Reading Obama’s Mind: Pragmatism and Its Perils

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kloppenberg (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

If there is a problem with Barack Obama’s thinking, his “intellectual biographer” James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama’s mid-term “humbling,” it’s not what he thinks, deep in the Democratic mainstream. Neither is Obama over-thinking his confoundingly broad assignment. Rather it may be the way he thinks, never so meticulously delineated as in Prof. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition.

The teachers that critically shaped Barack Obama’s habits of mind — especially in the cauldron of social theory 20 years ago when Obama was editing the Harvard Law Review — come typically out of philosophical Pragmatism, the tradition of the American master mind, Williams James (1842 – 1910). Of James it’s been said that his first impulse on spotting an unlabeled fluid in a chem-lab beaker was to taste it — and see what happened! Pragmatism at this level is not deal-making opportunism. It is James’ spirit of experimentalism and his insistence on judging ideas, good and bad, by their results — by fruits, not roots. It is the spirit that William James’ friend in the Metaphysical Club, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brought to the immortal line: “The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience.”

The leading figures in James Kloppenberg’s catalog of Obama’s mentors all share in that heritage of Pragmatism: notably his devoted law professor Laurence Tribe who preaches the Constitution not as fixed revelation but as an organic document — “a conversation,” as Barack Obama used to say in law school. The real source of that view, Kloppenberg observes, was James Madison who came out of the Constitutional Convention saying, in effect: nobody got the Constitution he wanted; what happened was that we all learned to think differently as a result of the process of having to confront each others’ ideas. “I think,” Kloppenberg says, “that is how Barack Obama sees the democratic process.” John Rawls was another huge influence in the near background of Obama’s Harvard education — as Rawls’ masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, evolved into an understanding that a pluralist democracy is built not on unchanging principles but on “an overlapping consensus” around conflicting doctrines. In a different dimension but not far removed, Obama’s Chicago pastor, now eclipsed, Rev. Jeremiah Wright showed Obama a non-dogmatic Christianity: a transcendent God and a zeal for this-worldly activism, but not a direct answer to every political question.

Dominant threads in the skein of Obama’s thinking, in the Kloppenberg reading, are experimentalism, the rejection of dogma and ideology, Christian humility ahead of Christian militancy, skepticism and the embrace of philosophical uncertainty. It seems fair to ask if Jim Kloppenberg is describing the ideal attributes of a judicial mind but not of a political captain in howling storm. Has Barack Obama become Robert Frost’s caricature liberal, “too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”? Jim Kloppenberg would turn it into questions about us citizens: can American politics deal with more than a short litany of selected slogans out of our past? Are we capable of embracing a modern man with a modern mind?

Humility is not a virtue we associate that much with the Christians who call themselves Christian most loudly in 21st century America. So I think we have difficulty understanding him because he doesn’t have the same confidence that he’s got the answer that many Americans expect their politicians to voice, perhaps even to believe. And it seems to me a mark of his maturity — his self-consciousness, his sophistication as a thinker — to know that these are issues about which reasonable people may disagree. Now, that may not serve him very well in the era of Fox News, when what the people who attract attention like to do is simply shout louder than the other person and declaim, with ever more self-rightousness, that they are the only ones who have the answers…

When people treat Obama’s discourses on the importance of equality as somehow un-American or socialist, they’re betraying what I see as a really frightening ignorance of what was striking to contemporaries in the late 18th century about American politics. When European observers came to the United States, what struck them more than anything else was that outside the slave South, there was very little difference between the most prosperous and the least prosperous Americans. Compared to European nations, this was the nation of economic equality. When Thomas Jefferson goes back to Virginia after writing the Declaration of Independence, the first thing he does is to file legislation in the Virginia House of Burgesses ending primogeniture and entail, which were the tools by which European aristocrats kept intact their fortunes, so that they passed down to the first born son. Jefferson, Adams and Madison understood that, unless there were rough economic equality in the United States, a democratic form of government would not survive…

Harvard History Chairman James Kloppenberg with Chris Lydon, November 3, 2010

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  • Rick

    These tepid remarks woven into a all-knowing story that fains mild responsibility for the train wreck that is the universal corruption of our state of which academia is its Crown Jewel seem to me to be asymptomatic of the Ivory colored glasses that only a life of privilege and leisure could produce.

