Referring to his fellow students at the review, whom he edits, he said: "These are the people who will be running the country in some form or other when they graduate. If I'm talking to a white conservative who wants to dismantle the welfare state, he has the respect to listen to me and I to him. That's the biggest value of the Harvard Law Review. Ideas get fleshed out and there is no party line to follow."
Obama spends 50 to 60 hours each week on law review business. The full-time volunteer job leaves little time for an additional 12 hours of class, plus homework. When it comes to choosing between the two, as it often does, Obama usually misses class.
One of Obama's most difficult tasks as editor in chief is keeping the peace amid the clashing egos of writers and editors.
"He is very, very diplomatic," said Radhika Rao, 24, a third-year law student from Lexington, Ind. "He is very outgoing and has a lot of experience in handling people, which stands him in good stead."
Tina Ulrich, 24, a third-year student, wrote an article for the review that went through several editors before her final draft landed on Obama's desk.
"When he sent it back, it had lots of tiny print all over it and I was just furious," she said. "My heart just sank. But it was accompanied by specific examples of how parts could be made better. He wound up getting an enthusiastic response from a very tired writer."
Outside the review, other blacks at Harvard are skeptical that Obama's appointment will change much at the Ivy League institution, where 180 out of 1,601 law students are black.
"While I applaud Obama's achievement, I guess I am not as hopeful for what this will mean for other blacks at Harvard," said Derrick Bell, the school's first black tenured law professor.
"There is a strange character to this black achievement. When you have someone that reaches this high level, you find that he is just deemed exceptional and it does not change society's view of all of the rest."