BARACK OBAMA, though he is evidently thoughtful and intellectually capable, is not usually considered a man of ideas. In contrast to a policy wonk such as Bill Clinton or an ideological standard-bearer such as Ronald Reagan, Obama has never even brandished a distinct political philosophy. He sought the White House not so much on a platform as on a sensibility—a spirit of change, a promise of redemption, a song of hope.
That sensibility was largely responsible for the almost otherworldly appeal that Obama exhibited, in the eyes of countless devotees, during the campaign in 2008. As much as any group, intellectuals rallied to Obama’s candidacy with a zeal not seen in presidential campaigns since an earlier generation of students, horn-rimmed and tweed-coated, cheered the parlor poet Eugene McCarthy, or even the noble and quixotic sallying of Adlai Stevenson, with his famous varsity wit. The creative class’ romance with Obama even recalled Irving Howe’s explanation of Stevenson’s allure: the so-called eggheads of the 1950s, he wrote in “Stevenson and the Intellectuals,” were “tempted to abandon politics entirely yet felt themselves forced—indeed, trapped—into a lukewarm, gingerly participation. … And here was this remarkable man from Illinois, so charming and cultivated … come to represent and speak for them. Roosevelt might be admired for things he had done, Stevenson was to be admired and identified with simply because of what he was.” So the roles of the politician and the intellectual had been conflated, or perhaps confused.
To be sure, Obama showed a strategic savvy and political dexterity that Stevenson never did. Still, the lofty regard for Obama—especially the intellectual regard—has been extraordinary. Along with his historic achievement in becoming our first black president, it was this esteem that seems to have generated the large literature about him, by journalists (David Remnick’s The Bridge, Jonathan Alter’s The Promise) and scholars (Tom Sugrue’s Not Even Past, William Jelani Cobb’s The Substance of Hope). Of this latter group, none has gotten more attention than James T. Kloppenberg’s book.
Reading Obama is a welcome addition, not least because it is the first book to try to tease out a coherent political philosophy from the president. Kloppenberg, a prominent intellectual historian at Harvard, does this not by analyzing Obama’s pre-presidential record or his campaign rhetoric or his policies but—like a senior professor sizing up a tenure aspirant—by reviewing Obama’s published dossier. The chief works, of course, are Obama’s best-selling books—his semi-fictional memoir, Dreams from My Father, and his campaign trial balloon, The Audacity of Hope; but Kloppenberg also draws on a passel of other writings and, most originally, on the issues of the Harvard Law Review over which Obama presided as editor in 1990.
From these writings, Kloppenberg concludes that Obama, despite appearances, does have a clear political philosophy. Kloppenberg calls it pragmatism. By pragmatism, Kloppenberg explains, he does not mean “vulgar pragmatism,” which he defines as “an instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term”—a trait, it is worth noting, that all successful politicians need. When they possess it to the exclusion or betrayal of loftier principles—as some have, from Alcibiades to Nixon—we call this trait opportunism, expediency, spinelessness, or careerism. What Kloppenberg finds in Obama’s writing, however, is emphatically not opportunism, but something more explicitly philosophical. He believes that Barack Obama belongs in the venerable strain of American thought that runs from William James and John Dewey to Richard Rorty and his disciples. This pragmatism deems ideas as valuable for their real-world utility and consequences: true ideas, it holds, are those that work. It rests on a commitment to experiment, a frank acknowledgment of human fallibility, an impatience with the search for a grander truth, a rejection of a priori absolutes.
Pragmatism is a subject close to Kloppenberg’s heart, and his expertise. Among his many learned writings on the subject are the landmark Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920, which appeared in 1986, and “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?,” a brilliant article in the Journal of American History in 1996, many of whose ideas resurface in his new work. With his breadth of knowledge and his simplicity of prose, Kloppenberg is a fine guide to these ideas. And lest we suspect that he is merely projecting a set of ideas he esteems onto a politician he admires—Obama, after all, has described himself as “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views”—Kloppenberg is careful to elucidate the reasons for the happy congruence.
