Presidential scholar.

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Why Obama Just Wrote Articles in 3 Academic Journals

Scott Duke Kominers is a junior fellow in economics at the Harvard University Society of Fellows. Previously, he was the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago.
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In his final two months as president, Barack Obama restricted Arctic drilling, sanctioned Russia, named new national monuments and made one last dad joke. He also moved to imprint his seal on history in a quieter way: through academic writing.

This month, Obama published a Harvard Law Review article that sums up his administration’s efforts to improve the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system. In Science, Obama argued that market forces will help drive a transition to clean energy. These articles share the positive outlook and tone of Obama’s Journal of the American Medical Association article in August assessing the Affordable Care Act and suggesting future opportunities for health-care reform.

This is not a normal political strategy. Obama’s law review piece is credited as the first scholarly legal article authored by a sitting president. Few individuals worldwide – much less presidents – have had the distinction of publishing papers in law, science and medicine journals.

Academic articles reach a comparatively small audience. They spend a lot of time sitting on library shelves or in online repositories. Some are never be read at all. (Scholars argue about what fraction of articles are essentially never looked at.)

So why, with all that’s going on in the world, would Obama take the time to pen academic papers?

He's writing for the future.

In an era of fake news and post-truth politics, the premium on authentic, thoughtful ideas is higher than ever before. Academia is a stronghold of ideas.

Academic books and journals are largely protected from both the partisanship and the faddishness that can dog other forms of media. And they endure. (You can look up a dusty old Pythagorean Theorem proof from 1876, if you want -- another rare example of scholarship authored by a man who also lived in the White House.)

More importantly, academia heavily scrutinizes the articles that posit groundbreaking and innovative ideas. It can take a long time, but eventually the best ideas are promoted and built upon. Think of Albert Einstein's early 20th-century papers proposing the theories of relativity, which were criticized before they became foundational.

By writing for journals, Obama can plant seeds that are hard to uproot. Even if his ideas are forced off the main political stage, they will still be evaluated and workshopped in scholarly discourse for years. If those ideas are right, then with enough time and development, they will grow to become consensus. As we’ve seen with issues like climate change, consensus isn't the same as complete acceptance. Nevertheless, scholarly debate can push ideas toward the center of public conversation (as, again, we’ve seen with climate change).

Moreover, through his writing, Obama can immortalize his optimism. Obama’s academic articles aren’t dry. They’re forward-looking, upbeat and packed with his trademark hope.

We have awhile to go before we see which of the ideas Obama has planted will flourish. But with time, consideration and a bit of magic, some of them might grow into big, strong beanstalks. Maybe there’ll even be a Golden Goose or two at the top.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Scott Duke Kominers at kominers@fas.harvard.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net