Of all the intellectual influences that helped to shape America's first post-American president, Barack Obama, few were more significant than the postmodern professor par excellence, Edward Said. It was in 1982, during his first year in New York as a student at Columbia University, that the young Obama encountered Said, who was lecturing on literature. According to Obama's biographer, David Maraniss, he attended Said's course for only a term with a friend. The latter's recollection is that they were not especially impressed by the professor's over-theoretical approach. Apparently Said cancelled the next term's class and also handed back the students' papers late, leading the young Barack to refer to him in a letter as a "flake". Maraniss plays down the whole episode and concludes that only "conspiracy theorists" could trace a connection between Obama's later politics and Said's tutelage.
But the evidence may actually point the other way. The subjective impressions of a student acquaintance three decades later is rather a slender basis on which to dismiss the possibility that some at least of Said's ideas made an impression on Obama. We know that Obama was moving sharply to the Left during this period: after leaving Columbia he became a "community organiser" in Chicago — a foot soldier in the movement inspired by the Marxist guru Saul Alinsky and directed by the former terrorist Bill Ayres. Edward Said was, as far as we know, the only academic to whom Obama was exposed at Columbia whose ideological attitudes could have helped to prepare this callow, laid-back youth for the activist milieu that he sought out straight after graduation. We know that, as a rising Democratic politician in the 1990s, Obama would later meet Said (by now an academic celebrity) on several occasions, evidently as political allies and even friends. So it seems improbable that their mutual admiration had no connection with the respect for Said that was doubtless felt by the young Obama already in his Columbia period.
What, though, might the intellectually curious Obama have learned at Said's feet? This was a phase in the latter's career when he was making a name for himself as a contributor to the liberal press, especially the New York Review of Books. A few years earlier, Said had published Orientalism — of all his books the one that has exercised the most profound (if pernicious) effect on academic and intellectual life. Did Obama read Orientalism at Columbia? We do not know, but he would have encountered its leitmotif — the idea that Western attitudes to the East had been driven not by facts but by fantasies about "the Other", a fake Islamic world that served imperialist purposes.