Reading Obama
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 11/10/2010 by John Bird.

Recommended. President Obama may not be one's political cup of tea, and may not have revealed the full extent of his ambitions, he remains worthy of our respect.

"Like his eighteenth-century and early twentieth-century predecessors, Barack Obama is a man of ideas." But neither his sensibility, nor his drawing from historical politics, has received due attention. So argues James T. Kloppenberg in his new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. The author, using Obama's own writings as his main guide, traces the influences of the President in order to clarify and defend the President's beliefs, showing that they are not as un-American as sometimes portrayed.

Obama's "ideals" stem from a wide range of thinkers: Whitman and Thoreau, Jefferson and Lincoln, even Augustine and Niebuhr. But the greatest influences on the President were the pragmatists William James and John Dewey, who "argued that a culture of inquiry should supplant a culture of fixed truths." This "denial of universal principles" is a major aspect of the book, and, according to Kloppenberg, of Obama's thinking. The President's view of the constitution, for instance, is not that it is a rigid, unchanging document based upon the shared convictions of the founders, but that it was "cobbled together" as the "result of power and passion," and was meant to serve as a framework in which democracy can operate; its interpretation should change with time and context. In the political sphere, there is "no absolute truth." The belief that “the founders...discovered unchanging Truth and distilled it into the Constitution" is, according to the author, "a comforting fable." The founders, after all, were fallible, and their worldviews and policies are not perfectly compatible with ours, as evidenced by their support of slavery.

What constitutes, then, the President's ideals? Kloppenberg says that "Obama embraces community, liberty, equality, and historicism...A commitment to the dual importance of individual rights and equality, the view that securing effective rather than merely abstract or formal rights requires minimizing as much as possible the gulf between rich and poor," or, as another put it, "the inadequacy of the idea that atomistic individuals bear unqualified absolute rights."

The author argues that, while conservatives see Obama's views as extreme, they are nothing new. Even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, although known as "the great champions of independence...never wavered from their conviction that the American experiment with self government would succeed only if the nation's citizens remained roughly equal in their economic standing."

Challenging inequality, far from manifesting a 'socialist' or otherwise un-American propensity, instead descends in a direct line from the deepest and richest traditions of American culture...The impulse to insure that wealth is shared fairly is a fundamental American value...It is also, as [John] Winthrop did not hesitate to point out, the central message of the Christian Scriptures.

While any informed biblical Christian cannot concede that sharing wealth is the central issue of Christian Scriptures, there is no denying that it is a repeated theme. Whether or not it is a part of American tradition, however, is not so clear.
Kloppenberg endeavors to show that the President is a moderate, at least by some standards. The most convincing evidence is that many on the left are unsatisfied with the President’s reforms and think that he hasn’t done enough. Regarding Obama’s “commitment to economic democracy,” Kloppenberg writes:

[There] may be reason for concern...If Obama envisions a strategy for moving in the direction of Roosevelt's vision of a second bill of rights...or of directly addressing the problems of poverty that he describes so vividly in his account of Chicago's far south side in Dreams from My Father, he has not yet revealed it.

One thing is certain: Kloppenberg has given us an in-depth and (mostly) interesting look at our President and the foundation of his convictions. He shows that President Obama, whether we agree with his policies or not, isn't an "extreme socialist," but is committed to democracy, wants the best for the country, and is worthy of our respect.