kloppenberg, reading obama

This is the next in the series of posts on what I read this summer. A friend had given me a copy of James T. Kloppenberg‘s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition a while ago, but I hadn’t cracked it till this summer. It’s an engaging, sophisticated account of Obama’s intellectual pedigree and the political and academic sensibilities he carried into national politics.Astute readers will find it refreshing that the President of the United States even has an intellectual pedigree, all the more so one as interesting, varied, and deep as the one recounted by Kloppenberg. Kloppenberg is an intellectual historian, and recognizes the peril that awaits him as he seeks to evaluate the impact of ideas on a sitting president. And while I found the book’s conclusions more tenuous than one might an intellectual biography of a long-dead figure, nevertheless the patterns Kloppenberg identifies in Obama’s life, and the ways these have played out in his first term in office, offer an interesting and very sympathetic portrait of an honest and honorable, if somewhat naive, political player.

The first chapter deals with Obama’s early education, first in Hawaii, then as an undergraduate at Occidental College. Occidental had an exchange program with Columbia, and Obama took so well to Columbia that he stayed there instead of returning to Occidental. In Kloppenberg’s account, this is the birth of Obama the intellectual: he went from being an average, party student before coming to Occidental to being a voracious reader and thinker at Columbia. From there he went to Harvard Law School, which is the source of the most exciting academic progenitors. Indeed, Dreams from My Father was Obama’s early memoir, published in 1994 in the wake of his election to president of the Harvard Law Review (Kloppenberg 6). The election was a great honor, and signaled the coalescence of several streams that have been durable characteristics of Obama’s style:

  • A concern with pragmatism, both in terms of the uniquely American political tradition of Dewey and colleagues, but also in terms of pursuing feasible reforms over ideological purity;
  • An abiding interest in the laws and politics of race, often in dialogue with critical race theory which was hot at the time of his legal education; and
  • A tendency toward dialogue and compromise with opponents, and toward assuming opponents are genuine and honorable in their opposition.

By the time he left Columbia and became a community organizer in Chicago, working for the Developing Communities Project, he was idealistic and optimistic: “…he remembered that he saw Richard Wright in every mail carrier, Duke Ellington in every jazz musician, Ella Fitzgerald in every singer, and his Chicago-born friend Regina in every black girl he encountered” (25).  But he was soon disappointed, “particularly with the way Alinsky’s principles translated into practice. He could not understand why organizers distrusted electoral politics, or why alliances across denominational lines or racial lines proved so difficult to sustain. In short, why were the differences between groups–the factions Madison had identified in the 1780s–always getting in the way of creating a shared sense of purpose, a common good” (29)? He took this concern to Harvard Law School: “When he left Chicago for Cambridge, Obama had already demonstrated a penchant for drawing on different traditions, a talent for blending apparently incompatible ideas, and a strong preference for flexibility over dogmatism” (36).

From Kloppenberg’s account, the atmosphere at HLS in the early 1990s was electric. Radicals, influenced by Foucault and his interpreters in critical race theory, fought with liberals and communitarians as well as with the then-nascent law and economics tradition. Obama worked closely for Laurence Tribe, a liberal but by no means a radical, on Tribe’s article for HLR, “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics.” Tribe credits the young Obama for great influence in his book, On Reading the Constitution. The other influences are similarly impressive: Cass Sunstein, who wrote an important article for HLR while Obama was working there; Martha Minow, Stephen Gardbaum, Frank Michelman, Robert Putnam, two of whom (Minow and Putnam) have blurbs on the back of Kloppenberg’s book. All owe huge debts to Pragmatism, and all struggle with sociologically central concerns: the relationships between community and communication, between communication and democracy, between shared values and conflicts. “Against the claims of an earlier generation of  liberals that the nation should strive for a neutral, procedural regime in which rights are defended but no ideals enshrined, Gardbaum contended that yoking rights to responsibilities, individuals to communities, and liberty to equality is the American way” (55). Sound familiar?

After graduation–magna cum laude, and with many people remembering him as a remarkable student–he eventually returned to Chicago and taught partially at the University of Chicago Law School, where Kloppenberg notes that he abandoned the traditional legal education assignment of a final brief to require, instead, “a thorough examination of the diversity of opinion that exists” on the topic (69).

The third chapter of Kloppenberg is the best–it brings together Obama’s writings and intellectual influences to gauge his mode of engagement with the political world. Consider, for example, the reading of Madison: Obama (and, by the way, Tribe and Dorf) hold Madison to be the consummate deliberationist, believing “that the process of deliberation, if it remained open-ended, could produce results different from, and superior to, any of the ideas that representatives brought with them to an assembly” (157-158).

Obama explicitly echoes the arguments of Madison–and, strikingly of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist number 70–concerning the importance of encouraging the “jarring of parties” because such differences of opinion could “promote deliberation and circumspection.”…. Obama does point out… that scholars now agree that the Constitution was “cobbled together” from heated debates and emerged “not as the result of principle but as the result of power and passion.” (159-160)

It is this interpretation that allows for the idea that the Constitution is not a document to be revered as perfect but rather understood as the crucial moment in American political development. It is also, perhaps, his Achilles heel: “Obama understands that disagreement is more American than apple pie…. Obama sees something many of his most enthusiastic supporters on the left have trouble accepting: the willingness to endure acceptable compromises instead of demanding decisive victory over one’s opponents has been a recurring feature of American democratic culture” (179).

These sensibilities play into Obama’s speech at Philadelphia during the campaign, responding to the controversy that had erupted over his association the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. “When wright froze American racism into a fixed feature of the national culture, he was betraying two principles Obama embraced: democracy and historicism” (212). This is convincing–but partial. It doesn’t offer us an answer to the most obvious of questions: why did Obama not react to this betrayal sometime before the campaign? I am not arguing that he should have denounced Wright, either before or during the campaign; but Wright’s positions hadn’t changed, so it seems more likely that the denunciation was expedient more than principled. But Kloppenberg’s analysis holds as an analysis of text, even if not as a causal analysis of the events.

This is an extremely friendly intellectual portrait, and one that explains in many ways where Obama comes from — why some of his thinking is so familiarly progressive, and other parts strangely communitarian. In my reading, it also explains what has been my (and many others’) greatest disappointment with his presidency: the tendency to, as Rep. Gary Ackerman so colorfully put it, “…bargain at a strip poker table and …show up half naked.” The ticket in the door of deliberationism is genuine commitment to deliberation, a point Danielle S. Allen has usefully critiqued. If the opponent’s goal is simply your defeat–not the achievement or approximation of some exogenous goal–deliberation cannot possibly succeed, nor can compromise. Unfortunately, that is precisely the situation Obama has found himself in during his first term. Thus, Kloppenberg’s account explains both his soaring successes and his failures.


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