Même dénigré, son bilan est historique. L’Hebdo (magazine suisse, 21.10.10)
Avertissement sans frais pour Obama. Courrier international
Cela signifie que, comme d’autres présidents avant lui, Obama cherchera sans doute à se faire réélire grâce à des réalisations sur la scène étrangère. Il se rendra cette semaine en Asie pour visiter les grandes démocraties de la région – Inde, Indonésie, Japon et Corée du Sud –, qui ont exprimé de l’inquiétude au cours des derniers mois face à l’agressivité montante de la Chine. Ce contexte pourrait permettre au président de réaffirmer le rôle des Etats-Unis comme défenseur des démocraties contre l’autocratie belliqueuse au pouvoir à Pékin. Le Washington Post.
D’Souza, like Kloppenberg, imputes to Obama a coherent philosophy, in D’Souza’s case « anticolonialism. » It is a needlessly elaborate explanation for an unremarkable set of facts. Occam’s razor suggests that Obama is a mere conformist–someone who absorbed every left-wing platitude he encountered in college and never seems to have seriously questioned any of them. Kloppenberg characterizes Obama as a skeptic, not a true believer. We’re not sure he has an active enough mind to be either one. James Taranto
Theorists of deliberative democracy typically denigrate the messy give-and-take among actual flesh-and-blood citizens and dismiss it as the outcome of flawed procedures for conversation. They prefer the conclusions that derive from abstract and sometimes intricate theories. Meanwhile, in the guise of rejecting absolutes, the adherents of philosophical pragmatism absolutize partisan progressive goals and reconceive « moderation » as merely exercising patience and flexibility in the pursuit of progressive ends. To read Mr. Obama accurately and to grasp fully the connection between his ideas and his politics, one must examine not merely the dreams and hopes that inspire deliberative democracy and philosophical pragmatism but also the intellectual vices that these doctrines foster and the illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies that they spawn. A lot of voters this week, intuitively, did grasp the connection. Peter Berkowitz
Barack Obama is not an « other » so much as he is a child of the 1960s. His coming of age paralleled exactly the unfolding of a new « counterculture » American identity. And this new American identity—and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned—is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America. So Mr. Obama is very definitely an American, and he has a broad American constituency. He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in this counterculture American identity.
Many Americans are afraid of this because a mandate as grandiose as redemption justifies a vast expansion of government. A redeemer can’t just tweak and guide a faltering economy; he will need a trillion- dollar stimulus package. He can’t take on health care a step at a time; he must do it all at once, finally mandating that every citizen buy in. Shelby Steele
Le président-philosophe serait-il nu?
La question, à voir le nombre et la qualité de nos obamalatres au chevet d’une présidence américaine en pleine déroute, est en tout cas posée.
Alors qu’apres la raclée électorale que l’on sait, le président philosophe et intellectuel (caché pour ne pas effrayer le bon peuple mais pret a risquer son 2e mandat pour racheter l’Amérique de ses péchés originels) …
Pourrait se voir contraint de quitter la compagnie de la « race rare » des Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln et Wilson ainsi que la longue tradition du pragmatisme philosophique pour le pragmatisme vulgaire a la Clinton …
Retour, avec Shelby Steele et Peter Berkowitz, sur les incroyables ressources actuellement déployées par nos dits obamalatres, notamment la derniere hagiographie en date de l’historien de Harvard James T. Kloppenberg (« Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition), pour tenter de sauver le premier président américain issu de la contreculture des années 60.
Mais aussi sur cet étrange monde inversé ou la critique de l’Amérique tient lieu de vertu …
Et ou, via le rejet des absolus et au nom des fins les plus progressistes, la démocratie délibeéative et le pragmatisme philosophique peuvent produire les plus illibérales et antidémocratiques des tendances …
Barack Obama put the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation rather than leading a great one.
October 28, 2010
Whether or not the Republicans win big next week, it is already clear that the « transformative » aspirations of the Obama presidency—the special promise of this first black president to « change » us into a better society—are much less likely to materialize. There will be enough Republican gains to make the « no » in the « party of no » even more formidable, if not definitive.