Obama is a product, he explains, of elite universities, having attended Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law School in the 1980s and early 1990s. In these years the academy was in intellectual ferment, and in many disciplines—literature and history, politics and law—pragmatism was enjoying a revival. In earlier decades, pragmatism, with its radical tolerance of uncertainty, had been on the outs intellectually; the times called for vital-center liberalism, a robust citadel of ideological conviction to gird the nation in its war of ideas against the fanaticisms of left and right. But as the Cold War urgency ebbed and liberalism came under fire, new ideas challenged the old axioms. Historians such as Gordon Wood directed scholars’ attention to the traditions of civic republicanism, alongside Lockean liberalism, in American political culture. Legal scholars such as Frank Michelman and Cass Sunstein stressed the importance of republican values such as civic participation. Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz influenced practically everyone with their arguments that meaning resides within historical and cultural contexts, not in timeless absolutes.
Philosophically speaking, these newly current ideas of communitarianism and civic republicanism are not precisely the same thing as pragmatism, and readers may be uneasy with the way that Kloppenberg folds them together. Yet in practice (and practice, after all, is the pragmatist’s standard), these intellectual developments occurred simultaneously and their leading thinkers influenced one another. Kloppenberg is thus able to pull together intellectual shifts in myriad fields to fashion a creative and largely plausible narrative of late twentieth-century intellectual life writ large. Indeed, his portrait of academic thinking in this period may well be his book’s signal contribution. Reading Obama may be seen as a companion to Daniel Rodgers’s recent book Age of Fracture, which also highlights the erosion in the 1980s of confidence in philosophical absolutes and in the shared assumptions that once prevailed among disparate scholars.
Kloppenberg links his history of pragmatism to Obama by noting that precisely as the academy experienced its pragmatic revival, Obama came along as part of a generation of students seeking an alternative to Reaganite conservatism—and also hungry for something more fortifying than a ubiquitous but seemingly etiolated rights-based liberalism. Unfortunately Kloppenberg lacks a strong evidentiary base for his speculations, since we have only Obama’s limited writings about his educational experience; but his surmise is not terribly controversial. With a temperament given to deliberation and conciliation, Kloppenberg suggests, Obama took naturally to the ideas he was hearing in class and absorbing from the campus culture.
As a first pass at distilling and ordering Obama’s influences as a young man, Reading Obama makes a compelling case for the importance of pragmatism in the intellectual formation of the future president. But finally the case does not persuade. The connection between Obama’s significance and the ideas that Kloppenberg brings together under pragmatism’s banner is too loose. Not all Ivy League-bred politicians of Obama’s vintage bear the imprint of pragmatism. (Consider John Roberts.) Moreover, the first wave of elected officials to bring communitarian and republican ideas into the political realm belonged not to Obama and his post-1960s cohort but to the Baby Boom: Bill Bradley, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton were the ones who, striving in the 1980s to revive liberalism in the face of its declining electoral viability, broke with the doctrines of the postwar left by stressing—much like Kloppenberg’s neo-pragmatists—responsibilities as well as rights, the community as well the individual, and the need to adapt to new historical conditions.
If pragmatism here explains too little in Kloppenberg’s effort to understand Obama, it may in other ways be getting pressed into explaining too much. An ear as finely tuned as Kloppenberg’s to the great works of American thought will hear resonances that are going to elude most readers. It is entirely plausible for Kloppenberg to find in Dreams from My Father the influence to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But this is only one of many echoes of canonical pragmatist works that he detects in Obama’s published oeuvre. The assertion in The Audacity of Hope, for example, that “what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart,” Kloppenberg says, “echoes the almost identical words that [Jane] Addams wrote to explain the settlement house movement in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull House”: “The things which make men alike,” Addams wrote, “are finer and better than the things that keep apart.” (Myself, I hear Bill Clinton: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”) When Obama urges his readers to “recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share,” he “comes close to paraphrasing the language of Political Liberalism,” John Rawls’s attempt to incorporate the ideas of his communitarian critics into his philosophy. And so on.
