BOOK REVIEW The president as a public intellectual Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political TraditionJames
Reviewed by Dinesh Sharma
In The Republic, Plato described "the philosopher-king" as the lover of
wisdom, a natural-born leader of a city-state.
James Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of History and the American
Civilization at Harvard University, in his book Reading Obama comes very
close to describing the 44th president of the United States as the philosopher
president of our times, one of a rare breed who not only deliberate before they
act, but are serious public intellectuals walking in the shoes of an American
In a recent panel discussion about his book, Kloppenberg clarified
to me that the term "the philosopher president" is not original to him, but he
takes full credit for outing our president as an intellectual. In this respect,
Barack Obama is in the esteemed company of presidents such as Thomas Jefferson,
James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and most recently Woodrow Wilson. These are
indeed very big shoes to fill, but Kloppenberg claims that Obama fits these
oversized clogs very nicely.
traces the roots of Obama's development as an intellectual to his legal
training, specifically, to the period when Obama was elected president of the
Harvard Law Review. In those heady days of identity politics about race and
gender that fermented in law schools during the 1980s and 1990s, Obama acquired
certain core principles about the founding of the nation as "a deliberative
republic" while studying the hermeneutics of the US constitution under the
tutelage of law professors like Tribe, Minow, Fried and others. Almost all of
them claim that he was a unifying force and a critical thinker par excellence.
Kloppenberg has discovered that Obama's political philosophy as well as his
style of politics owes a lot to the pragmatic tradition in American philosophy,
consisting most notably of William James and John Dewey but continued through
the recent works of John Rawls, Richard Rorty, Lawrence Tribe and Robert Putnam
to name just a few of the prominent American thinkers.
Kloppenberg states, "From James and Dewey through the work of their many
students, including progressives and New Dealers as well as DuBois and Park,
the ideas of philosophical pragmatism have spread so broadly through American
culture that it has become almost impossible to identify the direct lines of
their influence. But [Tribe and Michael C Dorf's] 'On Reading the Constitution'
clearly reflects that influence. Lacking a 'mathematical algorithm of
interpretation', according to Tribe and Dorf, the best we can do is to rule out
the extremes of unbounded judicial activism and the fiction of pure judicial
restraint by pointing out that the constitution has changed over time."
The central idea is that truth is not a fixed entity, often variable, in flux
and to be determined through deep dialogue and experimentation. We do not have
access to easily downloadable eternal truths passed down from generation to
generation, the Pragmatists claimed.
Kloppenberg claims that Obama believes this to be true about the American
democracy and the constitution; his former mentor at Harvard, Tribe, partly
credited Obama for coming up with the analogy that interpreting the
constitution is like a "conversation", a long drawn-out, historically
contentious, dialogue to be more precise.
Commenting on the book, the Boston journalist, Christopher Lydon said, "If
there is a problem with Barack Obama's thinking, his 'intellectual biographer'
James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama's mid-term 'humbling',
it's not what he thinks, deep in the Democratic mainstream. Neither is Obama
over-thinking his confoundingly broad assignment. Rather it may be the way he
thinks, never so meticulously delineated ..."
Has Obama become Robert Frost's caricature of a liberal politician, who is "too
broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel", asked Lydon?
Certainly, the historian Alan Brinkley has suggested that the philosopher
president appears to be more of an idealist - highly intelligent, very
inspiring, and full of hope and reconciliation - but less of a pragmatist who
is able to cobble together a grand coalition.
"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 ideals and 'deliberative
democracy'," stated Brinkley.
Pragmatism is not to be confused with practicality, expediency and
triangulation, which Kloppenberg labels as "vulgar pragmatism". Legal
pragmatism, as practiced by James' friends Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr, and Louis
Brandeis, is the philosophical orientation that law is an instrument for
solving social problems, a product of history, society and culture. James put
it himself that ideas in order to have merit must "work".
There is a Gordian knot in Obama's thinking about pragmatism versus idealism
that cannot be easily untangled. The same complexity runs through the works of
James, Dewey, Mead and Pierce about the tension between materialism and
idealism or empiricism and spiritualism. As Pierce wrote, "If Materialism
without Idealism is blind, Idealism without Materialism is void."
Obama states in The Audacity of Hope, "It has not always been the
pragmatist, the voice of reason, or the force of compromise that has created
the conditions of liberty ... The hard, cold facts remind me that it was the
unbending idealists like William Lloyd Garrison ... Denmark Vesey ... Frederick
Douglass ... Harriet Tubman ... who recognized that power would concede nothing
without a fight."
Thus, Kloppenberg's intellectual biography succinctly distills Obama's
higher-order thinking or cognitive frames as a constitutional lawyer and a
progressive activist, showing the different points of tension in Obama's own
mind, where the philosopher may often be in a duel with the politician.
