Book Reviews

The Philosopher President

Two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, we can’t doubt his intelligence, but we can wonder whether there are more important qualities.

By Alan Brinkley

Tagged Barack ObamaObama Administration

Reading Obama By James T. Kloppenberg • Princeton University Press • 2010 • 296 pages • $24.95

Two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, the global exuberance that greeted his victory has dramatically faded. The worst economic slump since the 1930s has dragged on for nearly two years with no end yet in sight. The Obama Administration’s stimulus package (along with the much-hated but essential Bush-era TARP) has succeeded in stopping the unraveling of the economy, but unemployment remains stuck just below 10 percent. His signature health-care bill is under ferocious attack, with state attorneys general around the country filing suit to weaken or repeal it and with congressional Republicans vowing to block any corrections or improvements to the bill. The war in Afghanistan, which has become Obama’s chosen conflict, is no more successful than the Iraq War that he opposed. His approval ratings are in the mid-40s, and it is not hard to imagine that they could go a lot further down. And he faces an energized, if not particularly organized, insurgency–the Tea Party “movement”–which has helped invigorate the right and the Republican Party. In the meantime, much of Obama’s base–liberals, leftists, and many others–feel deeply disappointed, if not betrayed. It may be that no president since Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt has faced such a stubbornly difficult set of crises as the ones Obama is confronting, none of which he created. But it was probably inevitable that he would be blamed for them even so.

This torrent of problems has obscured much of what made Obama admired and revered during his campaign. And so this may be a good time for Reading Obama, an intelligent analysis of the President’s view of politics, leadership, and morality–the very things that once made him so popular and that perhaps can help him become popular again. James Kloppenberg, a distinguished intellectual historian at Harvard, has read almost everything that Obama has written, and he has connected that body of work to a series of philosophically derived beliefs that he thinks have shaped Obama’s public life. He argues that Obama is an exceptionally thoughtful president (a view that many of the President’s colleagues share). And he describes Obama as a person with an inner calmness and self-confidence, traits we might wish more leaders had. The apparent purpose of the book is to explain Obama’s intellectual life from the years of his education to the publication of his sensationally successful books, and for the most part he does that well. But Obama’s ideas and convictions do not themselves explain his performance as president. It is Obama’s political skills, not his ideas, that seem to be his problem.

One of Kloppenberg’s most important claims is that Obama embodies the spirit of pragmatism–not the colloquial pragmatism that is more or less the same thing as practicality, but the philosophical pragmatism that emerged largely from William James and John Dewey and continued to flourish through the work of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others. Kloppenberg provides an excellent summary of the pragmatic tradition–a tradition rooted in the belief that there are no eternal truths, that all ideas and convictions must meet the test of usefulness. (Or, as James put it, ideas have to “work.”) Josiah Royce, James’s Harvard colleague and friend, argued that behind all moral claims there must be some “absolute truth” or “absolute knowledge.” Without such absolutes, he (and many others) believed, individuals would have nothing on which to build a moral life. But the pragmatists insisted that every idea has to confront the test of relevance to its time and circumstances. There could be no easy recourse to an absolute truth, either from religion or ancient texts or even from contemporary philosophy. People and nations must live with the knowledge that even their deepest beliefs can be challenged and, if necessary, rejected.

What is the evidence that Obama shares that view? His years at Harvard Law School drew him into the pragmatic ideas that dominated much of the faculty, and so there is little doubt that he knew a great deal about the tradition of pragmatism. But despite Kloppenberg’s claim, it is not entirely clear that he wholly embraced it. In The Audacity of Hope, a book that was designed for his presidential campaign but that also contains much of what we know about his opinions and convictions, Obama makes clear that he has an interest in pragmatism, but he is not wholly committed to it. “It has not always been the pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise, that has created the conditions for liberty,” he writes. “The hard, cold facts remind me that it was unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison…Denmark Vesey…Frederick Douglass…Harriet Tubman…who recognized that power would concede nothing without a fight.”

The best argument for Obama as a pragmatist is his well-known preference for “deliberative democracy,” which he describes as a politics “in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” Kloppenberg sees Obama as a person who is prone to “building support slowly, gradually, through compromise and painstaking consensus building…. It is a gamble he may lose. But it is not a sign of weakness.” Perhaps not. But the last two years suggest that the kind of slow, deliberate consensus-building that Obama seems to prefer is not consistent with the character and needs of national politics and is certainly not consistent with the political world he has inherited–as exhibited by the obdurate and virtually unanimous opposition of the Republican caucus to almost everything he proposes. It may be that no president could be more effective than Obama has been in this political climate. The climate of crisis that he inherited would make it difficult for any leader. But that is all the more reason for him to rebut energetically the powerful opposition that is attempting to derail him. His quasi-pragmatic coolness has not so far been helpful to him or to the nation.

Obama is perhaps only a halfway pragmatist–he still has at least one foot in the soil of moral conviction. In The Audacity of Hope, he writes of Lincoln:

We remember him for the firmness and depth of his convictions.…But his presidency was guided by a practicality that would distress us today, a practicality that led him to test various bargains with the South in order to maintain the Union.…I like to believe that for Lincoln, it was never a matter of abandoning conviction for the sake of expediency. Rather, it was a matter of maintaining within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas–that we must talk and reach for common understandings.

Obama draws his ideas as much from the fervent idealism of the abolitionists, the legacy of the civil-rights movement, and the influence of his (now mostly hidden) religious life as he does from the pragmatic tradition.

