Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reading Obama

Duane Campbell
            The book Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, may well offer some significant insights into the political viewpoints of President Obama.   In addition, it is a prolonged essay concerning how the author sees the political philosophy of pragmatism and a history of how pragmatism has served in the U.S.
            I found the book delightful in a number of ways.  I particularly enjoyed Prof. Kloppenberg’s descriptions of the development of pragmatism as a political philosophy.    The book is as much an essay on pragmatism as it is a description of the Obama philosophy.  That is, the author is promoting intellectual pragmatism as a preferred philosophy and using the Obama experience as device to describe concrete implementation issues of pragmatism and the ascendance of pragmatism as a philosophy.
There are several interesting issues.  Can a scholar describe well the political philosophy of an important leader by reading books by the President and reading the transcripts of his speeches?   Is it far too early to be describing the philosophy of Barack Obama after only two years in office?
The  book describes the detailed and interesting debates on philosophy, pragmatism,  the role of  Dewey,  John Rawles,  Kuhn, and others, critical legal theory, communitarianism,  and the several major intellectual debates that were vigorous while Obama was at Harvard, and some of the debates today.  Kloppenberg does not  the examine a closely related question. An implied thesis of Reading Obama is that the intellectual fervor shaped Barack Obama, and now that he is President, these intellectual debates guide and influence public policy. 
            Certainly Barack Obama, as described by Kloppenberg, is a significant intellectual.  I am not satisfied with the device of describing a viewpoint held by one or another of Obama’s professors at Harvard and then asserting that Barack Obama learned and adopted this particular position., or the summary of a position taken by a professor in the Harvard Law Review while Obama was editor and assuming that Obama adopted this particular nuanced position.   This seems to me over interpretation. 

            Prof. Kloppenberg recognizes this problem.  He says, “ I want to emphasize that I am not trying to establish a necessary connection between philosophical pragmatism and Obama’s politics.”
            We know from Reading Obama that Kloppenberg has great respect for the faculty of the Harvard Law School and the faculty at Occidental College.  He assumes that when a professor teaches an idea the students adopt that idea.   This could, I assume be investigated.  A researcher could look at the distinct ideas taught by some of the leading scholars at Harvard and then look to see if these ideas are clearly taught or professed when Barack Obama was an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago.  The simple assertion of a connection   is insufficient evidence for me.   Having taught at both an elite university and a second tier public state university for over 35 years,  I am less certain that  the intellectual dialogues  at the elite universities determine, shape, describe, or even matter in the daily life of  the great majority of people in the U.S.

            To be more  confident of the source of decisions   I would need to know- for example- what are the philosophies of Barack Obama’s major economic advisors Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, Tim Geithner.  If they have diverse philosophies and diverse financial interests in decisions, how do we know that Obama is being a pragmatist or is he taking advice from experts in a field?  And, I would like to know the philosophies of major allies such as Richard Trumka and major opponents such as Senator Mitch McConnell. 
 Robert Kuttner, in A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama’s Promise, Wall Streets Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, provides detailed evidence of the perspectives and economic vested interests of the major policy advisors in the Obama Administration.   Looking at both the financial vested interests of this group and their organizational ties provides a much better informed position on how the Obama Administration came to support Wall Street both in the bail outs and in preventing real regulatory reform.   Economic self interest and institutional self serving, such as the individual history of Larry Summers, may better explain  the policy decisions than does references to pragmatism and the views of some of Obama’s law professors.

            Of course , as the author argues, we all learn from our predecessors.  After all, this book is about pragmatism which is a philosophy which many have learned from our predecessors  William James and John Dewey, among others.
            Kloppenberg reports on major intellectual issues that were current as Barack Obama was a graduate student, an editor,and then President  of the Harvard Law Review.  The  significant intellectual history of U.S. letters  in a leading law school provided in  the book is valuable in its own right. However, the connection to the intellectual history and Obama’s own philosophical positions is only tenuous and suggestive  not proven.  Further, the connection of these theories to actual behavior as a President is even more indirect.  There may be direct connections, but it would require self reflection or other direct evidence to demonstrate such  connections.
             In current major issues such as the extension of the Bush era tax cuts for millionaires  it is not clear that Obama’s intellectual pragmatism is at work or is the political analysis of the power of his opposition producing these results.  Which, of course, is what pragmatism would instruct, that you need to consider the political terrain and positions of your adversaries.

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