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I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism

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Is Barack Obama the savior of liberalism—or the last liberal president? Charles R. Kesler's spirited analysis of Obama's political thought shows that he represents either a new birth of liberalism—or its demise.

Who is Barack Obama? Though many of his own supporters wonder if he really believes in anything, Charles R. Kesler argues that these disappointed liberals don't appreciate the scope of the president's ambition or the long-term stakes ...

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Is Barack Obama the savior of liberalism—or the last liberal president? Charles R. Kesler's spirited analysis of Obama's political thought shows that he represents either a new birth of liberalism—or its demise.

Who is Barack Obama? Though many of his own supporters wonder if he really believes in anything, Charles R. Kesler argues that these disappointed liberals don't appreciate the scope of the president's ambition or the long-term stakes for which he is playing.

Conservatives also misunderstand Obama, according to this leading conservative scholar, educator, and journalist. They dismiss him as a socialist, hopelessly out of touch with the American mainstream. The fringe Right dwells on Obama's foreign upbringing, his missing birth certificate, Bill Ayers's supposed authorship of his books. What mainstream and fringe have in common is a stubborn underestimation of the man and the political movement he embodies.

Reflecting a sophisticated mix of philosophy, psychology, and history, and complemented by a scathing wit, I Am the Change tries to understand Obama as he understands himself, based largely on his own writings, speeches, and interviews. Kesler, the rare conservative who takes Obama seriously as a political thinker, views him as a gifted and highly intelligent progressive who is attempting to become the greatest president in the history of modern liberalism. Intent on reinvigorating the liberal faith, Obama nonetheless fails to understand its fatal contradictions—a shortsightedness that may prove to be liberalism's undoing.

Will Obama save liberalism and become its fourth great incarnation, following Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson? Or will he be derailed by his very successes? These are the questions at the heart of Kesler's thoughtful and illuminating book.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While recalling the wildly inflated expectations that greeted President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, conservative scholar Kesler argues that “fundamental political change”—through the building of a permanent Democratic majority and the “effective disappearance of conservatives”—is still the agenda of Obama’s self-aggrandizing and messianic mission. According to Kesler, liberalism is a big-government and antibusiness bogeyman with totalitarian bent and the antithesis to an American conservatism that resists “the European model of social democracy” and “Keynesian magic.” In dissecting liberalism’s misguidedness, Kesler returns to its modern roots, beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism. Obama, he suggests, is in a direct line with a “top down” radical reform agenda—never mind the rhetoric about the grassroots—Obamacare being a particularly glaring instance of “the modern liberal state” in action. But a century of liberalism has bred a philosophical and fiscal crisis that now dooms it to obsolesce or dangerous fascistic transformation. The author’s argument raises important red flags concerning state power generally (although such excesses can hardly be laid exclusively at the feet of liberals), yet loses urgency by being alternately alarmist and dismissive concerning the menace of liberalism. A familiar critique from the right. (Sept.)
Washington Times
“Politically timely and of permanent importance to the study of the American mind. A serious but accessible study of the thinking underpinning the modern liberal project…This is a title - and an author - with a long shelf life and much to teach.”
Wall Street Journal
“Drawing on his wide reading in philosophy and American political thought, Mr. Kesler argues that Mr. Obama has been shaped by the political tradition of Progressivism and that his 2008 triumph has helped, in turn, to reshape it.”
George Will
“Obama has earned what he now receives, the tribute of a serious intellectual exegesis by a distinguished political philosopher.”
Ramesh Ponnuru
“Kesler is the reader for whom Obama has long been asking, in the sense of ‘asking for it’, and this book is the examination of the One we’ve been waiting for.”
Kirkus Reviews
A conservative scholar argues that Barack Obama's presidency represents the hidden decline of liberalism. Avoiding the vitriol of many right-wing critiques, Kesler (Government/Claremont McKenna Coll.) regards Obama as a figure who will transform liberalism terminally, by calling most of its assumptions into question. Much of his critique seems semantic in nature: referring to "the famous monosyllables, hope and change," he acidly asserts, "judging by his record as president they are likely to remain his most renowned utterances." However, much of the narrative looks away from the current political landscape and at the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson ("a genuine democrat who kept his leadership theory firmly grounded in Progressive democracy"), Franklin Roosevelt ("Never one to let an emergency go to waste"), and Lyndon Johnson ("The Great Society…ended with a bang, followed by the long whimper of white liberal guilt"). Kesler peruses their historical narratives and political philosophies for some clue as to how these ambitious individuals' idealism could lead to his nightmare vision of Obama as steward of a vast, grasping and nonfunctioning government. Regarding Obama himself, the author attempts nuance in his harsh assessment. "As Obama's grappling shows," he writes, "intelligent and morally sensitive liberals may try to suppress or internalize the problem of relativism but it cannot be ignored or forgotten." Kesler adeptly wields secondary sources as well as Obama's own books and speeches (and those of the earlier presidents), but his own key assertions can be less comprehensible: "Avant-garde liberalism used to be about progress; now it's about nothingness." The author is undoubtedly erudite, but he seems to subscribe, cynically, to the post-1960s conservative view of progressive accomplishments as merely a sort of incomprehensible outgrowth of white guilt and to see no value in the presence of the post-1930s social safety net. Will provide argumentative intellectual ammunition for conservative book-buyers dissatisfied with the last four years.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062072962
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/11/2012
  • Pages: 276
  • Sales rank: 1,311,445
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles R. Kesler is the Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books. He is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, and the coeditor, with William F. Buckley, Jr., of Keeping the Tablets: Modern American Conservative Thought.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted January 31, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    "The elementary point about a quasi-Hegelian dialectic like

    "The elementary point about a quasi-Hegelian dialectic like this was that the synthesis, which nullified, incorporated. and transcended
    the thesis and the anti-thesis was something altogether different from either of them" This is an actual sentence from the book. There is some good and useful information here, but you first have to get through way too many sentences like this. In other words another scholar who has trouble communicating in a straight forward fashion.

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