Overthinking Obama

Forget Kenya. The president’s secret political philosophy is apparently rooted in seventeenth-century Rotterdam.

Few presidents since the founding generation and Lincoln have been treated as significant political thinkers in their own right. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are all considered to have been representatives of powerful ideologies at their moments of ascent, but we know they were not the authors of those ideas. Bill Clinton may have been the smartest political strategist since FDR to occupy the White House, but I know of no books on the political theory of Bill Clinton—which would, in any event, be an elusive subject. The exception is probably Woodrow Wilson, who would be regarded as a significant figure in the development of political science even if he had never run for office.

May13-OBrien-Books
Out of Many, One:
Obama and the Third
American Political Tradition

by Ruth O’Brien
University of Chicago Press, 432 pp.

But there’s something about Barack Obama that makes people want to interpret him not just as a product of his time and political circumstances but also as a powerful theorist creating a politics of his own. This is common on the right, of course, where Newt Gingrich once asked, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich was reflecting the work of Dinesh D’Souza, whose book (Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream) and movie (2016) depict Obama as an acolyte of quasi-Marxist postcolonial theory. Numerous books have looked at Obama’s theory of race, and in Reading Obama, the intellectual historian James T. Kloppenberg contributed an elegant account of the ideas that were in the air in Obama’s schooling and in Chicago, and of their debt to American pragmatism.

Ruth O’Brien, a political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, makes a more expansive claim: Obama marks a third American political tradition, one that falls outside both the “Lockean” tradition of unfettered liberties that Louis Hartz celebrated in The Liberal Tradition in America in 1954 and also the civic-republican thread that more recent thinkers, among them E. J. Dionne and Michael Lind, have seen in the line running from Alexander Hamilton through the Progressives and FDR. (Essentially, this the tradition of an active government with a strong role in the economy.) Obama’s third way, according to O’Brien, is not the hyper-cautious centrism associated with the Washington lobbying group that bears the same name, but rather a commitment to democracy as process, to deliberation, to a kind of unity in diversity in which people are bound not by their identities but by participation in a continuous discourse.

O’Brien refers to this tradition as “Spinozan,” or, worse, “Deleuzo-Spinozan,” referring to the recent French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze revived academic interest in the seventeenth-century political thought of Baruch Spinoza, which bears rudimentary hints of the idea of democracy as a kind of never-ending deliberation—long before anything like modern democracy could be observed anywhere in Europe. On these shores, her Deleuzo-Spinozan line is represented by John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Hannah Arendt, and the community organizer Saul Alinsky.

You’ll learn from Out of Many, One that O’Brien is brilliant and erudite, but you won’t learn much about Spinoza, Deleuze, or Arendt. O’Brien strings these and more obscure names together, as if names alone had meaning enough, in a style reminiscent of the philosopher Richard Rorty—a kind of writing that should bear a “Don’t try this at home” warning. In a typical sentence—“Drawing on Deleuzian and Spinozan ethics, Arendt’s Vita Activa, DuBois’s deconstruction of racial mechanization, and Dewey’s insistence on a plurality of perspectives, Obama asks American citizens to go beyond bipartisan discussion”—the names are just decoration for a banal observation. Dozens of sentences begin with phrases like “Obama believes” or “Obama knows” but are followed not by any evidence about Obama but rather a paraphrase of Deleuze, Arendt, or some other author of whom the president may or may not have ever heard. While more congenial than D’Souza’s interpretation, and probably closer to the truth, O’Brien’s Obama is no less a fictional character.

O’Brien is also a poor guide to the substance of Obama’s presidency. She praises Obama for supporting Elizabeth Warren’s ambition to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by appointing Warren’s deputy, Richard Cordray; a few pages later she lauds his diverse appointments to the federal bench. I’m as forgiving of the Obama administration as anyone who was never on its payroll, but even I can’t pretend that Obama supported Warren when he didn’t, or that his appointments to the federal judiciary are any kind of success—he hasn’t made enough of them, and he hasn’t fought to get his nominees confirmed. There are plenty of excuses, and no president executes well on everything, but by no definition can these be considered successes.