    Contrasted with your previous guest and his sincere attempt at the self inspection, the genius of the producers of the work here at this effort is clear. It is so important to have a form like this that can draw out the views of the sequestered views of our striated public.

    Great Work



  • Thanks for the illuminating thoughts, especially the idea that many are not listening to what Obama is saying…or would rather project on to him whatever fits their archaic punditry. It seems like the media and the academy are failing when the same hackish ideologues continue to take the cake despite the terrible things they have supported, and in spite of other less imperialist visions. Here is a recent example of Obama as an “anti-colonial” … as if this is something to be feared CNN?

  • Potter

    (Please, I am sorry for the length of this, I lack the time to shorten it)

    Mr. Kloppenberg’s says Obama is a liberal or leftist, ( I have not read Obama’s books), but more important is Obama’s philosophy: he needs to have dialogue, deliberation and to make compromises for solutions; he can’t “rant and rave” just because he is not able to “persuade people to see things his way”.

    Obama does not have to rant and rave. He can give moving speeches and explain, teach, say what he believes in, what his vision for the country is. He can point out it inconsistencies and incoherence. And he can persuade very well; he can try at least, if he really believes in what is necessary and needed at this point. That would show strength.

    Koppenberg says he sees Obama’s holding back from pushing in that way as a sign of strength– restraint and respect for the process and respect the people who see things differently…..and that it takes a kind of courage.

    Well, isn’t the president part of that process? And in return haven’t we only seen that respect and reticence taken advantage of by the others as weakness?

    Kloppenberg says he (Obama) sees, understands, how impossible it is to find the absolute answer, that Obama, as per Kloppenberg, does not have the confidence that he has the answer. This is a mark of his maturity.

    What if that renders him impotent? What if Obama, as has been said, and as people I am sure are still saying, is just running away from the fight, the fight for what he says he believes in? Where is his, Obama’s input into this conversation if he can’t make his case forcefully, explain it to the American people? Isn’t this what leadership is about? Why do we have a president? Why did we elect Obama? To compromise with those on the right who have been governing from the executive the last 8 years and in the past before that as though they had a mandate they never or hardly had?

    The health care debate was infuriating. The conclusion should not be that we should not have seen sausage making. It was good that we did. The issue was the nature of that debate in this democracy. Those that wanted single payer to be included in the discussion (Baucus committee Senate finance committee hearings) were even arrested. So deliberating that solution ended and the public option came into focus. A majority of the electorate (60%) wanted the public option to be part of the equation, Obama said he was for it, wanted it, but then would not fight for it. Worse, he bargained it away, apparently in “back room” deals (after promised transparency) with insurance companies and kept that hidden from us. Where was the deliberative democracy that considered all options? Where were the people in the discussion and the debate? It seemed to many that Obama never wanted what he said he wanted OR that he was allowing himself to be cornered by certain interests. People see weakness. Some take advantage of weakness. Can people be blamed for seeing weakness and lack of leadership on that issue? This is still reverberating in discussions. It was Obama himself, way back when, who convinced us that the country needed a public option to cut costs. (personal note: we have, as things are now, just received a 25% hike in prescription costs to us from our insurance company).

    Obama has been compromising with folks who do not want compromise. They want to see him gone, to see him a failure, for him to be a one term President. He has been compromising with folks who do think in absolutes, while he (according to Kloppenberg) does not. But if Obama does not want to battle for what he said he believes in and knows is right then how can it be expected people not be disappointed and not see him as weak? Do we need to ask why a “dumbed down electorate” are voting for those actually creating the narrative and forcefully going after their goals ?

    Battling is what is required in this ”conversation” when the other side out to destroy you. Obama does not seem to want to battle. I don’t think it’s about philosophy.