But apart from this politics of numbers, there is also now a deepening disenchantment with Barack Obama himself. (He has a meager 37% approval rating by the latest Harris poll.) His embarrassed supporters console themselves that their intentions were good; their vote helped make history. But for Mr. Obama himself there is no road back to the charisma and political capital he enjoyed on his inauguration day.
How is it that Barack Obama could step into the presidency with an air of inevitability and then, in less than two years, find himself unwelcome at the campaign rallies of many of his fellow Democrats?
The first answer is well-known: His policymaking has been grandiose, thoughtless and bullying. His health-care bill was ambitious to the point of destructiveness and, finally, so chaotic that today no citizen knows where they stand in relation to it. His financial-reform bill seems little more than a short-sighted scapegoating of Wall Street. In foreign policy he has failed to articulate a role for America in the world. We don’t know why we do what we do in foreign affairs. George W. Bush at least made a valiant stab at an American rationale—democratization—but with Mr. Obama there is nothing.
All this would be enough to explain the disillusionment with this president—and with the Democratic Party that he leads. But there is also a deeper disjunction. There is an « otherness » about Mr. Obama, the sense that he is somehow not truly American. « Birthers » doubt that he was born on American soil. Others believe that he is secretly a Muslim, or in quiet simpatico with his old friends, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, now icons of American radicalism.
But Barack Obama is not an « other » so much as he is a child of the 1960s. His coming of age paralleled exactly the unfolding of a new « counterculture » American identity. And this new American identity—and the post-1960s liberalism it spawned—is grounded in a remarkable irony: bad faith in America as virtue itself, bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America. So Mr. Obama is very definitely an American, and he has a broad American constituency. He is simply the first president we have seen grounded in this counterculture American identity. When he bows to foreign leaders, he is not displaying « otherness » but the counterculture Americanism of honorable self-effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement.
Bad faith in America became virtuous in the ’60s when America finally acknowledged so many of its flagrant hypocrisies: the segregation of blacks, the suppression of women, the exploitation of other minorities, the « imperialism » of the Vietnam War, the indifference to the environment, the hypocrisy of puritanical sexual mores and so on. The compounding of all these hypocrisies added up to the crowning idea of the ’60s: that America was characterologically evil. Thus the only way back to decency and moral authority was through bad faith in America and its institutions, through the presumption that evil was America’s natural default position.
Among today’s liberal elite, bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness. More importantly, it is the perfect formula for political and governmental power. It rationalizes power in the name of intervening against evil—I will use the government to intervene against the evil tendencies of American life (economic inequality, structural racism and sexism, corporate greed, neglect of the environment and so on), so I need your vote.
« Hope and Change » positioned Mr. Obama as a conduit between an old America worn down by its evil inclinations and a new America redeemed of those inclinations. There was no vision of the future in « Hope and Change. » It is an expression of bad faith in America, but its great ingenuity was to turn that bad faith into political motivation, into votes.
But there is a limit to bad faith as power, and Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party may have now reached that limit. The great weakness of bad faith is that it disallows American exceptionalism as a rationale for power. It puts Mr. Obama and the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation, rather than leading a great nation. They bet on America’s characterological evil and not on her sense of fairness, generosity or ingenuity.
When bad faith is your framework (Michelle Obama never being proud of her country until it supported her husband), then you become more a national scold than a real leader. You lead out of a feeling that your opposition is really only the latest incarnation of that old characterological evil that you always knew was there. Thus the tea party—despite all the evidence to the contrary—is seen as racist and bigoted.
But isn’t the tea party, on some level, a reaction to a president who seems not to fully trust the fundamental decency of the American people? Doesn’t the tea party fill a void left open by Mr. Obama’s ethos of bad faith? Aren’t tea partiers, and their many fellow travelers, simply saying that American exceptionalism isn’t racism? And if the mainstream media see tea partiers as bumpkins and racists, isn’t this just more bad faith—characterizing people as ignorant or evil so as to dismiss them?
