. In particular, he will focus on increasing access to higher education by offering tax credits in exchange for community service.

"His writings show a nuanced and informed understanding," he said. "It suggests a real capacity to reach out and appreciate different points of view."

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