    We are in a conversation, I agree, but I think over a longer time than one presidency and it’s administration. There are battles to be fought not in foreign wars. From the progressive left, dare I say, at least in these quarters, the feeling has been for years now that conservatives have pushed hard for their absolutes on the rest of us. We thought that now that we have a president that represents our world view, it was a chance to course correct the general movement towards conservatism. Perhaps we are doing that. But it has not been so perceptible as to make a difference, for people to see. And for many it looks like continuing the same old course or worse, a wrong direction, not the ( even slow) change promised. Certainly now, with an urgent issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation we have to deal strongly with strong views that for instance climate change does not exist.

    Do we have to respect a corrupted process and the people who corrupt it while Obama, the mature one, ( alternatively viewed by many as too “above it all”), won’t take his own side in an argument?

    At the end of this interview, even Kloppenberg speaks with certainty and force about right and wrong, about economic inequality being anti-democratic and anti-American, and about the original meaning of the Constitution. He speaks against mythologizing and fantasizing and a citizens obligations weighed against demands of equality/liberty. Obama should hammering this message. Instead Obama maintains his own fantasy about bi-partisanship in this atmosphere.

    If the electorate is dumbed down, this can’t be left as is to talk radio or cable TV or an academy that is not going to get out, not especially without a President in the lead who can at least explain his pragmatism and show that he actually had to compromise but after the good fight was waged.

    Frank Rich’s column in this Sunday’s paper says it: “Barack Obama, Phone Home”

  • Eric Mauro

    I understand the framework of history and politics that Obama may be using, however it seems he did not engage and play his part. He acted more as some kind of founder than as a participant. How will he learn from this rebuke if he can always withdraw back to “above it all”?

    As far as his opponents, aren’t they just using the weapons they have at hand, and Constitutional originalism is just a way of saying: “we don’t like this thing”.

  • While Kloppenberg makes some worthwhile points, especially towards the end of the interview, in essence he arguments are apologetic and infuriating. I do not take issue with the idea that democracies require deliberation, introspection, compromise, and debate, nor do I have a problem with a having President who embraces these concepts as the cornerstones of his philosophy.

    But Chris, you really let your guard down on this one. I expected you to ask the tough questions to the unabashed apologist, much in the same way you asked the tough questions to Kevin Kelly. If Obama is so concerned with social justice and the rule of law, then why does he continue to open the flood gates of free money to the criminal banks via the “quantitative easing” of the Federal Reserve? Why has he not come out strongly in favor of prosecuting the clearly fraudulent activities of the mortgage lenders and the derivatives traders? Why is he quietly insisting on a permanent American military presence, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere else in the world? Why has he not been a vociferous advocate of reinstating Habeas Corpus and outlawing extraordinary rendition? Why doesn’t he begin the process of reorganizing agencies like the FDA, USDA, and DOE to support the efforts of relocalization and permaculture? Why doesn’t he come out in favor of decriminalizing living organisms like medicinal plants and mushrooms?

    Obama is a weak corporate puppet. I don’t care how introspective or thoughtful he is. He’s a megalomaniac and a sell-out. Chris, you of all people, who has covered so many of these issues with such depth and deep thought, shouldn’t buy-in to these high-minded, well-articulated, and vacuous arguments; they just don’t hold water when we test them against the reality of our everyday lives.

  • Frobisher

    I find Mr. Kloppenberg to be very naive. I’m home sick and am listening to the download. I’ve heard 20 minutes of high minded discussion on deliberation, philosophical foundations, but he hasn’t yet brought up the matter of INTERESTS. Mr. K, dude, you clearly don’t live where the rest of us do. The opponents of Mr. Obama had no problem lying consistently throughout the election (claiming that taxes had gone up). They don’t have intellectual honesty. They work to turn out people who have no interest in Mr. K’s deliberation. They seek to own us, are creative in this project, and have access to virtually unlimited resources. I found the airy fairy conversation irritating, especially as I read the report of the social security commission. George Carlin was right.

