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Former Student of Obama Shares His Experiences

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee Posted: 09/25/2008
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Emory School of Law associate professor Michael Kang was not surprised when he found out that his former constitutional law professor, Sen. Barack Obama, was running for president of the United States.

“There was always a sense that he was ambitious, and that he was headed somewhere beyond the state Senate,” Kang said. “He definitely has that kind of personality, the résumé and the intelligence that you would imagine a president would have, like he could be cast in a movie as president. That’s how we all felt at the time.”

Kang was a student in Obama’s class of a dozen during his third year at the University of Chicago in fall of 1998. As a professor of election law, business associations, politics and democratic governance, Kang touches on many of the same politically sensitive issues that Obama taught him 10 years ago. Kang said he finds himself adopting Obama’s teaching tactics.

Professor Obama — Illinois state senator at the time — led a discussion-oriented class during which he would not only use sports analogies and share his political experiences, but also debate on controversial issues with his students. Obama would step back from issues and — often to students’ frustration — play devil’s advocate.

“You knew politically that he was liberal, but in class, you could not tell that. You never knew what he thought about almost anything we discussed,” Kang said.

Kang added that it is important for law professors to be removed from the issues in order to engage and challenge their students. Kang also does not share with his students whether he is an Obama supporter or not.

Although he’s not a morning person, Kang said he enjoyed his 8 a.m. class with Obama. However, Kang does have one regret — missing out on a chance to spend a day with Obama in Springfield, Ill. Kang did not participate in an auction that allowed students to bid on spending time with a professor outside of class.

“I just never did it ... and now I so regret that I didn’t, because if he’s president someday it could’ve been something I could’ve told my grandkids, that I hung out with Obama in Springfield,” Kang said. “Literally, every time I see him on TV, I think about that. I really do.”

Obama was a “very fair” and smart professor who thought that diversity of opinion is healthy, Kang said, adding that he expects Obama will be the same if he were president. Kang said Obama is a careful and deliberate person who wants to hear, and is comfortable with, a variety of viewpoints.

Kang said it is strange but exciting to see the ubiquitous images of his former constitutional law professor in magazines and on TV.

“It’s really exciting to see someone who you knew before they were famous,” he said. “Like knowing Elvis before he was Elvis.”

But the Democratic presidential candidate Obama is not much different from the Professor Obama, Kang said, and he remembers Obama to have the same reserved, down-to-earth and approachable personality.

“He was a regular dude, but you never really thought you totally knew him. I think you can sense that when you see him publicly,” Kang said. “There’s a kind of reservation about the way he talks that has always been there. It’s not just something he puts on in public.”

The two big issues of the 2008 presidential election are the economy and national security, Kang said, adding that if the election swings on the first, Obama will win but Sen. John McCain has an advantage if the election swings toward national security.

Kang added that if Obama were elected president, his administration would be clearly different from the Bush administration.

“I think he is a very fair, smart person who enjoys diversity of viewpoints and thinks that’s healthy. I think that’ll be an important element of his administration, in a way that clearly contrasts with the Bush administration,” Kang said, regardless of people’s views on which administration is better.

— Contact Michelle Ye Hee Lee.

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