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.
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.”
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