    Guys, sometimes it really is simple.

  • Pete Crangle

    Very enjoyable. Thank you Chris and Professor Kloppenberg. My counter-intuitive leap I’m going to make is the following: Professor Kloppenberg is not using politics (i.e. President Obama’s politic philosophy/thinking/action) as verb. He’s applying history as the verb to political content as noun.

    The problem this raises, for me at least, is politics is usually conflated. noun and verb become indistinguishable. Political content, ‘merican style, usually carries within it some sort of call to action or call to conflict. The critique is not some inert, vacuous object. It carries the demand of action and conflict.

    The media domain, where most politics is aired out for the public, thrives on conflict. Thus, politics is not mere content, but actionable activity. What people do with this actionable activity is somewhat a mystery. I imagine most of it is lost in the aether. That is, the conflict is perpetual. Viewers, listeners, web surfers return to the venue to hear more political conflict. An endless morass of conflict that feels perpetually unresolved. This is not usually the charter of de facto historian behavior. There are exceptions of course.

  • Ben Bochner

    Usually I find Chris a good interviewer – but this time I kept yelling out the question that was begging to be asked: Doesn’t the kind of high-minded dialogue that Obama imagines himself engaged in require an opponent with an equally high mind?

    It’s one thing to be a nice guy and take the other guy’s ideas seriously. But when the other guy is a complete asshole and only wants to take you down no matter what dirty trick it takes, what’s the point in jutting one’s chin out and making high-minded speeches? Obama’s not running for Student Council president. I would like to have heard Professor Kloppenberg’s opinion of Obama’s failure to recognize the corruption of his opponents. Our politics is not a high-minded debate between Harvard professors. It is a casino in which the rule of law is pay to play. Obama’s stance is making him look more and more like the Salvation Army lady in “Guys and Dolls” who’s always trying to reform the crooks with fancy speeches – and who secretly wants to fuck Marlon Brando.

    I would have liked to hear Professor Kloppenberg comment on this.

  • nother

    I love the idea of the Constitution as a conversation, I had never heard it framed that way. Thanks you for sharing that.

    I appreciate the Obama pushback by Mr. Kloppenberg, it’s a breath of fresh air. Yet, if feels like that fresh air becomes somewhat of a wind tunnel in that I did not hear much criticism of Mr. Obama. He talks about people not noticing or accepting the fundamental changes but the reality we live with is the status quo of Larry Summers and Robert M. Gates. I believe President Obama’s pragmatism has been in the name of short-term stability in the financial market and not long-term sustainability in a global society. Although President Obama tells us his mistake was in how he has framed the message – which people have a right to believe is condescending.

    I was a few feet away from Mr. Obama in New Hampshire when he first used his “Yes we can” speech, and I was moved to no bounds. I read a supporter of his today saying that that speech specifically said “we” not “I”. And I appreciate that sentiment. But what has President Obama asked US to do so we can make it “we”? Other then when he asked the Latino’s to vote against your “enemy” the Republicans.

    President Obama spent the last couple of years running away from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – and as Bob Marley says, “you can’t run away from yourself.” It’s time for some passion from the pulpit. It’s time for the man to raise the congregation to our feet with some “hallelujahs!” The pragmatics are nice and necessary but they don’t get the collection plate filled.

  • Jazzman

    I think Potter (as usual) has hit the proverbial nail on the head and I share the frustration. Noam Chomsky believes President Obama’s ideology is Moderate right-of-center Republican. I say he’s Bush Lite (a bitter beer for those who were expecting significant change) and even if he wasn’t able to affect the change rhetoric he touted on the campaign trail, I expected him to try to fulfill some of his promises – I think if he had, many of the progressive left would have worked with him (the we in “Yes we can”.)

