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

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

by James T. Kloppenberg

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

Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Barack Obama puzzles observers. In Reading Obama, James T. Kloppenberg reveals the sources of Obama's ideas and explains why his principled aversion to absolutes does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Obama's commitments to deliberation and experimentation derive from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. In a new preface, Kloppenberg explains why Obama has stuck with his commitment to compromise in the first three years of his presidency, despite the criticism it has provoked.

Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama's distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama's views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama's sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama's interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama's commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama's positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America's role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted--although currently unfashionable--convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400842032
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/26/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 290 KB

About the Author

James T. Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and chair of the history department at Harvard University. His books include Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920; The Virtues of Liberalism; and A Companion to American Thought.

Read an Excerpt

Reading Obama

Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
By James T. Kloppenberg

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2011 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14746-8

Chapter One

The Education of Barack Obama

On the night he was elected president of the United States, Barack Obama proclaimed that "our nation's greatest strength" is "the enduring power of our ideals." That claim not only signaled Obama's clear repudiation of the self-conscious tough-guy realism of the preceding eight years, it also suggested a dimension of the new president's sensibility that has not received the attention it deserves. Most observers emphasized the novelty of Obama's campaign, with its reliance on grass-roots contributions and its unprecedented use of electronic communications, and not surprisingly stressed the break from the American past represented by his election and his emphasis on hope and change. Many writers linked Obama with the recurrent American impulse to begin again, the Adamic aspiration that has manifested itself in our culture's obsession with sloughing off the old and celebrating the new.

Irresistible as that reading may be given Obama's age and his race, it is a mistake. As he understands, he is a product of America's past. Obama has demonstrated an exceptionally sophisticated and sustained engagement with the history of American thought and political culture. His approach to politics seems new only to those who lack his acquaintance with the venerable traditions of American democracy: respect for one's opponents and a willingness to compromise with them. His commitment to conciliation derives from his understanding that in a democracy all victories are incomplete. In his words, "no law is ever final, no battle truly finished," because any defeat can be redeemed and any triumph lost in the next vote. Building lasting support for new policies and substantive changes is not the work of months or even years but decades.

Obama's writings show his debts to earlier American traditions and demonstrate that he has a deeper interest in, and a firmer grip on, America's past than has any president of the United States since Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The strands on which Obama has drawn, however, differ from those that have appealed to many Democrats in recent decades. In part for that reason, and even more significantly because his sensibility reflects the profound changes in American intellectual life since the 1960s, Obama's ideas and his approach to American politics have thrown political observers off balance. His books, his speeches, and his political record make clear that he represents a hybrid of old and new, which explains why he puzzles so many contemporaries-supporters and critics alike-who see him through conventional and thus distorting lenses. Placing him in American intellectual history illuminates both the genuinely novel dimensions of his worldview, which have gone largely unnoticed, and the older traditions he seeks to resurrect. Obama's vision of American history and his understanding of its present condition both reflect the profound changes American culture has undergone in recent decades. If we want to understand him, we must understand how he sees the present in light of the past, and also how he envisions the future in light of his own-and his nation's-place within a global community that has undergone dramatic and unprecedented cultural transformations. As Obama put it when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 9, 2009, the rise of transnational institutions such as the United Nations, movements such as the demand for human rights, and the process of globalization have caused people everywhere to "fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities-their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion." Balancing those apparently irresistible dynamics against the persistent appeal of local cultural traditions, finding a way to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable tugs of the universal against the particular, is the central dynamic of the twenty-first-century world. Obama has shown that he understands the sources of that struggle and the reasons why it is so much more difficult to resolve than most commentators on the left and right admit.

A powerful wave of enthusiasm washed over the world in the wake of Obama's election, so there were not many cynics among those listening when Obama spoke in Chicago on election night. In the light of day, however, skeptics might have been tempted to dismiss his observation about "the enduring power of our ideals" as just another piece of charming but empty rhetoric. Which parts of the American populace shared his understanding of "our ideals," including his understanding of the specific ideals he listed: "democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope"? Surely the 48 percent of the electorate who voted for Republican Party candidate John McCain cherished a sense of America's intellectual inheritance quite different from that of Obama and his supporters. Moreover, Obama's choice of words suggested those of a discredited predecessor, the last Democrat elected to the presidency. Soon after Bill Clinton used similar terms in his first inaugural address in 1993, he began wandering down a path of personal and political miscalculation that led in the opposite direction. Instead of resuscitating the weakened tradition of progressive democracy that he invoked, Clinton spent eight years "triangulating," seeking a "third way," and squandering the chance to draw sustenance from-and breathe new life into-American democratic ideals. He left office with his party scrambling to extricate itself from his presidency and his nation even more polarized than it was when he was elected. In short, Clinton's presidency suggested that hearkening back to American ideals can prove to be no more than an empty gesture. Hadn't Americans heard such talk about "ideals" before?