Our great presidents have been stewards, men who broadly identified with the whole of America. Stewardship meant responsibility even for those segments of America where one might be reviled. Surely Mr. Obama would claim such stewardship. But he has functioned more as a redeemer than a steward, a leader who sees a badness in us from which we must be redeemed. Many Americans are afraid of this because a mandate as grandiose as redemption justifies a vast expansion of government. A redeemer can’t just tweak and guide a faltering economy; he will need a trillion- dollar stimulus package. He can’t take on health care a step at a time; he must do it all at once, finally mandating that every citizen buy in.
Next week’s election is, among other things, a referendum on the idea of president-as- redeemer. We have a president so determined to transform and redeem us from what we are that, by his own words, he is willing to risk being a one-term president. People now wonder if Barack Obama can pivot back to the center like Bill Clinton did after his set-back in ’94. But Mr. Clinton was already a steward, a policy wonk, a man of the center. Mr. Obama has to change archetypes.
Mr. Steele is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
The president as intellectual and political philosopher.
November 5, 2010
In mid-October, by which time it had become evident that the November midterm elections would deliver a rebuke of historic proportions, President Barack Obama stated in a New York Times Magazine interview that his mistake had been to neglect « marketing and P.R. and public opinion. » His problem, in other words, was a failure to communicate.
This claim is difficult to reconcile with the extraordinary rise in 2009 of an energized grass-roots movement combining disaffected Republicans, libertarians and independents. They seemed to grasp the president’s goal: to enact a sweeping progressive agenda. In the best traditions of democracy in America—and by means of town-hall meetings, tea-party rallies and the marvels of social networking—people organized to elect representatives and block the transformative ambitions with which they disagreed.
The president’s self-assessment is also difficult to reconcile with James Kloppenberg’s thesis in « Reading Obama. » Mr. Kloppenberg argues that, thanks to the ideas to which Obama was exposed and the moral and intellectual virtues he cultivated during his journey through the American academy—he was a student at Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law School and a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School—he became an exemplar, in word and deed, of moderation, balance and accommodation.
Mr. Kloppenberg is certainly right to call attention to the effect on Mr. Obama’s sensibility of « the developments in American academic culture since the 1960’s. » And he convincingly shows that Mr. Obama’s two books, shorter writings and speeches contain thoughtful and sometimes eloquent variations on « a surprising number of the central themes in the American political tradition, particularly as it has come to be understood in the last half century. »
But « Reading Obama » does not explain Mr. Obama’s failure, in his first 22 months in office, to find common ground with conservatives and independents; his refusal to slow down and win over a majority before proceeding with large-scale reforms; and his readiness, as president, to vilify those who disagree with his policies and purposes.
According to Mr. Kloppenberg, Mr. Obama’s uncommon experience—being the son of a white American woman and black African man, living abroad in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband, spending his teenage years in Hawaii in his white grandparents’ home—nurtured a gift for seeing the world from a multiplicity of perspectives and for feeling empathy for a diversity of people. So, contends Mr. Kloppenberg, Mr. Obama was well prepared to absorb the best of what was being taught in philosophy, political theory and law at American universities in the 1980s and 1990s—above all, deliberative democracy and philosophical pragmatism.
Deliberative democracy has its roots in the writings of the philosopher John Rawls and in the recovery of the civic-republican tradition in America by, among others, the historian Gordon Wood. It emphasizes the benefits that come from citizens discussing opinions about politics and crafting compromises to achieve the common good. Philosophical pragmatism, for its part, was elaborated by William James and John Dewey. It was revived in the period in which Mr. Obama came of intellectual age, most notably by the philosopher Richard Rorty. It rejects absolutes and instead, as Mr. Kloppenberg writes, « embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation. » Both deliberative democracy and philosophical pragmatism celebrate open-ended conversation as the animating principle of constitutional democracy.