Readers who hesitate to credit Obama with such a masterly and unobtrusive command of the history of American ideas and letters may indeed wonder if Kloppenberg’s judgments are not shaped in part by his admiration for his subject. Reading Obama brims with an enthusiasm that now feels dated. During campaigns, as Tocqueville wrote, “the whole nation glows with feverish excitement,” and our last election—during which this book was conceived—was especially thrilling. Kloppenberg does not engage in overt political partisanship in his book, but his nearly unmitigated praise for Obama can be cloying. “Obama is,” in Kloppenberg’s estimation, “a shrewd and an unusually well-informed observer of American political life and the so-called culture wars of recent decades.” As a student of history, “Obama has no illusions about the mid-twentieth century Democratic Party.” At community organizing, he was a “genius.” This portrait of Obama stands in marked contrast to Kloppenberg’s contempt for the “discredited” Bill Clinton—who in Kloppenberg’s words “spent eight years ‘triangulating’ … and squandering the chance to … breathe new life into … American political ideals”—even though Clinton and Obama resemble each other closely in their college and law school educations, their ideological (or post-ideological) commitments, their personal ambition, their penchant for compromise, and their attachment to neopragmatic ideas.
Kloppenberg’s esteem for Obama leads him to over-value Obama as an intellectual. Here the praise strains credulity. He deems Obama’s books “the most substantial books written by anyone elected president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson.” Obama is credited with being “able to interrogate his own convictions—to place them in a broader cultural and historical context by imaginatively scrutinizing them from a position centuries in the future—without abandoning them, much as William James did.” Of one excerpt from Obama’s prose, Kloppenberg writes that “neither Madison nor Jefferson, neither James nor Dewey … could have said it better.” Kloppenberg routinely presumes Obama to be “immersed” in the current intellectual debates of Harvard Law School, “wrestling with texts such as Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,” and “probing the arguments in [Walter] Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery.” Isn’t it possible that Obama, like a lot of us who loaded up on humanities courses in college, left a few classic works on his shelves with their spines uncracked? Besides, does undergraduate and graduate reading really make one a full-fledged philosopher?
Kloppenberg has committed a category mistake. He asserts that besides being a politician, “Obama is also very much an intellectual.” But while Obama is obviously smart and has strong intellectual tendencies, I do not believe that he can comfortably be awarded that label. Few politicians can. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison certainly warrant the term, anachronistic though its application would be; and a century later Wilson, a renowned political scientist, deserved it, as (perhaps) did his prolific and erudite contemporary Theodore Roosevelt. But most of the highly educated, well-read, brainy politicians of our own time—Obama, Clinton, Gore, Gary Hart—are cut of different cloth. They have traveled in the world of ideas, consorted with intellectuals, in some cases written books, in some cases taught at universities. They may even think about political philosophy. But everything they wrote—everything they thought—was necessarily refracted through the prism of electoral politics. There is nothing shocking or shameful about this, but it is not how intellectuals proceed.
Even Obama’s memoir, whatever its literary merits, was not conceived in political innocence. When Obama wrote it, he was already telling reporters that he planned a career in elective office. Similarly, The Audacity of Hope—the promotional tour took Obama to New Hampshire, triggering a nationwide craze of “Obamamania” and launching his presidential bid—may be thoughtful, well-written, and better than most campaign books. But it is thoroughly strategic. “Audacity,” the journalist Andrew Ferguson judged, cuttingly but not unfairly,“is an infinitely weaker, duller book than its predecessor, and its single interesting revelation is unintentional: ... we have lost a writer and gained another politician.” I am not suggesting that Obama’s writings are unworthy of intellectual respect. Political documents, too, can reflect non-political influences and withstand close readings. But to elevate Obama’s writing and thinking into the high stream of American intellectual history is untenable.
As Kloppenberg rightly notes, Obama (like all of us) is the product of not simply a history of ideas but also a history of our polity. Understandably, he does not delve into this topic very deeply in Reading Obama, but he does give some hints as to his own interpretation of recent politics. Reagan’s election in 1980, he suggests, initiated what he considers a sharp and lasting break from the robust liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. Since then, Kloppenberg states, key progressive ideas such as the graduated income tax and government regulation of the economy have fallen into “bipartisan” disrepute. Although this characterization of the Democrats’ post-1980 priorities does not quite ring true—Clinton, for example, spent considerable political capital restoring some progressivity to the tax code—the larger problem is that the collapse of the political program that Kloppenberg supports coincided almost perfectly with the rise of the intellectual philosophy that he champions. In his telling, the decline of liberalism in national politics corresponds with the emergence of pragmatic and civic republican ideas. This is hardly to suggest that pragmatism led to the demise of New Deal liberalism, but it does further complicate the already thorny relationship between academic ideas and political practice.