Yes and no. Obama has written two serious books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, the first widely praised for its prose, the second more often dismissed, incorrectly, as a typical piece of campaign fluff. His third book, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise, does fit comfortably within that old and undistinguished tradition of ephemera; it is useful only because it provides the texts of several of Obama's important speeches. But Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope should be acknowledged as the most substantial books written by anyone elected president of the United States since Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed a successful career as a political scientist before ascending to the presidency of Princeton University, then the governorship of New Jersey, and finally the White House. Dreams and Hope, taken together, provide not only a window into Obama's nuanced understanding of American history and culture but also a blueprint for American politics. Yet American journalists, stuck on the treadmill of an ever accelerating news cycle, necessarily attend obsessively to the news-and especially the scandals-of the day, and many political commentators themselves display limited interest in or familiarity with the history of American thought. As a result, Obama's books have received less careful scrutiny than they deserve.

Dreams from My Father is an eloquent and moving memoir that Obama wrote in 1994, after he was elected by his peers as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review (HLR). The title president is somewhat misleading because it suggests executive authority for a position that more nearly resembles that of editor in chief. Coincidentally, I published a long review essay in that journal on the relation between law and intellectual history just a year after Obama's term as editor ended. That experience acquainted me with some of the talented and ambitious kids-and most of them are kids, after all, in their early to mid-twenties-who run the HLR. Like many of those who have written for law reviews or taught students from top-flight law schools, I found their intelligence and self-confidence more striking than the breadth of their experience. Being elected president-or, in other words, principal editor-of the HLR is a notable achievement. Yet serving in that position did not seem to me necessarily the best training for thinking carefully and critically about oneself and expansively about American history. For that reason, the self-conscious and convincing performance of personal modesty in Dreams from My Father, as well as the book's searching and unconventional analysis of the challenges of multiculturalism, took me by surprise. Not only as an account of Obama's own odyssey but also as a provocative meditation on personal identity, the book belongs in the distinguished tradition of American memoirs.

The Audacity of Hope appeared in 2006, after Obama had been involved in electoral politics for a decade. By then the junior United States Senator from Illinois was clearly beginning to entertain aspirations for the presidency. Such ambitions would have seemed far-fetched-or laughable-when he wrote Dreams from My Father. At that stage he had already begun to think about electoral politics, but his imagination seems to have carried him to the mayor's office in Chicago rather than the White House. The Audacity of Hope, much more than Obama's first book, provides his diagnosis of contemporary American problems and offers a roadmap of political possibilities. It also presents along the way a refreshingly serious and cogent account of American political and cultural history. It shows that Obama has wrestled with the central challenges posed by the multiple traditions of American political thought, and it establishes him as one of the few prominent figures in national politics who have made original and important contributions to those traditions in recent decades. These two books, together with his major speeches, demonstrate that when Obama makes references to American history and "our ideals," he knows what he's talking about. Skeptics have wondered whether Obama himself wrote these substantial books. He concedes that friends, associates, and staff members read drafts, suggested changes, and helped him refine his arguments. Every author depends on such help. But since I began investigating Obama's ideas, no one who knows him has expressed any doubt to me that both books are his work.

Locating Obama in American intellectual history presents a number of challenges. In the introduction to Dreams from My Father, Obama explains that he envisioned writing a book about American race relations before he found himself "pulled toward rockier shores." He had been invited to write the book because of his race, yet he found himself drawn toward anxieties, longings, memories, and stories that took him in surprising directions, toward the tangled roots of his own personal identity as well as America's persistent race problem. In the final chapter of his memoir, musing on the cacophonous voices of his African and American families, he likens the persistent questions he posed to members of his extended family to "rocks roiling the water." Obama's voyage into the past plunged him into currents he did not expect and did not know how to navigate. The man who emerged from those journeys earned wisdom that provided little consolation. Neither his mother's family, rooted in the heartland of America and transplanted first to Hawaii and then, when she remarried, to Indonesia, nor his father's, spread across the breadth of Kenya and beyond, offered him even a modest degree of stability, let alone tranquility.

Instead both America and Africa presented endless challenges and puzzles, the "rockier shores" on which his and his relatives' fantasies ran aground. His American and African families, like all families, had constructed dramatic tales of heroism and tragedy, most of which un raveled when Obama examined them carefully. His investigations repeatedly interrupted the flow of his families' narratives, creating eddies and pools where family members' memories mingled with Obama's own hopes. Beneath the surfaces of family sagas lay undertows that upset his equilibrium, complicated his own sense of self, and, even more treacherously, disrupted the personal and cultural narratives that had inspired him as a child.

