Is Obama a Burkean?

David Brooks may claim Obama as a fellow Burkean but the president's greater debt is to Thomas Paine

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The current issue of the New Republic includes an account of the remarkable political romance between Barack Obama and the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Brooks's admiration for Obama appears to confirm the dictum that how people think is often more important than what they think:

[As] they chewed over the finer points of Edmund Burke, it didn't take long for the two men to click. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging," Brooks recently told me, "but usually when I talk to senators, while they may know a policy area better than me, they generally don't know political philosophy better than me. I got the sense he knew both better than me."

His more ambitious claim that "Obama sees himself as a Burkean" has caused much consternation in conservative circles, but how accurate is it?

Burke is now largely remembered for Reflections on the Revolution in France, his assault on the principles of the French Revolution and the founding text of conservatism. Yet Burke, who was not an English Tory but an Irish Whig, always had a more liberal streak.

He was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and an advanced opponent of the slave trade. He led the long and dignified campaign for the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his crimes and misdemeanours as governor general of Bengal.

Despite this, it is Burke's nemesis, Thomas Paine, to whom Obama's thought owes a greater debt. The president's inauguration speech even quoted (albeit without attribution) Paine's stirring pamphlet The Crisis:

Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

And his declaration that "we must begin again the work of remaking America" bore an unmistakable resemblance to Paine's assertion that "we have it in our power to begin the world over again".

Obama may not have explicitly rehabilitated the man Theodore Roosevelt dismissed as a "filthy little atheist" (in fact, Paine was a deist) but he is consciously reviving the dormant tradition of left republicanism.

Brooks's belief that Obama is a Burkean may be an example of the wish being father to the thought, but as the president struggles to secure health-care reform he could yet come to appreciate the value of evolutionary change.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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