Mr. Obama, Mr. Kloppenberg explains, brings a « supple understanding, » « tenacious hope » and the » ‘Christian virtue’ of humility » to bear on these ideas. The results, in the author’s estimation, are nothing short of spectacular. To the extent possible, Mr. Obama reconciles the claims of the individual and community, of personal freedom and majority rule, of rights and responsibilities. All the while Mr. Obama recognizes that progress is provisional and fragile and appreciates the imperfections of man, the limitations of reason and the tragic necessity, at times, to use force to advance the cause of liberty and equality.
In short, Mr. Kloppenberg’s brief intellectual biography of Mr. Obama provides an excellent portrait of the shining self-image of the progressive intellectual. But it proves a poor guide to understanding the connection between Mr. Obama’s ideas and his conduct in the White House, because Mr. Kloppenberg fails to take into account the dark side of deliberate democracy and the perversity of pragmatism.
Theorists of deliberative democracy typically denigrate the messy give-and-take among actual flesh-and-blood citizens and dismiss it as the outcome of flawed procedures for conversation. They prefer the conclusions that derive from abstract and sometimes intricate theories. Meanwhile, in the guise of rejecting absolutes, the adherents of philosophical pragmatism absolutize partisan progressive goals and reconceive « moderation » as merely exercising patience and flexibility in the pursuit of progressive ends.
To read Mr. Obama accurately and to grasp fully the connection between his ideas and his politics, one must examine not merely the dreams and hopes that inspire deliberative democracy and philosophical pragmatism but also the intellectual vices that these doctrines foster and the illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies that they spawn. A lot of voters this week, intuitively, did grasp the connection.
Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
James T. Kloppenberg
(Princeton, 302 pages, $24.95)
Meet James Kloppenberg, the left’s Dinesh D’Souza.
Hest of the web
October 28, 2010
Barack Obama is a pragmatist, James Kloppenberg tells the New York Times. No, he doesn’t mean Obama is practical-minded; no one thinks that anymore. In fact, Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, disparages the « vulgar pragmatism » of Bill Clinton while praising Obama’s « philosophical pragmatism »:
It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.
Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. « It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers, » Mr. Kloppenberg said.
Kloppenberg has a new book coming out, « Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition. » According to the Times, Kloppenberg « sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, » a « true intellectual. » Such philosophers are a « rare breed »: the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson and now Obama.
« Imagine the Republicans driving the economy into a ditch, » the philosopher president said the other day. « And it’s a deep ditch. It’s a big ditch. And somehow they walked away from the accident, and we put on our boots and we rappelled down into the ditch–me and Jack and Sheldon and Jim and Patrick. We’ve been pushing, pushing, trying to get that car out of the ditch. And meanwhile, the Republicans are standing there, sipping on a Slurpee. » John Dewey had nothing on this guy!
If the president does not seem to be the intellectual heavyweight Kloppenberg makes him out to be, the Harvard historian has an explanation: Obama is a sort of secret-agent philosopher. « He would have had to deny every word, » Kloppenberg tells the Times, which helpfully explains that « intellectual » is « a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites. »
When Sarah Palin called Obama a « professor, » some professors accused her of racism. What she really meant, they claimed, was « uppity. » Kloppenberg’s similar characterization, however, draws a quite different response:
Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. « The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours, » said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.
One assumes that Andrew Hartman is a serious scholar, although one doesn’t know for sure because one has never heard of him. Barack Obama, by contrast, is a scholarly dilettante, a professional politician who has moonlighted as a university instructor.
Yet Hartman’s remark about Obama’s « academic background » is revealing. Professors imagine Obama is one of them because he shares their attitudes: their politically correct opinions, their condescending view of ordinary Americans, their belief in their own authority as an intellectual elite. He is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia. In his importance, they see a reflection of their self-importance.
Kloppenberg’s thesis reminds us of another elaborate attempt at explaining Obama: Dinesh D’Souza’s « The Roots of Obama’s Rage. » D’Souza, like Kloppenberg, imputes to Obama a coherent philosophy, in D’Souza’s case « anticolonialism. » It is a needlessly elaborate explanation for an unremarkable set of facts.