Obama admits at the outset that Dreams from My Father should be read as a meditation on the central themes of his life rather than a strictly accurate account. He kept journals at some stages of his life, but the record is incomplete. Some characters are composites, some events out of chronological order. Reconstructed conversations only approximate what was said. But if Dreams is best read as a fable or an allegory, as a text hovering in the turbulence between fiction and nonfiction, it nevertheless reveals the depth of Obama's reflections on the problems of self-knowledge and cultural understanding. What he learned from his explorations into his American and African families left him perched between cultures, stranded, uneasy, puzzled.

Obama's explorations of American society and politics likewise proved painful and disorienting. As a student, a community organizer, a civil rights lawyer, a law professor, and finally a legislator, Obama saw his ambitions crash repeatedly against unyielding realities. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama explained why contemporary American culture proves so resistant to the changes that he and other progressives seek. In the process he revealed not only personal resiliency but a sure grip on the numerous and multilayered obstacles confronting anyone attempting to use the levers of law or politics to alter the peculiar amalgam of democratic and antidemocratic elements that constitute American public life. Again and again Obama has found his own ideals of democracy, equal rights, community, and justice-and his strategies of reconciliation, experimentation, and consensus building-bouncing off the hard surfaces of individual self-interest and political partisanship. That experience too left him stranded, uneasy, puzzled.

This book places Barack Obama in two separate contexts in order to illuminate the cultural frameworks within which he came of age, the historical patterns that have shaped his sensibility. Obama's life journey has been not only an American tale, as many commentators have noted, but also a journey lived at a time of deep cultural self-examination and contestation, when thinkers were seeking, finding, and then rejecting foundations of many different kinds. That sense of dislocation comes not just from Obama's own multiple homes and the different traditions he inherited from his parents. It comes also from the nature of his formal and informal education, his cultural formation, the world he has inhabited for the last twenty-five years.

Obama's writings reflect the impact of that multidimensional education. The child of an American mother and an African father who met while studying at the University of Hawaii and married in a small civil ceremony, the details of which he admits are "murky," Obama spent his early childhood in that most exotic island outpost of the United States. Several years after his parents separated, he moved with his mother and her new husband Lolo Soetoro to Soetoro's native Indonesia, where Obama attended school from age six to age ten. "Your mother has a soft heart," he remembers Soetoro telling him. As a boy he needed to learn the toughness that enabled Indonesians to survive life's hard edges, the toughness he would need as a man. "Sometimes you can't worry about hurt," his stepfather advised Obama. "Sometimes you worry only about getting where you have to go."

Obama's mother, softhearted or not, soon realized that her husband's career exacted a price she was unwilling to pay. Even more than their long separations, the unsavory deals Soetoro brokered between the Indonesian government and American businessmen soured her on their life and convinced her that her son-and his new half-sister Maya-should return to the United States for their education. To that end she began tutoring Obama in the early mornings, shaking him out of bed long before dawn to study English and instill in him the values of her midwestern girlhood: honesty, fairness, straight talk, and independent judgment. Puzzled by the contrast between her rock-solid virtues and his stepfather's unvarnished cynicism, Obama reports that he was beginning to take refuge in a wide-ranging skepticism. His mother had enlisted as a "soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism," in Obama's words. Although she had missed the civil rights movement, she remained a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and she tried hard to convince her son that he inherited a special destiny from his African father.


Excerpted from Reading Obama by James T. Kloppenberg Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Chapter 1: The Education of Barack Obama 1
Chapter 2: From Universalism to Particularism 85
Chapter 3: Obama’s American History 151
Conclusion: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition 249
Essay on Sources 267
Acknowledgments 287
Index 293

What People are Saying About This


Reading Obama strikingly illuminates the man, enriching our sense of his intellectual formation and commitments and significantly deepening our understanding of his place in history. In the face of the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the moment, this book reminds readers of the enduring force of an alternative tradition in the American past, and sketches that tradition with care and persuasion.
Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University

David Hollinger

In this arresting, highly informative book, Kloppenberg shows how Obama was shaped by the intellectual debates of the 1980s and is thus the first president since Woodrow Wilson to deeply absorb and act upon the most sophisticated social theories of his generation.
David Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

Martha Minow

Obama is not just a powerful speaker, but a thinker engaged with the ideas of his country and his age—this argument by historian James Kloppenberg should therefore fascinate anyone interested in American politics or how ideas shape public life. Tracing the influences of Obama's family, educational, and work experiences on his ideas, Reading Obama locates a unique individual in the crosscurrents of American democracy and continuing fights over American ideals.
Martha Minow, Harvard Law School


An intellectual biography of a practicing politician might nowadays seem a contradiction in terms, but James Kloppenberg, one of America's leading intellectual historians, draws penetrating insights from a close examination of the ideas that animate Barack Obama. Reading Obama shows the powerful impact on Obama's politics of his engagement with the late twentieth century revival of philosophical pragmatism and civic republicanism. Obama takes ideas seriously, and Kloppenberg details why that matters for all of us. This is a fine example of contemporary intellectual history.
Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

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