The Closing of the Presidential Mind – Part 1: The Making of Barack Obama

Obama is the first product born of a broad-based effort by the political left that began in the 1960s to capture U.S. higher education and convert it into an incomparable device for molding young minds in a manner to their pleasing. Thus, Obama is the first president who is entirely a product of the new modern liberal academy, with all the standard beliefs ingrained by that education. The institution that, more than any other, imbued Obama with the values he believes and promotes today is Harvard Law School. 

By Andrew Thomas | March 17, 2014

Barack Obama’s election as president carried with him more than the specific ambitions of his supporters and the more general aspirations of the American electorate.  He was a messenger of profound cultural changes that went beyond the obvious.

The watershed nature of his election runs well past the familiar litany of firsts.  Obama is, of course, the first man of African descent to hold the office, and the first post-Baby Boomer president.  Obama likewise is the first president with a truly international upbringing.

Yet, Obama and his presidency are far more than proof of progressive race relations or a growingly cosmopolitan nation.  Substantively, he and the policies he has pursued mark a critical turning point in the nation’s intellectual history.  Perhaps more than any other landmark event associated with his election is the elevation of the cluster of ideas and values that Obama carries with him, from his educational experiences, to the nation’s highest office.

He embodies the bold success of a historic experiment in American higher education.  Commencing in the 1960s, proponents of left-wing politics literally laid siege to college campuses in the form of unprecedented protests and strikes designed to disrupt academic life and further their political goals.  Since then, many of those students have become professors, now graying and retired ones, carrying on their politics in a different and more effective, if longer term, forum.

From these spasms of extreme campus politics was born a broad-based effort by the political left to capture U.S. higher education and convert it into an incomparable device for molding young minds in a manner to their pleasing.  Obama is the first product of such pedagogy to become the nation’s chief executive.  His policies and values show these collective educational efforts were well worth the effort, as they have clearly worked.

“I’m standing here as President is because of the education I received,” President Obama said in a commencement address to the 2011 graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee. There was sincerity in this statement, for few presidents have demonstrated more fully the impact of education on their lives and careers.  Obama is the first president who is entirely a product of the new modern liberal academy, with all the standard beliefs ingrained by that education.

The institution that, more than any other, imbued Obama with the values he believes and promotes today is Harvard Law School.  The nation’s oldest law school, Harvard Law School embodied and perpetuated these values (Obama and I were classmates there, HLS ’91).  HLS students encountered far more than simple lectures on legal research and writing pleadings.  Assaulted systematically with hard-left views on all things political and legal, students who challenged the liberal orthodoxy were openly jeered in class.  The student newspaper, campus political organizations, race-based interest groups and other activities further reinforced the mindset. Deliberately or not, professors inculcated a certain worldview in their captive audiences of students.  In this breeding ground of liberal groupthink, theory and practice combined to forge graduates to promote the unofficial liberal ideology of the institution.

In the years right before Obama arrived at HLS, civil war broke out over the ideological direction of the institution.  In 1984, one professor confided to a journalist that the faculty was engaged in a “struggle for the soul of this institution.”  One professor at Stanford Law School commented, “There’s a peculiar kind of vanity or megalomania at Harvard, that the place is the soul of the American ruling class.  Whoever wins the local institutional battles there thinks they will control America’s cultural and institutional destiny.”

This was territory well worth the fight.  In 2002, the British news magazine The Economist labeled Harvard Law School no less than “the command center of American liberalism.”  Students and faculty alike formed this nucleus of power.

Harvard Law professors created the intellectual stuff that formed the basis of rulings issued by the judiciary, arguably the most powerful branch of government.  Law professors were the first counsel of choice for judges seeking to justify further expansions of power with activist rulings.  In their books and law-review articles, Harvard’s law professors were genuinely scripting the future of the country.  They wrote the legal philosophies that became the raw material of future court opinions.  Judges pondering a legal issue often consulted the latest ideas and publications in legal academia. Just as trends in fashion and entertainment emanated from Paris and Hollywood, trends in law flowed disproportionately from Harvard.

From behind Harvard’s famous colonnaded walls, its law professors disseminated a regular stream of writings urging the courts to rewrite the Constitution and overturn democratically enacted laws. On all of the ardent issues that Obama would one day address, Harvard Law professors had held forth and articulated a basis for federal court action irrespective of support from the executive branch of government.  From health care to regulatory power to civil rights to international law, Harvard’s professoriate had weighed in with a vast corpus of writings.  Almost all endorsed a variation of activist liberalism.

These new legal theories imposed by the high court reflected, in the words of Justice Antonin Scalia (a Harvard Law graduate of an earlier era), “the views and values of the lawyer class from which the [Supreme] Court’s Members are drawn.” They were not the values of most Americans.  But through doggedness and the momentum of activist change, they became, increasingly, the law.

That Obama picked up what would become presidential policy preferences from the liberal ideas taught and espoused during those formative years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was natural.  He learned his essential views on the role of government from Marxist-derived Critical Legal Studies (CLS), then the rage at Harvard Law School.  His beliefs on health care came from John Rawls, a socialist philosopher, and lodestar case law written by leading liberal Supreme Court justices. His views on race were stamped by such Critical Race theorists as Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, a professional race agitator publicly lauded by Obama, while he was Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review.  Few who acquired their degree from Harvard Law School emerged unscathed by these notions; most conveyed them out into the world, where their sphere of influence felt the effects.  In Obama’s case, the effects, by virtue of his position, would be global in scope.

Obama’s highest priorities as president reflect this. Health care was decreed a national entitlement, with individual rights trampled along the way.  Federal spending skyrocketed, with almost $1 trillion in “stimulus” projects and federal power bulging to the point that Obama felt comfortable hiring and firing the leaders of giant U.S. corporations.  Instead of improving following the election of the first president of African descent, race relations in many ways have degenerated, a trend abetted by the Oval Office.  “By any means necessary” must go alongside the Obama campaign slogan “Yes we can” as the operative dictum for the president’s actions.  The propositions he was taught in college and law school have come to be the public policy of the nation and the law of the land.

All of this was predicted by a bestselling book published on the eve of Obama’s arrival at Harvard.  A professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom warned of the perils of liberal higher education in his book The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.  Published in 1987, the year before Obama began his studies at Harvard, Bloom’s book noted that higher education was infecting American students with a form of liberalism devoid of serious inquiry into important life questions.  He noted that “for modern nations, which have founded themselves on reason in its various uses more than did any nations in the past, a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis they face.”  Amidst the “sample” of students Bloom encountered at his prominent university—which consisted of “thousands of students of comparatively high intelligence” who “populate the twenty or thirty best universities”—he found a vague, rights-based liberalism that denied all truths except extreme rights rooted in racial separatism or feminism.

The capture of the presidency through these liberal pedagogical tactics is a signal event.  In the past, the political left relied on the unelected judicial branch of government to acquire and enforce power.  Now they have secured through Obama the executive branch as well.  That Obama thinks like a left-wing Harvard lawyer is evidenced by his presidency.  What is lacking is an understanding of how he came to think and govern this way—as a student at America’s most famous law school.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.