Many American presidents have been lawyers, but almost none has come to office with Barack Obama's knowledge of the Supreme Court. Before he was 30, he was editing articles by eminent legal scholars on the court's decisions. Later, as a law professor, he led students through landmark cases from Plessy vs. Ferguson to Bush vs. Gore.
Now Obama is preparing to select his first Supreme Court nominee to succeed retiring Justice David Souter. In interviews, former colleagues and students say they have a fairly strong sense of the kind of justice he will favor: not a larger-than-life liberal to counter the conservative pyrotechnics of Justice Antonin Scalia, but a careful pragmatist with a limited view of the role of courts.
Obama believes the court must never get too far ahead of or behind public sentiment, they say. He may have a mandate for change, and Senate confirmation odds in his favor. But he has almost always disappointed those who expected someone in his position — he was Harvard's first black law review president and one of the few minority members of the University of Chicago's law faculty — to side consistently with liberals.
"His nominee will not create the proverbial shock and awe," said Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard professor who has known the president since his days as a student.
Former students and colleagues describe Obama as a minimalist (skeptical of court-led efforts at social change) and a structuralist (interested in how the law metes out power in society).
And more than anything else, he is a pragmatist who urged those around him to be more keenly attuned to the real-life impact of decisions. This may be his distinguishing quality as a legal thinker: an unwillingness to deal in abstraction, a constant desire to know how court decisions affect people's lives.
Pragmatism has its detractors, and in a confirmation battle, Obama's nominee could face charges that he or she does not give enough weight to formal law. But although Obama is results-oriented, he retained an overall skepticism for what courts can accomplish, said David Strauss, a former colleague at the University of Chicago.
Obama's selection of a new justice may challenge him in a way that running a law review and teaching law never did. Both of those jobs were about cultivating robust debate, about encouraging multiple viewpoints. Now Obama must settle on a single legal thinker — at least for now.