    He squandered his majorities in the legislature in the name of compromise and bi-partisanship and IMO to reap the credit for his “accomplishments” if the public looked favorably upon them and shun the blame (the congress came up with the Health Care and Financial Reform bills) if they weren’t pleased. I was for a single payer “Medicare for ALL” health bill but as so many on the left noted, he started bargaining with a “public option” throw-away and a total windfall for private insurance companies and pharma to profit on illness. I may be morally neutral (except for Absolute Morality), but if I weren’t I’d say that certainly smacks of immorality.

    The financial reform (aside from chastening the credit card industry’s excesses) was a give away to Wall Street and corporate interests and too big to fail has become even larger. Elizabeth Warren was a good choice to clean up the mess as she speaks truth to power but in other than an advisory role, she has been relegated to the sidelines in a deft maneuver to ensure that she doesn’t get in the way of the real power brokers.

    Part of the problem is that his monstrous ego (one doesn’t become the first black president without one, although I wouldn’t call it quite megalomaniacal) and hubris leads him to believe he can sway the masses with his persuasive rhetoric. He has overestimated both the receptivity and the ability of his audience to grasp his nuanced approach. When 2/3 of the electorate believes that taxes have increased under his watch, there is a serious disconnect which demands a more direct tack.

    I empathize with those who will reap the less than ideal benefits of the congressional new broom, but I have hope that this will change and persuade our president to lead instead of rope-a-doping and shirking: The Gitmo cleanup, Don’t ask don’t tell – which he could have abolished by signing, and ending our global adventurism in Iraq & Afghanistan. I think Hillary may have been the better choice in retrospect.

    Peace to ALL,


  • A Health Law Professor

    Mr. Lydon, I see you are continuing the great Sunstein-Lakoff debate…and have put another bland Sunsteinian on.

    I love this show–but this has to be the worst interview ever recorded on it. Chock full of lazy false equivalences, relativism, and a total inability to figure out whether one side of a democratic debate may actually be wrong.

    Kloppenberg says that in areas as complex as health care, we need Republican ideas. What if the Republican idea is not to fix the system? The ACA is a conservative compromise:

    And yet Kloppenberg praises Obama for keeping on listening to . . . what, exactly? Ouright repeal? That’s the “compromise” now being offered.

    It’s time for theorists of “civic republicanism” to stop mindlessly pleading “compromise” when they know full well the right will never agree. Learn some health policy, Prof. Kloppenburg, then make your comments about whether, indeed, “ideas from all sides” are needed here. Don’t just fall back on the lazy argument that democracy and pragmatism mean everyone has something to say. Because the end point there is that your interpretations are just as good as Glenn Beck’s or Sarah Palin’s.

  • Cleaver

    Where were you during this interview, Mr. Lydon? What a lazy piece of work on your part, one that richly deserves the corrective comments offered so far. And hearing James Kloppenberg exhort President Obama’s critics to read the president’s books reminded me of then-Senator Obama’s ill-informed canvassers saying, “Go to the website” when even the simplest policy questions arose during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries.

    In any case, and the virtues of pragmatism notwithstanding, President Obama was not elected as a pragmatist. He was not elected on the basis of a close reading of his books. He was elected by voters who believed that he would take action to advance the moderately progressive policies he espoused during the campaign. But not only has the president failed to advance those policies, he has actually opposed and obstructed them.

    James Kloppenberg’s thesis begs the question of the difference between true pragmatism and an inflexible attachment to the philosophical doctrines of pragmatism. If we grant Professor Kloppenberg’s overarching point regarding President Obama, the explanation for the president’s behavior in office is the president’s unwavering espousal of a set of philosophical doctrines. As a practical matter, then, the president is not a pragmatist. He is an ideologue.

    One can understand the voters’ dismay and impatience, especially after eight long years of Bush/Cheney. At least Cheney openly said, “Go fuck yourself.” He didn’t talk down to the voters or have a cadre of journalists and academics condescending to citizens on his behalf.

  • ray johns

    Where has it been the case that President Obama, once elected to two terms, deliberately ‘blocked or rejected ‘ the liberal progressive agenda that he promised . I don’t see it and neither did the millions of Americans who reelected President Barack Obama to a second term in 2012.