Thirty-five years ago, not too long after I left Columbia University for the University of Massachusetts, I was sitting in Amherst, Massachusetts chatting with a colleague, Zina Tilona, who taught Italian at UMass. A mutual acquaintance of ours had just been tapped for an administrative position at the university -- his first -- and we were speculating idly about what sort of administrator he would be. "Well," Zina said, "most people do most things the way they do most other things." At the time, her remark struck me as what we in philosophy used to call a "miserable tautology," but as the years have passed, I have come to appreciate the deep wisdom in her aphorism. What she meant, quite simply, was that people have styles of action and thought that do not change as they move from one level of operation to another. If you know what sort of Department Chair someone is, you have a pretty good idea what sort of university president he or she would be.
I think of this often as I watch someone step onto the national stage as a candidate for office or as an appointee to a major post. We all can tell, from watching the way Sarah Palin handles her private life, what sort of Governor she must have been during her self-truncated term, and what sort of president she would be, God forbid. But the same is true of Barack Obama. A man who ran the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review by listening to all sides of an issue and navigating a compromise among them, as apparently he did, can pretty well be relied upon to perform the duties of president in much the same manner.
I offer this as a word of caution and consolation to those on my end of the political spectrum who wish Obama would behave like a fire-breathing radical. He is who he is, with all of his manifest strengths and unfortunate weaknesses. It is utterly foolish to hope for a Road to Damascus conversion. On the other hand, if we organize, and are successful in bringing pressure to bear from the left, he will respond to that pressure and adjust to it, rather than rejecting it out of rigid ideological commitment. That, it seems to me, is the most we can ask for in a putatively democratic state.