Show Hide image

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition

Barack Obama has aroused a wider range of emotions than any other figure in the recent history of the United States of America. At first, he was hailed as a saviour. Now, conser­vatives vilify him as a socialist and an undercover Muslim, while the left dismisses him as a lily-livered technocrat, stuck in a Washington bubble and unable to reach out to those who elected him.

Readers of James T Kloppenberg's book will be surprised, therefore, when they realise that the Harvard historian portrays Obama as a great healer of social divisions. The Obama of Kloppenberg's imagination is a "pragmatist". He is dedicated to overcoming the tensions in American life. He believes that the president should not fight for what he believes in as an individual, but should help the American people to discover shared ground instead. Kloppenberg's Obama is a reconciler. He brings people together by encouraging them to abandon orthodoxies and experiment with new solutions, to leave behind social animosities in pursuit of civic friendships.

Much of Kloppenberg's interpretation resonates with Obama's self-image. Ever since winning the presidency, he has pursued a policy of moderation. He has sought out bipartisan consensus in Washington, DC. He has appointed Republicans to his cabinet, dropped the most controversial aspects of signature legislative initiatives, restrained his macro­economic stimulus, and, most recently of all, permitted the Republicans in Congress to maintain the grotesque Bush-era tax cuts for America's most wealthy. Similarly, he has sought to clear a middle path in defence, increasing the US presence in Afghanistan while withdrawing from Iraq, and in cultural affairs, pressing the Republicans on gay personnel in the military, for example, while holding back on gay rights to marriage.

To Kloppenberg, these efforts are not the product of political cowardice. Rather, they are the consequence of a political philosophy with deep roots. The great thinkers of American politics, the author argues, have always understood that a nation as vast and diverse as the United States requires a politics of reconciliation, not one of excessive certainty. America, according to this reading, flourishes when it is open to novelty and to consensus, and fails when it falls foul of doctrinaire ideology and closed-mindedness.

It should come as no surprise that Tony Blair offers exactly the same reading of Obama in A Journey. Both Kloppenberg and Blair insist that those who criticise him are so locked in their own visions of what is "right" and "wrong" that they fail to notice that they live in a deeply divided society where it is impossible to govern well other than by seeking consensus. Those who call for Obama to push for vast, Keynesian-style economic policies are, according to this account, blighted in exactly the same way as those who denounce health insurance regulation as socialism. They know what they want, but fail to recognise that they live among others who disagree deeply.

In stressing this pragmatism, Kloppenberg shows Obama as he really is. Yet this does not mean that Kloppenberg has all the answers.

Far from it. After all, America is more, not less, socially divided now than it was when Obama came to power. Rather than developing a civic "willingness to deliberate, and a commitment to compromise in order to reach provisional agreement", US politics has experienced the phenomenal growth of the Tea Party: a political movement that believes that any deviation from the certainties of the Founding Fathers is heretical. Whatever his aspirations, Obama has not been the greater healer.

Kloppenberg has no easy explanation for this failure. If the president has made the effort to find a shared ground, why haven't other Americans followed suit? Could it be that they are just too intolerant, inflexible, or even just plain stupid to realise what their president is trying to do for them? Kloppenberg's answer to this question seems to be "yes". The great reconciler has been let down by those he is trying to bring together.

But there is another explanation lurking in the pages of Kloppenberg's book. Early in Obama's career, he worked as a community organiser in Chicago. The author's account of him in these years is profoundly revealing. He presents the young Obama as deeply troubled by the willingness of his fellow organisers to pick a fight with those in power, rather than find new ways of working together. His response? In Kloppenberg's phrase, "Obama decided that a law degree would make him a more effective advocate for residents of Chicago's poorest neighbourhoods" than a career in community organising.

Everything that is wrong with Kloppenberg's Obama emerges from this discussion. The belief that politics in a society as vastly unequal as the US could ever do without its battles and brutality displays not only a shocking naivety, but also an unwillingness to acknowledge the real circumstances of American political life. Most of Obama's fellow organisers knew that confrontation was a vital first step to a true politics of reconciliation. A consensus requires partners who can look each other in the eye. Pragmatism that does not acknowledge the necessity of struggle finds a common good for the powerful alone. Second, the notion that escape to the comforts of an elite institution can ever fully be justified in the name of a political cause displays a breathtaking talent for self-deception. The comforts of university and great office are understandably very tempting, but we should never fool ourselves that this is where progress in politics begins.

Obama is undeniably right to insist that what America needs is a new ethic of reconciliation. He is also right to warn us of the dangers of excessive certainty. But he is wrong if he believes that the common good is forged in the seminar room or between the parties on Capitol Hill. The common good emerges when power is called to account by people coming together in the communities that they love.

Obama's colleagues in Chicago knew that. Many of those who rallied to Obama in 2008 knew it, too. Their hope was that the new president would help engender this kind of politics. They are still waiting.

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition
James T Kloppenberg
Princeton University Press, 296pp, £16.95

Marc Stears teaches political theory at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is "Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics" (Princeton University Press, £20.95)

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze