How Barack Obama Amazed His Harvard Law Professor
Policy + Politics

How Barack Obama Amazed His Harvard Law Professor


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Constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe, author of a comprehensive new book, Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, says Barack Obama was an amazing law student.

During a broad discussion on Tuesday with The Fiscal Times about some of the most significant cases to come before the Roberts court and how those decisions may profoundly alter American life, Tribe reflected on the president as a young man.

Obama was his research assistant for two-and-a-half years at Harvard Law School where Tribe has taught for four decades.

“He was amazing. I met him when he was a first year law student,” said Tribe, referring to what would have been the fall of 1988. “This kid comes in wearing jeans and a sweatshirt – lanky kid, strange name – but I was quite amazed by him and we talked for a long time, even though he hadn’t taken constitutional law yet, let alone take it from me." 

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“He asked me whether I would be interested in giving him some research assignments,” Tribe said of Obama. “In all of my years of teaching, I don’t think I’ve ever been that impressed with a first year law student. Certainly I asked him to do some very challenging stuff. He worked with me on one of my most challenging articles in the Harvard Law Review, ‘The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics.’” 

The article appeared in November 1989, volume 103 of the Harvard Law Review. (Obama graduated from Harvard Law in 1991.) 

“If you look at that article,” recounted Tribe, “the first footnote acknowledges the help of Barack Obama and, of all people, Gene Sperling [former director of the National Economic Council under President Obama].” 

The footnote thanks Obama, Sperling and several others “for their analytic and research assistance.” 

Tribe said Obama also worked with him “on a book called Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, and a number of other things.” 

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Even back then, says Tribe, Obama had the ability to see all sides of complex issues – and not necessarily to his detriment. 

“He displayed the ability to see a multifaceted problem in all of its complexity – and you want presidents to do that. The separate question of decision-making style, of managerial style, how somebody handles himself or herself on the world stage – I obviously had no [foreknowledge of that]. He certainly saw every side of everything – and deeply. He really has deep insight into a number of things, including physics, and history, and political science, and seemingly a lot of law, though this was before he [finished] law school.” 

So did Tribe give Obama an ‘A’? 

Tribe laughed. “At a minimum,” he said.

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