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.
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.”
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
American voters of all political persuasions can recall the Obama 2008 campaign repeatedly promising that their administration would uphold the highest ethical standards with a particular emphasis on transparency.
A vast majority of these voters believe that the process of running for the office of President of the United States should be the toughest public job interview on the planet.
The sad fact remains that, according to longstanding government clearance protocols, the current president could not be hired as a janitor in a federal building with the amount of verifiable background information that he has provided.
Barack Obama's original typewritten long form birth certificate, school records, SAT and LSAT scores, college and law school admission records and grade transcripts and thesis papers, medical records, passport history, Illinois state senate tenure records, presidential campaign foreign donor lists, complete White House visitor logs and other relevant records and documents have all never been released or allowed to be subjected to any sort of scrutiny, despite several years of repeated requests for disclosure by numerous individuals and non-traditional media organizations.
The Obama 2008 campaign and subsequent administration have to date spent a considerable sum on legal fees, estimated in the millions of dollars, to fight Freedom of Information Act filings and other requests to examine this material. The powerful international law firm Perkins Coie has been their primary provider of these services.
Barack Obama's true origins, past associations, ideological convictions, behavioral influences and ongoing relationships are matters of great concern to a fast growing number of people who just want to know the truth about this man.
This is the sort of information about their presidential candidates that postwar modern era American voters had become accustomed to having the mainstream media provide for them, until 2008 when Obama was given an astonishing special exception from the traditional expectation that such candidates should allow for the release and scrutiny of the substantive body of their personal records and credentials.
In their eagerness to "make history" by covering the campaign of the man whom they were clearly very interested in helping to become the first black president, the mainstream media failed in their essential national responsibility, namely to report on significant events with thoroughness and impartial objectivity. They ignored their duty to search for the truth and should be regarded with disdain by all people who value information in a free society.
Virtually the entire paper trail of the current president's existence, from birth to the White House, continues to remain deeply hidden away in a tight shroud of secrecy.
Barack Obama and his handlers were able to successfully hide his past and explain away and minimize his association with controversial individuals and groups during their 2008 campaign.
Will they be able to effectively repeat this deception between now and 6 November 2012?
Only if you let them.
Jan 30, 2011, 11:30 PM
ALL of THAT TO SAY, "OBAMA'S NOT A REAL AMERKIN"?
After a thoughtful review of a philosophically deep exposition of the President's intellectual dispositions, all you can do is spout 'birther's' paranoia, and PRETEND it has something to do with real policy.
My guess is that you cut and pasted this remark, and you've left the same one all over the internet. Because, after all, your comment had NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ARTICLE.
It's like a page of conspiratorial graffiti.
Feb 5, 2011, 11:29 PM
Barack Obama was presented in 2008 as a brilliant intellectual with stellar Ivy League credentials whose cool low key style would transform the culture of Washington and lead the United States into a new harmonious postracial era while achieving miracles of bipartisan cooperation.
It has become quite apparent how this ridiculously wishful fantasy has really played out.
There is no wonder why the Obama 2008 campaign found it necessary to conceal virtually the entire paper trail of their candidate's existence in a deep shroud of secrecy, and why their subsequent administration continues to do so.
There exists a widespread and fast growing international speculation that an objective examination of Barack Obama's hidden paper trail would clearly reveal that his meteoric rise up the educational and career ladders was largely the result of multiple affirmative action decisions and that his vaunted intellectual reputation was greatly exaggerated.
In short, just another leftist ideologue big city machine politician with more than a touch of narcissism and a proven track record of self-serving dealmaking who has cleverly used his race to get ahead and get over.
In fact, astute observers in corridors of power around the world and other quarters consider that the infamous original typewritten long form birth certificate, the most widely discussed item from Obama's hidden paper trail, is actually the least relevant of all of his concealed records and documents.
They believe that the truth about Obama's place of birth and the identity of both of his parents is far less important to the future of the United States than the truth about what makes him tick and who is pulling his strings, so to speak.
Whether the current president's biological father was the late Kenyan Barack Obama "Sr." or the late CPUSA member Frank Marshall Davis or the late "grandfather" Stanley Armour Dunham (arguably the likeliest candidate - see cashill.com among many other sources) or some other man pales in significance to the truth about his past associations and ideological convictions and behavioral influences and ongoing relationships.
This is the sort of information about their presidential candidates that postwar modern era American voters had become accustomed to having the mainstream media provide for them, until 2008 when Barack Obama received an astonishing special exception from the traditional expectation that such candidates should allow for the release and scrutiny of the substantive body of their personal records and credentials.
Thus, it is difficult to conduct any sort of thoughtful review of a philosophically deep exposition of the current president's intellectual dispositions.
Once again, virtually the entire paper trail of Barack Obama's existence, from birth to the White House, continues to remain deeply hidden away.
What is being hidden and why are they hiding it?
That is the real policy question that should be considered.
Feb 6, 2011, 4:41 AM
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
Join us for a discussion of Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s “The ‘More What, Less How’ Government”
on March 9 at NDN. Liu and Hanauer will be joined by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Click here to RSVP
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
In our Winter 2010 issue, Shadi Hamid wrote
of the dilemma confronting the U.S. in Egypt. His closing lines: “Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.”
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
President Obama today announced the appointment of Gene Sperling as the new director of the National Economic Council. Readers who are wondering what to expect from Sperling can find their answer in the pages of this journal
Michael Tomasky: Progressives aren’t going to give up on government because of one election. A strong role for the federal government as incubator, nurturer, and watchdog is central to the progressive vision of society.
Rick Perlstein: Historically, nothing has terrified conservatives so much as efficient, effective, activist government.
Alan Wolfe: Rather than using government badly out of a conviction that it always fails, they now refuse to allow government to do its work at all.
Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer: What is government for? Over the last two years, this has been the dominant question of American politics. Yet so few leaders have offered coherent answers.