The deeper flaw here is the single-minded focus on Obama himself to the exclusion of the context, institutions, and other forces that shape the presidency. It’s a blind spot shared by the Obama haters like D’Souza (and the Republicans who were confident of a Mitt Romney presidency because everyone they know hates Obama), by the long-standing liberal skeptics such as Paul Krugman, and by liberals who cycled from enthusiasm to (predictable) disappointment.

O’Brien is right that Obama represents an American political tradition, though there’s no need to go back to seventeenth-century Rotterdam to find it. The focus on democratic process, reform, and an ideal of deliberative democracy has been shared by many of the less successful Democratic candidates (and a few Republicans, like Representative John Anderson in 1980) since the 1950s. It’s the tradition of what historian Sean Wilentz called the “beautiful losers,” beginning with Adlai Stevenson, and journalist Ron Brownstein called “wine track” candidates (people who talk about “new politics”) as opposed to the more electable “beer track” candidates like Bill Clinton (who focus more on basic economics than on the nature of politics). Obama’s passion has always seemed to be more for a richer and more collaborative form of politics than for any particular vision of economic justice.

Obama’s presidency has been the first real test of a politics focused on reform and democratic participation rather than traditional bipartisan bargaining—and it has failed. Over the last four years, American politics split sharply into the two primary traditions: the first a sort of hyper-Lockeanism represented not just by the Tea Party but even by Mitt Romney’s division of the country into “makers and takers,” the second a demand—driven by circumstances and crisis—for a much more active, expansive government role in the economy. Economic issues, once a natural zone of compromise, began to seem more like social issues, matters of irreconcilable absolutes. There wasn’t much room in the middle, and for a period, Obama’s discursive strategy seemed wholly irrelevant. Obama was pulled between trying to cut a “grand bargain” with an intransigent right and taking a fierce stance in favor of economic stimulus, job creation, and a publicly backed guarantee of health insurance. He did neither one well, although he somehow still survived to reelection.

Perhaps the whole approach was a mistake from the start, and Obama should have adopted an aggressive, ambitious posture to counter his opponents—or Hillary Clinton should have been president. Alternatively, one could argue that Obama didn’t invest enough energy in reform, process, and deliberative democracy. Imagine, for example, if instead of letting Congress figure out health reform, and instead of driving the policy from the White House (as many liberals contend he should have done), the administration had organized hundreds of mass community discussions, using the technology perfected in deliberations on topics such as the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, to involve tens of thousands of citizens in the questions of how (and even whether) to ensure universal access to health care and lower societal costs. It might not have worked, but it might have provided an alternative outlet to the raw anger of the Tea Party and the violent town hall congressional meetings of the summer of 2009. Nor did the administration live up to the promise to fundamentally change the power relationship among campaign donors, lobbyists, and government—but should we really be surprised that the most successful fund-raiser in modern political history would not ultimately be willing to shake things up?

Another possibility is that a crisis is simply the wrong moment for new politics. In a way, it’s miraculous that Obama was able to build the foundations for some very different approaches to governance, such as the Race to the Top education program, within the panicked, hateful environment of the economic crisis. Reading, for example, the recent report from the Republican National Committee on its party’s woes, one can see the effort to find a way out of the apocalyptic, all-or-nothing politics of 2009-2012, a politics that is unsustainable and out of equilibrium. As the political system slowly returns to balance, this might be the moment for a fresh politics, a new relationship between citizens and government, and a chance for Obama’s mode of politics—which, after all, reflects a deep American tradition—to show its strengths.


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Mark Schmitt

Mark Schmitt, a frequent contributor to these pages, is director of the program on political reform at New America and a columnist for the New Republic.