Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

March 10, 2011

His learning curve is great," Barack Obama's top adviser David Axelrod once told a reporter, recounting how he coached Obama to make vivid use of the stories told to him by voters during his US Senate campaign in Illinois. "Once he realized that he was not taking orals at Harvard, he became a better candidate."

James Kloppenberg, intellectual historian and chair of Harvard University's department of history, traces an entirely different vector of Obama's learning curve: his preparation at Harvard Law School, where Obama presided over the Harvard Law Review and from which he graduated magna cum laude, as well as in his undergraduate studies at Occidental College and Columbia University and teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.

The resulting narrative, an outgrowth of lectures Kloppenberg delivered in 2008-09 at the University of Cambridge, differs from many accounts of Obama's development in the centrality it claims for bookish university learning as opposed to the youthful struggles with identity, race and purpose that animate Obama's own celebrated 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

Obama, writes Kloppenberg, has a philosophical mind shaped by such 1980s academic currents as "antifoundationalism, particularism, perspectivalism, and historicism", imbuing him with appreciation of "uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation".

In a word, Kloppenberg believes Obama to be a pragmatist. Not a "vulgar" pragmatist with an "instinctive hankering for what is possible in the short term", but rather a fully fledged philosophical pragmatist in the classical sense, indebted to the early 20th-century US philosophers William James and John Dewey. (Charles Sanders Peirce, pragmatism's 19th-century founder, rates only a brief mention.) In this philosophical sense of the word, pragmatism proscribes against dogma and absolutes, demanding that even long-held beliefs, if contradicted by experience, should be reconsidered. This self-correcting disposition, in which intellectual doubt and uncertainty are resolved in action, specifies no given political conclusions, but it is directly connected to democratic political culture, entailing, writes Kloppenberg, "respect for one's opponents and a willingness to compromise with them".

To distinguish pragmatism from opportunism, Kloppenberg underscores Obama's ideals of hope, conciliation and reasoned deliberation. The degree of adulation he exhibits - superlative tumbles rapidly after superlative -evokes the Obamamania of 2008, now under great strain elsewhere given public discouragement and left-of-centre disappointment. Despite relief over the return of intelligent life to the White House, many observers lament policy outcomes that seem not so much efficacious as centrist bowing before corporate power and forces that do not know the meaning of "compromise". ("I reject the word," John Boehner, the new Republican Speaker of the House, told an interviewer recently.)

While reading Reading Obama one is left, ultimately, with a sense that its thesis is inferential and circumstantial - qualities curiously incongruous with the empirically grounded philosophy it champions. There is no evidence that Obama has read any pragmatist philosophy. In Obama's writings, which are not scholarly let alone philosophical, neither James nor Dewey is quoted, let alone more recent pragmatists such as Hilary Putnam, Richard Bernstein or Richard Rorty. Obama's occasional self-description as a "pragmatist" merely has the colloquial sense of "getting things done".

James once called pragmatism a "new name for some old ways of thinking". Is not Obama's pragmatism (if that is what it is) purely instinctive, not philosophical? Does not lived experience, rather than abstruse theory, better explain in pragmatist terms the flexible mind of a black American born in Hawaii to a Kansan mother and Kenyan father, transplanted to Indonesia at an early age, who went on to be a community organiser on Chicago's South Side - all before he ever set sights on Harvard?

And what, finally, is a pragmatist to do if a strategy of compromise is not working?

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

By James T. Kloppenberg. Princeton University Press. 296pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780691147468. Published 24 November 2010

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