Professor POTUS

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Among the many details of POTUS’s pre-POTUS background that received campaign scrutiny, one point that did not get much attention was his teaching career. POTUS taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for twelve years, and now that he finds himself executing law from the highest perch of power rather than conducting graduate seminars on it, we can observe the old professor coming out again. His classroom has changed, of course, and his curriculum has become much broader, but in many ways, it’s the same amiable academic at work. One trait, already noted in a previous column, is POTUS’s fondness for discursive settings that require both intellectual agility and human compassion. Rather than the lecture-hall format favored by his predecessor, POTUS likes to speak “in the round” and engage his audience from all directions. And though very rare among Presidents, POTUS appears to enjoy listening. In the teaching world, this approach is called “student-centered.” What other teacherly traits have we noticed in our new POTUS? In his recent town hall and press conference appearances, he rolled up his sleeves and showed us.POTUS favors argument and healthy debate:

First of all, this – nobody has been preselected here, so, you know, I don’t mind if you want to take me to task. If you think I’m a bum and doing a bad job, you go ahead and ask your question. (March 19, 2009)

POTUS favors evidence-based solutions to systemic problems:

If there is a way of getting this done where we’re driving down costs and people are getting health insurance at an affordable rate and have choice of doctor, have flexibility in terms of their plans, and we could do that entirely through the market, I’d be happy to do it that way. If there was a way of doing it that involved more government regulation and involvement, I’m happy to do it that way as well. I just want to figure out what works, and that requires us to actually look at the evidence and try to figure out, based on the experience that now has been accumulated for a lot of years, you know, how can we improve the system. (March 5, 2009)

POTUS does not merely preach; he interacts with his audience, putting complex matters in a language accessible to laymen:

Here’s what the budget does not do. It does not raise the taxes of any family making less than $250,000 a year by a single dime. In fact, 95 percent of all working families will receive a tax cut as a result of our recovery plan. Now, there are those who say these plans are too ambitious; we should be trying to do less not more. “Obama is trying to do too much,” they say. “Just focus on Wall Street, focus on the banks.” (March 19, 2009)

Audience members. Nooo!

And like any practiced pedagogue, POTUS manages his classroom deliberately and equitably:

I want to thank you all for this opportunity to speak with you. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to open it up to questions. And I know there are a lot of folks back there too, so I’m going to try not to completely discriminate to the folks who got here in front. There are no rules to this, except a couple. (March 19, 2009)

POTUS also lays the ground rules for discussion and welcomes different modes of participation:

The only thing I’d ask is everybody raise their hands, number one-not everybody now, I mean everybody who has a question. [Laughter] Number two is that I’m going to go girl, boy, girl, boy, so it’s fair. [Laughter] Number three, I would ask that everybody try to keep their question relatively brief so that we can get as many questions in as possible. Now, it doesn’t have to be a question, it can be a comment as well, but, you know, we want to try to keep the speeches to a minimum. And I will try to also answer questions as briefly as possible. (March 19, 2009)

When a recently laid-off California schoolteacher, Isa Dequesada, asked POTUS to speak about crowded schools and poor teacher retention in tight budgetary times, he had to speak up on behalf of the local superintendent. As any reasonable classroom chief would, POTUS protects his individual students from the perils of group-level abuse.

The President. But a huge – right now the biggest chunk is for teacher retention. It generally flows in the same way the title I monies flow, so that there should be a formula that the States are working with in terms of how it’s allocated to various districts. I don’t know the exact figures here in California or what would happen in terms of this school district. Your school superintendent is here though. There he is right here. (March 19, 2009)

Audience members. Boo!

The President. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold on a second. Hold on. Hey, hold on a second. It’s not his fault that the State has run out of money. So he is going to – he was in a meeting with Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, and I stopped by in the meeting – and these were the school superintendents for all across the country, to come together and work on how do we both deal with the immediate short-term crisis, but also, how do we think about long-term reforms? (March 19, 2009)

In order to ensure the effectiveness of his message, POTUS frequently checks for comprehension and confers with his audience before moving on:

Am I completely satisfied with all the work that needs to be done on deficits? No. That’s why I convened a fiscal responsibility summit, started in this room, to start looking at entitlements and to start looking at the big drivers of costs over the long term. Not all of those are reflected in our budget, partly because the savings we anticipate would be coming in years outside of the 10-year budget cycle that we’re talking about. Okay? (March 24, 2009)

But when one student – in this case, CNN’s Ed Henry – is hogging the floor and pushing too far, POTUS wraps things up with snappy sternness that is both authoritative and generous:

Q. On AIG, why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general’s office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, look, we’re outraged. Why did it take so long?

The President. It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak, you know? (March 24, 2009)

And POTUS seizes each opportunity for instruction, what noneducators call “teaching moments,” providing concrete examples and figures to illustrate a general point. When questioned about the advisability of a tax policy adjustment concerning charitable contribution write-offs, POTUS hit the chalkboard:

People are still going to be able to make charitable contributions. It just means, if you give $100 and you’re in this tax bracket, at a certain point, instead of being able write off 36 or 39 percent, you’re writing off 28 percent. Now, if it’s really a charitable contribution, I’m assuming that that shouldn’t be a determining factor as to whether you’re given that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street.

And so this provision would affect about 1 percent of the American people. They would still get deductions. It’s just that they wouldn’t be able to write off 39 percent. In that sense, what it would do is it would equalize – when I give $100, I’d get the same amount of deduction as when some – a bus driver, who’s making $50,000 a year, or $40,000 a year gives that same $100. Right now he gets 28 percent, he gets to write off 28 percent; I get to write off 39 percent. I don’t think that’s fair. (March 24, 2009)

At the end of a wide-ranging discussion, POTUS shows a keenness for thematic closure:

That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come, as long as I’m in this office. I’m a big believer in persistence. I think that when it comes to domestic affairs, if we keep on working at it, if we acknowledge that we make mistakes sometimes and that we don’t always have the right answer and we’re inheriting very knotty problems, that we can pass health care, we can find better solutions to our energy challenges, we can teach our children more effectively, we can deal with a very real budget crisis that is not fully dealt with in my budget at this point, but makes progress. (March 24, 2009)

And Professor POTUS is keeping us, his loyal scribes, busy bees indeed. Though we can hardly keep up with his tireless dialogues and lengthy symposia, we never fail to be intrigued by his classroom charms.

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