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.
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.
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.