One of the most impressive things about President Obama when he was just Barack to me, as my constitutional law student and research assistant at HLS in 1989-91, was Barack’s deep appreciation for history and for the impossibility of fully appreciating its unfolding while it is in the process of being made. Barack especially treasured the part of the Constitution’s preamble that spoke of our commitment over the generations “to form a more perfect Union,” and he took solace, ever since he was a first-year student at this law school, from the conviction that ours would always be an unfolding narrative – never completed, much less perfected.
I was of course thrilled and inspired, not to mention proud, when Barack took the oath as our 44th President on January 20, 2008 – an oath administered by another of my former students, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, whom I knew less well – and I have been enormously impressed by the thoughtfulness and integrity with which Barack Obama carried out the duties of that high office ever since. Given my no doubt unrealistically high aspirations for all he might accomplish despite the entrenched opposition he was destined to face as our first African-American president from the moment he assumed the position of POTUS, I have at times felt disappointment, sometimes acute disappointment, especially on the international front. But I have faith that history, such as it is, will render a glowing verdict on President Obama’s impressive achievements in the face of implacable opposition – even more glowing than one might expect from the unusually high national approval ratings that measure his esteem in the eyes of a fickle public as his two terms in office wind to a close.
Rather than making an attempt to itemize or summarize what I see as this President’s most enduring accomplishments, or to acknowledge what seem to me to have been his missed opportunities on the global stage, I would simply respect Obama’s own insight that history cannot be properly written from the vantage point of the present but requires the perspective of elapsed time for it to be reliably, even if always contestably, captured.
This much I know: Whether from the vantage point of the time I was privileged to spend in the Obama administration as this President’s and Attorney General Holder’s first Special Counselor on Access to Justice, or from the perspective of the academic perch I reoccupied upon returning to Cambridge, I will always treasure and long miss the steadiness and solidity of his control – not just of himself but of the compass guiding what, for want of a better term, I would join in calling the ship of state. For some, “no drama Obama” may have been a moniker emblematic of a certain distance and disconnection from the ordinary experience of the people he had the honor and burden to lead. For me, it represents a quality of calm and of reflection that, in our finest presidents, has always been an essential ingredient – a measure of grace and, when appropriate, of wit – whose absence we will all notice acutely once it no longer presides over the Oval Office.
Laurence H. Tribe @tribelaw
Carl M. Loeb University Professor and
Professor of Constitutional Law
Harvard Law School