Although Kloppenberg spends relatively little time presenting his own political beliefs, he is most certainly “a man of the left,” to use a term that he applies to Obama. When he criticizes Obama, it is almost exclusively for adopting centrist or conservative policies—escalating the Afghanistan war, using drones in Pakistan, and hiring Wall Street-friendly economic advisers such as Tim Geithner. These choices do not necessarily violate Jamesian pragmatism, of course—but they do deviate from what you would expect from a leftist.
Kloppenberg might counter that these deviations of Obama’s represent not the legacy of James and Dewey but merely the “vulgar pragmatism”—the crude choice-making of everyday politics—that he takes pains to separate from the Jamesian-Deweyan tradition. Yet it is unclear what the Jamesian-Deweyan tradition would instruct a president to do about financial reform or Islamist terrorism. Kloppenberg seems to want it to point to decisions that he himself could readily endorse: there is an implication, never stated outright, that it should yield progressive politics, maybe like John Dewey’s. At other times, however, Kloppenberg insists that pragmatism offers no clear policy paths. Quoting James, he calls pragmatism “a method” that “stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.” On this reading, Jamesian ideas cannot, without some other prior principles, reliably lead us to the left-liberal politics that Kloppenberg would like to see. It may well be, as Sidney Morgenbesser once joked, that the only problem with pragmatism is that it is “completely useless.”
Not only is pragmatism unable to produce a political program by itself, it also may be partly responsible for Obama’s continuing difficulty, more than two years into his presidency, in presenting the pattern of principled consistency that we crave from our presidents. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal has often been called pragmatic for its shamelessly experimental style, as FDR tried out many different ways (sometimes simultaneously) of stimulating the economy, organizing business, producing jobs and succoring the poor during the Depression. But for Roosevelt the first principles of using government to forge a more just society in the form of a mixed-economy welfare state were always fairly evident. Kloppenberg shrewdly insists that for Obama compromise and a commitment to comity are “a sign of principle,” but those are a contentless sort of principle. It is less clear what this president’s first principles are regarding, say, economics or foreign policy.
The pragmatic turn in the academy has been valuable in opening up new channels of inquiry and upsetting pat narratives, but if pragmatism has had any appreciable impact in the political realm, it has probably been to weaken the articulation of traditional liberal tenets. (Self-styled education “reformers,” for example, many of them on the left, now relentlessly stress outcomes over the intrinsic virtues of the life of the mind that liberals once used to proudly defend.) That impact should not come as a surprise. Politicians and intellectuals are different beasts. Their jobs are different and they think differently. Intellectuals, even the engage ones, operate with a critical distance in assessing the world and events that politicians do not enjoy; they are free to argue—they are expected to argue—whatever they believe. No politician, not even a refreshing and relatively forthright one, not even Barack Obama, can ever do that.
If problems arise when we try to turn politicians into intellectuals, they also emerge when intellectuals give themselves over to politics. What cause has not at some point expediently—or should we say pragmatically? —been justified by arguments, presented in petitions, signed by academic luminaries, that are owed more to political passion than intellectual consistency? To sign on to political causes risks tarnishing the intellectual’s enterprise. Yet neither can intellectuals take comfort in sitting on the sidelines. From George Bancroft to Charles Beard to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historians, as much as any group, have enjoyed a proud and distinguished tradition of political involvement and journalistic commentary on public affairs. Bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on current events without bending interpretations of the past to meet the perceived needs of the present is a delicate, and worthy, task.
Of course, intellectuals, too, have the right, indeed the obligation, to make some contribution to the effort to improve the country or the world. Joined in one person, the role of the intellectual and that of the practical politician are not fully discrete identities. But there are important differences, and they should be accorded enough respect for us to judge both the politician and the intellectual by the standards of their respective realms.
David Greenberg, a contributing editor, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for 2010-11.