I’m one of those pitiful souls who pays more attention to national politics than can possibly be good for me. I suspect many of you suffer from the same depressing habit.
If I’m correct about that, you’ve probably noticed that President Obama’s 50th birthday hasn’t been very happy. His approval rating is down; the economy refuses to perk up; Republican candidates are elbowing each other in their eagerness to get a crack at him. The talking heads on Fox are gleeful.
What must be especially painful, though, is the beating he’s taking from the liberals within his own party.
His base, to use a term the political cognoscenti like to toss around, feels disappointed — even in some of the more extreme cases, betrayed. Where’s the change we were promised, they ask, at varying decibel levels and with varying degrees of bitterness.
Regular readers know that I’ve been an Obama supporter all along. I voted for him in 2008, and I expect to do so again next year. But I’ve found myself among the frustrated, if not the disillusioned.
As I’ve watched him try, and fail, to win concessions from the right-wingers who’ve taken over the Republican caucuses in House and Senate, I’ve often wondered whether this is the guy I helped elect.
It turns out that the answer is yes.
On one of my frequent forays into the public library, I ran across a book I recommend to anyone who seeks to understand Mr. Obama.
It’s written by a scholar, and it’s not a likely “One Read” nominee. But it provides a deeply researched and persuasively plausible explanation of the qualities that make our president such an appealing figure and such a puzzling politician.
The book is “Reading Obama.” The subtitle is more revealing than most: “Dreams, hopes and the American political tradition.” The author is James T. Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian.
Prof. Kloppenberg has retraced Mr. Obama’s steps as he read his way through Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law School. He has studied not only the two books Mr. Obama has written, but Mr. Obama's work on the Harvard Law Review. He has interviewed instructors and classmates.
The conclusion is that Mr. Obama is a “philosopher president,” our first since Woodrow Wilson. His classically American philosophy is one first articulated in the 19th century by William James and elaborated in the 20th by John Dewey, John Rawls and others.
Mr. Obama, the professor argues, is not the ideologue his enemies of the right fear and his critics of the left demand. He is instead a man of the intellectual middle, a pure-blooded pragmatist.
A philosophical pragmatist follows James and Dewey in rejecting dogma, embracing experiment and believing in the value of continuing conversation.
He believes with Dewey that democracy is best understood as a process rather than as a set of institutions. A pragmatist sees open-minded inquiry and debate as the route to attaining the good society.
So Mr. Obama’s famous speech in which he decried the division of America into “red states” and “blue states,” insisting that we are, or should be, “united states,” was more than an applause winner. It was an expression of his pragmatist creed.
His persistence, which irritates so many on the left, in talking calmly to his most hardwired opponents and seeking points of agreement rather than exploiting differences is not, in this reading, a ploy or evidence of weakness. He is an intellectual standing true to his core beliefs.
As Prof. Kloppenberg points out, and as the headlines remind us daily, a pragmatist’s stance isn’t always comfortable. The ideologue enjoys a certainty denied the pragmatist. Not every experiment succeeds. You can’t have a productive conversation when the other party would rather shout slogans. It takes two to compromise.
Mr. Obama has been described by critics of left and right as being either stubborn or weak, arrogant or indecisive. What he really is, this book demonstrates, is an intellectual who knows both what he believes and why, even when that’s not so clear to the rest of us.
The New York Times had a story the other day about the argument inside the White House over whether Mr. Obama should maintain his current course or be more aggressively partisan. He’s certainly sounding at least a little harsher as he buses through the midlands.
That’s no surprise. We shouldn’t be surprised, either, if he strikes a tougher tone when Congress returns. After all, pragmatism is a constant search for what works. His philosophical forebears, even though they never ran for office, would understand.