Kloppenberg neither interviewed Obama nor did he feel content just to go
through Obama's avowed list of influential books that shaped his thinking,
including The Bible, Emerson's Self-Reliance, Mahatma Gandhi's
autobiography, Lincoln's Collected Works, Melville's Moby Dick,
works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Shakespeare's tragedies and few others. This was
just as well because Obama may have resisted and rolled over Kloppenberg's
arguments or at least tried to smooth over many important interpretations that
the author has packed in four dense and highly readable chapters.
As an intellectual historian, the author relied on interviews and notes from
the Harvard Law School to make the case that Obama is a descendant of the
American pragmatic philosophers, experimenters and tinkerers deeply rooted in
the New England soil. This discovery will certainly disappoint those on the
right who would like to paint Obama as an extreme leftist radical.
Conversely, there is a danger in coupling Obama exclusively with principally
one philosophical tradition or school of thought. We may lose sight of the rest
of the man, his expansive mind with all its soaring rhetoric, and his diverse,
multicultural or international belongings.
Here, Kloppenberg reveals that Obama was also shaped by many contemporary
social and cultural theories, most importantly the writings of the historian of
science Thomas Kuhn on historicity of paradigms and the cultural anthropologist
Clifford Geertz on the interpretations of symbolic culture.
What seem to be missing from this otherwise outstanding analysis are the ideas
that Obama acquired outside the academe or from his travels in Southeast Asia,
Africa and the Pacific. Given Kloppenberg is understandably focused on Obama's
American philosophical roots, against the anti-Obama forces trying to portray
him as an un-American or "the other", his purview does not include global and
international influences of which I will mention at least two.
First, we know that the civil rights movement in the United States was deeply
influenced by the grassroots civil disobedience movements in India and
elsewhere. Obama's keen understanding of social movements in different parts of
the world shaped his own political vision. Here, of course I am referring to
the linkage between Obama and Gandhi as transmitted through the life and work
of Martin Luther King.
I have discovered that there is a more immediate connection between Gandhi,
King and Obama through the life and work of Obama's own mother, Stanley Ann
Dunham, who was an admirer of both King and Gandhi. She dedicated her life to
the development of rural poor in Indonesia and elsewhere through micro-lending,
women's educational development and what international development agencies now
call "human development" in the context of globalization.
As a student, Obama participated in rallies against apartheid at Occidental
precisely because his purview was international and global. He grasped the idea
of social and economic justice on different continents in no small measure due
to his parent's somewhat chaotic and path-breaking lives and careers. His
lineage from his father's side of the family also gave him insights into the
plight of African nations, where he inherited his Kenyan father's pan-African
dream of unity and development with a different sense of history, culture and
Second, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama has at times identified
himself as the Pacific president. This is not a glib statement; Obama's early
socialization was deeply rooted in Hawaii and Indonesia, with a Polynesian
Christian sensibility and the Aloha ethic towards family, society and nature.
His understanding of the culture and history of Hawaii and the Pacific region
is rooted in direct or lived experiences.
American power depends partly on remaining a stable force in the Asia-Pacific
region economically, politically and militarily; this is something Obama
understands better than most of his predecessors having lived near the Pearl
Harbor naval base, the site of the previous sneak attack on America before
9/11, where more than three thousand lives were also lost.
Furthermore, his ideas about democracy and development were shaped by the early
experiences in Jakarta and by the American involvement in nation-building in
Southeast Asia. His stepfather was part of the Indonesian military and later
worked for American oil companies, while his mother taught English to
Living in Jakarta in the early 1970s, Obama experienced the onset of a secular
Islamic democracy in the making, which is now a model to the rest of the
Islamic world and certainly for the countries in the Middle East and North
Africa that are now up in flames.
These formative experiences not only gave him insights into abysmal poverty and
the vexing problems of development, but shaped his vision of peace with the
majority Islamic nations as expressed in speeches delivered in Cairo, Istanbul,
There is no doubt that Obama is a landmark figure for his progressive policies
deeply rooted in American pragmatism. He is also a global figure because his
thinking spans generations, races, cultures and continents, an integrated
vision of the emerging world community rooted in his family, socialization and
education. The political mind is indeed deeply personal.
As the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley has said, Barack Obama is "our
first global president", whose mind was shaped by globalization accelerated
after the Cold War, with the Internet and social media being the engine of
transformation. Obama now carries his diverse roots and international moorings
to engage the rest of the world. As it is in his DNA, Obama gives new meaning
to Melville's well-known saying, "You cannot spill a drop of American blood
without spilling the blood of the whole world."
Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition by
James Kloppenberg. Princeton University Press (October 11, 2010). ISBN-10:
0691147469. Price US$26, 296 pages.
Dinesh Sharma, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International
and Cross-Cultural Research, St Francis College, NY, and the author of Barack
Obama in Hawai'i and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President. (ABC-CLIO/Praeger,
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)