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The election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States has been hailed as a breakthrough in race relations. It certainly is, but watching CNN Wednesday morning, the endless theme of, “Have we conquered racism?” became an ironic affirmation that we have not (or at least, CNN hasn’t). Otherwise, commentators might have taken time to focus on a different breakthrough — we now have our first President who is also a Constitutional scholar. Also, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this administration will mark the first time our President, Vice President, and both their spouses have worked in higher education.
In late October, NPR’s story on Obama’s knowledge of the Constitution caught my attention. This part of his CV had slipped my mind, and this dimension of the candidate was suppressed during the emotional campaign in which “elite” was a dirty word.
Now that he’s been elected, it’s worth noting that this will be the first time since the early days of our republic that a sitting President will have an academic grounding in the Constitution — probably the most knowledge about our core body of laws in the Oval Office in 200 years or so. Especially following an Administration that seemed to think the Constitution was like extra credit in school — OK if you got around to it, but not a requirement — when Obama takes the Oath of Office, it will have particular profundity:
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
As the Chronicle story highlights, having scholars in the White House may present challenges. Scholars have been known to bog down in Socratic ramblings and contemplative sessions. They can treasure ideas over actions. I doubt this will happen in an Obama administration, but point taken.
In any event, scholars should note this breakthrough. An academic is about to become President of the United States.
And no matter which breakthrough you choose to ascribe to Obama’s election — red state/blue state, race, scholar, youth, you name it — he was elected, I think, on his ability to inspire people, galvanize ideas, and project an even temperment.
That strikes me as the real breakthrough.