Occam’s razor suggests that Obama is a mere conformist–someone who absorbed every left-wing platitude he encountered in college and never seems to have seriously questioned any of them. Kloppenberg characterizes Obama as a skeptic, not a true believer. We’re not sure he has an active enough mind to be either one.
Keep Hope Alive
« The very bad day Democrats are expecting next Tuesday might not be as terrible as feared, according to some analysts not known for wishful thinking, » writes Errol Louis, a liberal columnist for New York’s Daily News. That « not known for wishful thinking » is a nice touch, a protestation that conveys its opposite.
Here’s Louis, wishing:
Another big story that hasn’t drawn much notice is the role black voters will play. « There are more than a dozen Senate races and more than a dozen governor’s races where the black vote could make a difference, » says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
« If they turn out in large numbers, I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people, » Bositis says. « I think the Democrats could conceivably hold on to the House. » . . .
Another potential shot in the arm for Dems could come from Latino voters turned off by the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric championed by many Republican candidates.
« I think that the Latino vote is going to be the October surprise, » says Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino, a nonprofit advocacy organization
Some mischievous Republican must have misinformed Maria Teresa Kumar as to which month the election is in. The trouble, of course, is that Democrats are almost always able to count on large margins among Hispanics and near-Soviet-size ones among blacks. Turnout among these ethnic blocs can make a difference in a close election, but it cannot provide enough of a margin to avert a landslide. A New York Times news story makes clear why people are expecting a blowout for the Democrats:
Critical parts of the coalition that delivered President Obama to the White House in 2008 and gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 are switching their allegiance to the Republicans in the final phase of the midterm Congressional elections, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Republicans have wiped out the advantage held by Democrats in recent election cycles among women, Roman Catholics, less affluent Americans and independents. All of those groups broke for Mr. Obama in 2008 and for Congressional Democrats when they grabbed both chambers from the Republicans four years ago, according to exit polls.
Strong black and Latino support is a necessary condition for a Democratic victory nationwide and in most states and districts. Outside of a few cities and urban districts, it is far from a sufficient one.
Two Papers in One!
* « The incident was one of two stompings reported to Lexington police outside the debate, where scores of supporters of both candidates had gathered in the parking lot for a rally. [Rand] Paul supporter Marsha Foster, 49, reported that earlier in the night a person had intentionally stomped on her broken foot, causing « minor visible injuries, » according to a police report. »–news story, Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, Oct. 27
* « The Paul campaign condemned the attack, disassociated itself from the volunteer who stomped the woman’s head and called on activists ‘on both sides’ to avoid ‘physical altercations of any kind.’ The problem with the Paul statement is that only one side, his side, resorted to violence. »–editorial, Lexington Herald-Leader, Oct. 27
Blogger Jim Hoft has a clip of President Obama yesterday, answering a question from a radio talk-show host:
Host: Mr. President, why is no one who supported the health-care bill running on it?
Obama: Well, I think that you’ve seen a couple of hundred million dollars worth of negative TV ads that make it very difficult to do so. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, there was a [sic] awful lot of misinformation about this health-care bill while we were debating it, and that has continued after we’ve finished debating it.
He’s the World’s Greatest Orator, and he’s got the truth on his side, yet no one will listen because all these other people are spreading misinformation and negativity! No wonder he doesn’t like the First Amendment.
Paying for Granny’s Tuition
From the New York Times:
As their state financing dwindled, four-year public universities increased their published tuition and fees almost 8 percent this year, to an average of $7,605, according to the College Board’s annual reports. When room and board are included, the average in-state student at a public university now pays $16,140 a year.
At private nonprofit colleges and universities, tuition rose 4.5 percent to an average of $27,293, or $36,993 with room and board.
The good news in the 2010 « Trends in College Pricing » and « Trends in Student Aid » reports is that fast-rising tuition costs have been accompanied by a huge increase in financial aid, which helped keep down the actual amount students and families pay.
« In 2009-2010, students got $28 billion in Pell grants, and that’s $10 billion more than the year before, » said Sandy Baum, the economist who is the lead author of the reports. « When you look at how much students are actually paying, on average, it is lower, after adjusting for inflation, than five years earlier. »
So the « good news » is that « students and families » don’t have to pay all that extra tuition. That nice Mr. Pell will do it!
