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Philosophical Pragmatist in Chief?

By: Tevi Troy
April 18, 2012

A book review of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, by James T. Kloppenberg.

Barack Obama is hardly the first liberal politician with an impressive academic pedigree to be celebrated as a savant. Michael Barone pointed out that Adlai Stevenson, the original "egghead," died with only one book on his bedside table—the Social Register. John F. Kennedy was hailed as an intellectual, and yet it is widely thought Ted Sorensen ghosted Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage. Michael Dukakis was acclaimed for reading Swedish planning manuals on vacation, and Bill Clinton was celebrated as a policy wonk extraordinaire. All of these people were perfectly bright—with the possible exception of Stevenson—but this did not make them intellectuals, nor should our politicians have to be judged by that standard.

The celebration of Democratic intellects stands in stark contrast to the treatment of Republicans: Eisenhower was supposedly dull; Ford a klutz; Reagan an "amiable dunce"; Bush lacked vision; and as for his son, well, no president's intellect has been belittled and derided as much as that of the Yale B.A., Harvard MBA, from Midland, Texas. Interestingly, among recent Republican presidents, only Nixon escaped this brush, but by virtue of being called Machiavellian instead.

When it comes to Obama, the clamor over his intelligence is even stronger than it was over his Democratic predecessors. The historian Michael Beschloss called him "probably the smartest guy ever to become President."

Regardless of the merits of the claim, it is clear that the kinds of intellectual skills that impress historians do not make one a successful president. Far from it. The fact that this belief in Obama's exceptional intelligence has become a liberal axiom is on beautiful display in James Kloppenberg's Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition. In this slender, readable volume, Kloppenberg, chairman of the history department at Harvard, goes through the major stages of Obama's life and discusses the various intellectual influences he encountered at each level. The author then examines Obama's later writings, speeches, and policies to determine which of the various intellectual seeds took root and in what ways they now manifest themselves in our first "certified intellectual" president, as the New Yorker called him.

This exercise is necessarily speculative. As Kloppenberg told the New York Times, he "interviewed the president's former professors and classmates, combed through his books, essays, and speeches, and even read every article published during the three years Mr. Obama was involved with the Harvard Law Review.... What he did not do was speak to President Obama." A modern politician, of course, authors few of the words and writings that are technically "his," relying on communications specialists to devise and edit them. Kloppenberg, however, is not aiming for psychobiography but intellectual history, and he does have a large array of sources at his disposal, including the works of the professors who taught Obama, as well as the president's early writings themselves.

His conclusion is that Mr. Obama is a real intellectual, not just a smart guy; and a real pragmatist, not just a realistic politician. He is a pragmatist, that is, in the sense that John Dewey was, rather than in the sense Richard J. Daley was—one who embraces a "congruence between antifoundationalism, historicism, experimentalism, and democracy in his way of thinking." Kloppenberg finds that this combination of influences has made Obama into a philosophical pragmatist, in contrast to "vulgar pragmatists" of the get-along-go-along variety. Philosophical pragmatism, he writes, "embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation." If presented with this theory, though, Obama "would have had to deny every word," says Kloppenberg, because of the suspicion with which populists view intellectuals, particularly ones who hold forth on antifoundationalism and provisionality.

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I can't claim, as Kloppenburg does, to have "read every article published during the three years Obama was involved with the Harvard Law Review" but there is an alternative, and perhaps even more plausible, theory regarding the president's mind. Even though his rise to power was spectacular and unprecedented, this does not mean that his influences were extraordinary. Everything we know about Obama indicates that, intellectually at least, he is a fairly conventional product of Ivy League institutions in late 20th-century America. As James Taranto wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Obama "is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia."

Kloppenberg implicitly recognizes this, since his work is really an intellectual history of some of the most influential thinkers of modern liberalism, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Rorty, and John Rawls, rather than an intellectual biography of Obama. Therefore, to understand Obama merely requires us to understand his prestigious but very conventional education. Kloppenberg himself points out Obama's educational influences when he reminds us, "Remember that Obama was trained in two of America's leading colleges, Occidental and Columbia. He earned his law degree at one of its leading law schools, Harvard, then taught law for more than a decade at another top-flight institution, the University of Chicago Law School."

Overall, Obama is a representative product of such schools, the modern American establishment's personnel office, which militates against the theory that he's any kind of deep thinker or philosophical pragmatist. His reported fondness for Niebuhr hardly distinguishes from many other American political figures, such as Bill Clinton. More startling would be a political figure who passed through the same institutions as Obama and then positively cited the work of Jacques Barzun or F.A. Hayek. Reading Obama shows the president to be a bright politician, conversant in the memes of contemporary liberalism, but neither the heir nor the originator of a particular or systematic school of thought.

One way to discover that Obama is not the great intellectual Kloppenberg hypes is from the information the White House occasionally releases concerning the president's reading habits. His reading periods appear to center around his vacations; he apparently does not read very much when not on holiday. In a conversation with the New York Times's Michael Powell, he acknowledged that one of the challenges of the presidency is that "you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter." For example, the New York Times's Peter Baker reported in early October 2010 that Obama was "seeking guidance" from reading "presidential biographies," including Taylor Branch's book,The Clinton Tapes. On December 25, more than two months later, the Washington Post also reported that Obama was reading the Branch book, which suggests that the very busy president is understandably taking a while to get through its 720 pages. Understandable, in any event, for a politician, although perhaps not for a celebrated intellectual.

Obama's reading seems to focus on mainstream liberal works from Branch, Thomas Friedman, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as some novels, including Jonathan Franzen's bestselling Freedom and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Kloppenberg's book confirms the relatively short shrift the president has given to conservative thought throughout his life. To his credit, he appears to treat individual conservatives with respect (at least until Paul Ryan came around). A number of Obama's conservative classmates praised him for his willingness to treat conservatives at theHarvard Law Review equitably, no mean feat in the hallowed halls of academia. According to an article on the subject inPolitico, Obama secured the editorship of the Harvard Law Review—an important rung on his ladder—"in part by convincing the conservative minority of law students that he would treat them fairly."

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Kloppenberg also discusses Obama's interaction with certain conservatives while at Harvard, such as law professor Mary Ann Glendon. According to Kloppenberg, "Obama probably spent as much time in class with Glendon as with any member of the faculty besides [the very left-wing Roberto Mangabeira] Unger." Obama's tendency to develop personal relationships with individual conservatives rather than engage the ideas of conservative thinkers is typical of a politician's approach to ideological differences, not an intellectual's.

Kloppenberg's essential contention is that Obama is something more than a smart and well-read politician: "Much as he might need to mask it on the campaign trail, where he demonstrates his impressive skill as a politician, his books make clear that Barack Obama is also very much an intellectual." The author does not define "intellectual," and the word is notoriously hard to pin down. The late Christopher Lasch once called an intellectual a person for "whom thinking fulfills at once the function of work and play."

Another way of looking at the question is that intellectuals find ideas most interesting, while politicians find people most interesting. (For many politicians this tendency culminates in finding themselves surpassingly interesting.) Readers can determine for themselves whether this president, or any modern president, can realistically hope to live up to these standards, but I am somewhat skeptical that the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue fits the bill.