As he introduced Sonia Sotomayor and her family at the White House yesterday, President Obama seemed to his staff to be on "cloud nine," a senior advisor said.
And no wonder: he had found in Sotomayor a jurist whose sensibilities and outlook were very much like his own. "He's a constitutional nerd. A bit of a nerd. He reads cases all of the time," one of his top aides said.
The President had been smitten with Soyomayor for quite a while. He had never met her, but he kept up with gossip from his friends in the legal profession; he knew of her compassion for her clerks; her vim and vigor.
Her credentials were unimpeachable but only the point of departure for Obama.
From the start, say his aides, he intended to pick a justice who could shake up the court, who could -- and would -- change the minds of the other justices, who would represent, at the court and to America, a story about the law that, Obama believed, had yet to be told.
The meeting on Thursday sealed it; after just two minutes with Sotomayor, a White House aide says, "you are just bowled over by her personality." Still, perhaps wary of the perils of relying on gut instinct -- he took the weekend to think about the choice.
In 2006, George W. Bush issued an appeal to conservatives who balked at his nomination of White House counsel Harriett Miers: "I know what's in her heart," he said. That was code for -- she shares my values, my faith, my way of making decisions. Miers was manifestly unqualified for the modern court, but Bush's rationale in choosing her is strikingly similar to Obama's. Where Bush looked into his heart and saw Harriett Miers, Obama, similarly introspected, saw Sonia Sotomayor.
Obama often says that the White House is a bubble and very insular and that one of the things he hopes to do (and does by reading letters from the public) is to break out of the bubble.
Compared to the White House, the Supreme Court is a lagoon in the middle of nowhere. So was one of the reasons Obama picked Sotomayor that she would bring an outsider's perspective to this ivory tower edifice? I think the answer is yes. Obama often mentions empathy to signal this idea, but maybe this is an easier way to understand his thought process.
The Court's veterans are supposedly skittish about newcomers to assert themselves, so perhaps Obama has picked someone who might make the other justices uneasy. From the perspective of the White House, though, this will work to Sotomayor's advantage. Obama's vetting team sent him reports from Republican colleagues who had changed their minds because of what Sotomayor argued in camera.
"What's magical about the Supreme Court is that no one makes a decision in isolation. I think we will get better decisions by someone who represents different perspectives at the table engaging in that conversation," the senior aide said. The hope is that the intrapersonal dynamics of the clubby club will be changed.
What's this bit about Sotomayor not being "brilliant?"
I think Obama believes that the legal world is manifestly out of touch with modern society -- that the judgment about Sotomayor's intelligence stems more from the unwillingness of academics to believe intelligence consists of something other than how an opinion reads. Obama seems to be sensitive to classism in the elite. Perhaps an outspoken Puerto Rican New Yorker seems foreign and makes an academic a little queasy, which translates, in public, to complaints about her intellectual heft. It would be interesting to see if Justice Sandra Day O'Connor faced similar concerns when Ronald Reagan nominated her in 1981, she of humble western roots and a lack of ivory polish, who nevertheless also graduated from a top law school.
On MSNBC yesterday, a law professor (liberal Jonathan Turley) said that he and his academic friends were disappointed with the pick because he believed she wasn't brilliant enough (compared to him presumably) and that she was more like "Thurgood Marshall."
I think this underlines the same idea: Sotomayor and Marshall are/were from different classes and had different life experiences from most academics, who even if they come from humble roots became very insular, cerebral and theoretical once they become academics.
Stotomayor didn't take this academic track, and as a result, is seen as different.
A former law student of Obama's told me that "Obama is challenging this assumption and, in some sense, wants to undermine it."
That's the sense that White House officials convey. "It isn't just that she's the first Latina woman, though that is historically significant. It isn't just that. Coupled with her extraordinary life story, her intellect and her drive, she succeeded, and despite all odds, overachieved."
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Marc Ambinder is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic.