Harvard Historian Casts Barack Obama as a Liberal Pragmatist (In Contrast to a Centrist Bill Clinton)

The New York Times had an interesting book review 2 days ago on an upcoming book the Liberal Ironist would like to read, on the philosophical influences of President Barack ObamaJames T. Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, maintains that the President Obama is in fact substantively a Liberal–but one whose primary influences are Pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey.  This Kloppenberg abstracted from the President’s various speeches (which in uncharacteristic fashion he wrote himself), essays, and his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope.  If such intellectual ancestors seem too wishy-washy, Kloppenberg has bolder claims on offer:

“Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.”

Nietzsche and Rawls?  Surely the President isn’t trying to rouse the common citizen from a state of aesthetic and moral hibernation while asking himself whether our current economic arrangements serve the needs of society’s least-advantaged…Well, actually, maybe he is doing those simultaneously.  Ironically, that would be a positive way of saying that Obama is both on the Left and a craze, as his harsh detractors claim.  While this is the most-qualitative (read: subjective) of indicators, Obama does seem to have a weird ability to reconcile the demands of performance art and passion for policy that are alternately expected or needed from a President.  Even in the case of President Clinton, who undeniably had both charisma and policy knowledge to an exceptional degree, these characteristics didn’t seem so “integrated” as they do with Obama.  Seeing the Obama Presidency unfold has the aspect of witnessing a story as it happens.  I think I get this impression because the President isn’t just “articulate” but because has actually staked-out a philosophical space for himself.

It isn’t necessary to judge on the authority of this mere hunch when one considers what President Obama has himself prepared to say on a variety of occasions.

Consider his Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

“…If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

“It is that fundamental belief — It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

“E pluribus unum: ‘Out of many, one.’

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of “anything goes.” Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

This is an elevated speech for a national party convention; even when it aims to raise the blood of partisans it generally has a philosophical pedigree.  That in itself wouldn’t be difficult for a professional speechwriter, but Senator Obama was a professional politician.  He didn’t rely on the advice of professional rhetoricians (whom I acknowledge are very good at what they do) to tell him the right words to get his point across.  These words were already on his mind.


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