If you had to sum it up, it would be an ability to listen - genuinely listen - to the best arguments of his opponents:
Not so long ago, the phone rang in my office. It was Barack Obama. For more than a decade, Obama was my colleague at the University of Chicago Law School.
He is also a friend. But since his election to the Senate, he does not exactly call every day. On this occasion, he had an important topic to discuss: the controversy over President George W. Bush's warrantless surveillance of international telephone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists. I had written a short essay suggesting that the surveillance might be lawful. Before taking a public position, Obama wanted to talk the problem through. In the space of about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the President's power as commander-in-chief, the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.
Obama wanted to consider the best possible defense of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened carefully and offered a specific counter-argument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said that he thought the program was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time.
This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama's mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal.
He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side. This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years--a careful and even-handed analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view. The University of Chicago Law School is by far the most conservative of the great American law schools. It helped to provide the academic foundations for many positions of the Reagan administration. But at the University of Chicago, Obama is liked and admired by Republicans and Democrats alike. Some of the local Reagan enthusiasts are Obama supporters. Why? It doesn't hurt that he's a great guy, with a personal touch and a lot of warmth. It certainly helps that he is exceptionally able. But niceness and ability are only a small part of the story. Obama also has a genuinely independent mind, he's a terrific listener and he goes wherever reason takes him.
A skeptic would nonetheless note that Sunstein did not change Obama's mind - no more than Obama's ability to see the appeal of Justice Roberts did not prevent him from voting against. I stand by what I saw over a year ago: the man is a liberal, but one of the most intelligent and reasoned in a very long time. In my view, he has the potential to provoke as reasoned a conservatism in response. Just not quite yet.