25 years of Chicago: Amplified
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Professor-In-Chief

Barack Obama

Explore the moment.
Less than a week before September 11th, Barack Obama was part of a panel on slavery and the Constitution on Odyssey, WBEZ's "Daily Talk Show of Ideas" hosted by Gretchen Helfrich. At the time of this interview, Obama was a State Senator and Senior Lecturer in the Law School at the University of Chicago.
One of the ways that we can judge history is to see: At those junctures, (a) Are people being honest? and (b) Are they trying to do what they can given the constraints that they're operating under?
40m 46s
Barack Obama:

I think it's a remarkable document ...

Gretchen Helfrich:

Which one?

Barack Obama:

The original Constitution as well as the Civil War Amendments. But I think it is an imperfect document. And I think it is a document that reflects some deep flaws in American culture, the colonial culture nascent at that time. African-Americans were not... first of all, they weren't African-Americans. The Africans at that time were not considered as part of the politi that were of concern to the framers. I think that, as Richard [John, UIC History Professor] said, it was a nagging problem in the same way that these days we might think of environmental issues, or some other problem, where you have to balance cost-benefits, as opposed to seeing it as a moral problem involving persons of moral worth and in that sense I think we can say that the Constitution represented an enormous blind spot in this culture that carries on until this day. And that the framers had this same blind spot. I don't think those two views are contradictory... to say that it was a remarkable political document that paved the way for where we are now. And that it reflected the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.

45m 26s
Looking Back: Gretchen Helfrich

My memory of talking to Obama was that he was very nice, charming, extremely polished. He was a great radio guest because he spoke in nice clear paragraphs. But that wasn't necessarily just true of him. That's frankly true of a lot of law professors. You learn to speak it neatly ordered paragraphs.

These recordings are nice to have because here you have this very thoughtful president who was able to talk at length about things in a way that he just can't anymore.

Obama was on Odyssey another time and he said something about economic civil rights - a right to housing, a right to health care. He said that those civil rights were probably not going to happen through litigation and that, if they were going to happen, it would be through legislative action. And the show aired long before the election, but a few days before the election, somebody got a hold of the audio. And they were running around saying, "Here's this old tape of Obama saying he wants to get economic civil rights through legislation"... which wasn't what he was saying on the show.

Here he is making a really complicated and interesting argument about the history of the civil rights movement and how it evolved. And once he becomes a presidential candidate there's no room for him to say that anymore. It's sort of strange that the kind of conversation that he was able to have on the show, he wasn't able to have once he became a presidential candidate.

In this episode he says the Constitution is flawed. That is not a controversial view. There are plenty of people who think that... Good, patriotic Americans who think that. Why should it be that you have to say the Constitution is perfect?

People always ask me, "Who was your favorite interview?" And I was excited to have famous people on but, to be honest, we were always more excited about what we were talking about than who we were talking to. Over the years we had on a lot of big names and important thinkers, but we were driven by what we could talk about with these people than who they were or their reputation.

These are a record of Obama being able to talk about things that he cared about. And I think in the last years of his administration we're seeing he cares about these issues a lot. We don't know if it's what he still thinks. But we were able to hear then a more elaborate expression of what he thought than what he gives now.