Obama shares many of the qualities of our greatest modern presidents but seems to lack many others. He shares Woodrow Wilson’s scholarly temperament but does not project Wilson’s shining idealism. He shares Franklin Roosevelt’s ability to create soaring oratory, but not his joyous (and devious) love of politics. He shares Lyndon Johnson’s ambition, but not often his powers of heavy-handed persuasion. And he shares some of John Kennedy’s cool, pragmatic temperament, but not (publicly at least) his wit and his sense of humor. Unfortunately, although the traits he does reveal are admirable, it is the ones he is missing that our politics demand.

His stewardship of his controversial health-care bill reveals both sides–pragmatism and idealism–of his political and philosophical beliefs. He spent many weeks and months encouraging “deliberative democracy,” attempting to recruit Republican support and urging Congress itself to make the compromises necessary for a bipartisan bill. The result of this effort was that Obama won only a single Republican House member, Joseph Cao, who represents an overwhelmingly Democratic Louisiana district. In the end, he ignored deliberative democracy and rammed the bill through Congress with an almost Machiavellian determination, sidestepping the filibuster through a parliamentary loophole.

So Obama can certainly be tough and determined. But he is also prone at times to waffling and allowing public opinion to push him around, an unhappy aspect of the pragmatic side of his temperament. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Obama is sometimes quick to jettison colleagues and supporters when they come under attack, such as Tom Daschle and former White House Counsel Greg Craig. He occasionally backtracks on his own statements when they attract criticism, as in his quick repudiation of much of his eloquent support for the Islamic center near Ground Zero and his defense of religious tolerance. He has failed to fulfill his bold promise to close down the prison camp in Guantánamo, and he has continued some of the offensive violations of civil liberties that were so widespread in the Bush years. In the end, Obama, who has probably been the most famous person in the world for more than two years, remains something of an enigma. And that leaves some of Kloppenberg’s argument floating elegantly through a series of philosophical speculations that may or may not have had much influence on Obama’s ability to lead the nation.

Kloppenberg is best when he analyzes Obama’s own writing–Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope, and some of his memorable speeches. He gives an excellent analysis of Obama’s views of Lincoln and of the ways in which he has come to terms with race. But perhaps Obama’s writing was not enough to support a book. Kloppenberg spends considerable time describing the ideas and theories of others. He discusses at some length John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, the great 1971 work that dominated American philosophy for more than a decade and that linked the pragmatic tradition to a vision of idealized social justice. Rawls’s great contribution to philosophy was the idea that real justice would provide the kind of society a person would choose if that person had no knowledge of the condition in which he or she would live. Rawls argued that should a person find himself in such circumstances, that person would likely support a society that would provide justice (if not necessarily equality) to everyone. Kloppenberg correctly notes that Rawlsian liberalism was visible throughout the scholarly and intellectual world for many years. But Obama’s proximity to Rawls’s theory does not mean that he embraced it (or even read it).

In fact, as Kloppenberg admits, Obama seems less attracted to a Rawlsian version of justice than he does to a competing vision grounded in communitarianism. To communitarians, real justice cannot exist through individual choice alone; justice must be rooted in some kind of civil society that is based in strong values. For Obama, once a community organizer, community and values are always at the heart of his political vision. “We hang onto our values,” he writes, “even if they seem at times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often than we care to remember. What else is there to guide us? Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people.” And yet, Obama is not content with simply inheriting values. “We can make claims on [our values’] behalf, so long as we understand that our values must be tested against fact and experience.”

This is part of the enigma of Obama–his movement back and forth between what would seem to be opposing visions. But of course, who does not live with multiple and even clashing values? Kloppenberg’s thoughtful and intelligent descriptions of contemporary social thought are of great value on their own. But there is a fuzziness about his connection between the ideas he presents so well and the degree to which Obama has embraced them. Perhaps that fuzziness can be traced to his subject, who, two years into his presidency, still has not quite snapped into focus.

Obama is one of the most articulate and intelligent men ever to have been president. And his understanding of ideas and faiths is consistently impressive. As Kloppenberg makes clear, Obama grasps a wide range of political and social theories. He is remarkably open-minded in his judgment of values with which he disagrees. He embraces pragmatism at the same time that he embraces communitarianism and idealism. He understands many social worlds, both black and white. The famous cadence that brought him to the attention of the nation in 2004–“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America”–expresses a view that, for Obama, has been more than a phrase. It represents the vision of reconciliation and community that he tried to create in his campaign and in his presidency, and that he may continue to try to create in the future.

But at least for the moment, we do not live in a nation that yearns for reconciliation and community. We live, instead, in an increasingly polarized nation–a polarization most visible in government and politics but visible as well in ordinary interactions among ordinary people. Overcoming the deep rifts within American society is a great and worthy goal, and Obama may one day be the person who can bridge the growing divides. But in the meantime, there is work to be done–shoring up the economy, helping the unemployed, fighting off the right–and that work does not seem likely to be achieved by the pragmatist’s commitment to shared ideas and “deliberative democracy.” If we are not sure yet how much of Obama is a pragmatist and how much is an idealist, we do know how much more of each we need him to be.

Presidents are not judged only by their ideas and their hopes. They are judged by their accomplishments. And accomplishments, especially in politics, require more than eloquence and more than intelligence. In the increasingly polarized political world that Obama faces, dreams of consensus and reconciliation are not what progressives seek, nor what the nation needs. The world the President inherited requires political skills, conviction, toughness, and the willingness to fight–the very things Obama’s many admirers are waiting to see.

Read more about Barack ObamaObama Administration

Alan Brinkley is Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus