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Posted at 12:36 PM ET, 11/22/2010

Obama’s intellectual roots

By James T. Kloppenberg
Guest Blogger

About this blog: President Obama has been hammered from both sides: a socialist to radical conservatives and not nearly liberal enough to die-hard liberals. So who is he really? What does he really believe? James T. Kloppenberg, chair of the history department at Harvard University, has sought answers through a deep examination of the intellectual influences that have shaped Obama’s ideas and approach to governing. In “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition,” Kloppenberg demonstrates that Obama has a sophisticated understanding of the crosscurrents of American history and argues that the president’s urge to compromise is not a weakness at all but a strength. Here, Kloppenberg explores how Obama’s instinct for deliberation and conciliation will be tested by the new Congress.

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Barack Obama has become a target for the right and the left. As Republicans battle Democrats to control Americans’ understanding of our nation’s history and establish the legitimacy of their vision of its future, he is caught in the crossfire.

Some American conservatives now reject as socialist central aspects of American life that have long been taken for granted. Americans have rejected the idea of an unconstrained free market ever since the 1620s; government has regulated the economy since the first English settlements in North America. A graduated or progressive income tax dates from World War I; social security and the minimum wage were established in the 1930s and accepted by Republicans after World War II. Conservatives’ vision of a Constitution with the fixed and unitary “original meaning,” they impute to it, by contrast, dates only from the 1970s.

Some American radicals, on the other hand, cherish a fantasy of their own, in which Americans are free to say and do whatever they want, in which market solutions are always suspect, and in which interest groups claiming to represent labor and minorities are always right.

In his major speeches and his books “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama has offered a more nuanced reading of the nation’s past that aligns with the best scholarship of recent American historians.

From Washington through Lincoln to both Roosevelts and Kennedy, Americans have embraced an ideal of “ordered liberty,” freedom balanced against moral constraints and social obligations. Founders such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson valued social and economic equality as well as liberty; they condemned extremes of wealth and poverty as aristocratic poison to self-government.

James Madison championed deliberative democracy and understood the Constitution as a product of compromise, a living arrangement to be altered over time rather than enshrined as sacred. Spirited debate about how to interpret the Constitution, which Obama characterizes as the “nation arguing with its conscience,” is the most venerable American national tradition.

Now that Obama finds himself facing a Congress as deeply divided as the nation that elected him in 2008 and voted for a solid Republican majority this year, his own commitment to deliberation and conciliation will be tested.

Obama’s writings make clear that he distrusts dogmas – those of the radical left as well as the radical right – because he believes in experimentation and the critical assessment of results. He will have a chance to demonstrate the depth of his commitment to the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism as he faces a sputtering economy and a stubborn enemy in Afghanistan.

If he remains true to his principles, he will defy Republicans’ and Democrats’ empty slogans and continue seeking unconventional solutions – such as the imperfect reforms already hammered out on health care, education, and financial regulation – that antagonize hyper-ventilating purists at both ends of the political spectrum but advance the enduring American ideals of liberty and equality through the democratic means enshrined in the Constitution: as the people’s chosen representatives wrangle, deep disagreements lead to frustrating compromises and endless experimentation.

That is the American way.

By James T. Kloppenberg  | November 22, 2010; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  obama's reading; obama's historical influences  
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