Actually, that’s not quite how it works. Mr. Pell–you can call him Claiborne–is no longer with us, having died last year. A senator from Rhode Island from 1961 through 1997, he doesn’t actually pay for Pell grants. All he had to do to get his name on them is sponsor the legislation establishing them.
Who pays then? Why, students and families, along with other taxpayers. And since the country is deep in debt, their grandchildren will pay too. Let’s hope they can afford it!
October 27, 2010
When the Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg decided to write about the influences that shaped President Obama’s view of the world, 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 (“a superb cure for insomnia,” Mr. Kloppenberg said). What he did not do was speak to President Obama.
“He would have had to deny every word,” Mr. Kloppenberg said with a smile. The reason, he explained, is his conclusion that President Obama is a true intellectual — a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.
In New York City last week to give a standing-room-only lecture about his forthcoming intellectual biography, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition,” Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.
“There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson,” he said.
To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.
Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.
Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.
Mr. Kloppenberg’s interest in the education of Barack Obama began from a distance. He spent 2008, the election year, at the University of Cambridge in England and found himself in lecture halls and at dinner tables trying to explain who this man was.
Race, temperament and family history are all crucial to understanding the White House’s current occupant, but Mr. Kloppenberg said he chose to focus on one slice of the president’s makeup: his ideas.
In the professor’s analysis the president’s worldview is the product of the country’s long history of extending democracy to disenfranchised groups, as well as the specific ideological upheavals that struck campuses in the 1980s and 1990s. He mentions, for example, that Mr. Obama was at Harvard during “the greatest intellectual ferment in law schools in the 20th century,” when competing theories about race, feminism, realism and constitutional original intent were all battling for ground.
Mr. Obama was ultimately drawn to a cluster of ideas known as civic republicanism or deliberative democracy, Mr. Kloppenberg argues in the book, which Princeton University Press will publish on Sunday. In this view the founding fathers cared as much about continuing a discussion over how to advance the common good as they did about ensuring freedom.
Taking his cue from Madison, Mr. Obama writes in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope” that the constitutional framework is “designed to force us into a conversation,” that it offers “a way by which we argue about our future.” This notion of a living document is directly at odds with the conception of Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court, who has spoken of “the good, old dead Constitution.”
Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.
Despite the detailed examination, Mr. Kloppenberg concedes that President Obama remains something of a mystery.
“To critics on the left he seems a tragic failure, a man with so much potential who has not fulfilled the promise of change that partisans predicted for his presidency,” he said. “To the right he is a frightening success, a man who has transformed the federal government and ruined the economy.”
He finds both assessments flawed. Conservatives who argue that Mr. Obama is a socialist or an anti-colonialist (as Dinesh D’Souza does in his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage”) are far off the mark, he said.
“Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by,” he told the audience in New York. “He has a profound love of America.”
And his opposition to inequality stems from Puritan preachers and the social gospel rather than socialism.
As for liberal critics, Mr. Kloppenberg took pains to differentiate the president’s philosophical pragmatism, which assumes that change emerges over decades, from the kind of “vulgar pragmatism” practiced by politicians looking only for expedient compromise. (He gave former President Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” as an example.)
Not all of the disappointed liberals who attended the lecture in New York were convinced that that distinction can be made so easily. T. J. Jackson Lears, a historian at Rutgers University, wrote in an e-mail that by “showing that Obama comes out of a tradition of philosophical pragmatism, he actually provided a basis for criticizing Obama’s slide into vulgar pragmatism.”
And despite Mr. Kloppenberg’s focus on the president’s intellectual evolution, most listeners wanted to talk about his political record.
“There seemed to be skepticism regarding whether Obama’s intellectual background actually translated into policies that the mostly left-leaning audience could get behind,” Mr. Hartman said. “Several audience members, myself included, probably view Obama the president as a centrist like Clinton rather than a progressive intellectual as painted by Kloppenberg.”