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I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Future of Liberalism Paperback – October 1, 2013
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“Politically timely and of permanent importance to the study of the American mind. A serious but accessible study of the thinking underpinning the modern liberal project…This is a title - and an author - with a long shelf life and much to teach.” (Washington Times)
“Drawing on his wide reading in philosophy and American political thought, Mr. Kesler argues that Mr. Obama has been shaped by the political tradition of Progressivism and that his 2008 triumph has helped, in turn, to reshape it.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Obama has earned what he now receives, the tribute of a serious intellectual exegesis by a distinguished political philosopher.” (George Will, Washington Post)
“Kesler is the reader for whom Obama has long been asking, in the sense of ‘asking for it’, and this book is the examination of the One we’ve been waiting for.” (Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review)
From the Back Cover
Who is Barack Obama? Even after his reelection, many Americans wonder what he really believes. Charles R. Kesler argues that both liberals and conservatives underestimate the scope of Obama's political ambition and the long-term stakes for which he is playing.
I Am the Change tries to understand Obama as he understands himself, based largely on his own writings, speeches, and interviews. Kesler, a leading conservative scholar, educator, and journalist, takes Obama seriously as an intelligent and thoughtful progressive who is intent on reinvigorating the liberal faith and leading it to a new political preeminence—but who fails to understand the contradictions and crises, both fiscal and philosophical, toward which he is rushing.
Will Obama save liberalism and become its fourth great incarnation, following Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson? Or will the movement be derailed by his very successes? These are the questions at the heart of Kesler's indispensable guide to the past, and the future, of American liberalism.
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But how can we say that, since virtually everything Barak Obama has touched since he was inaugurated in 2009 has come up short, usually disastrously so? The answer, as this valuable book shows, is that Obama isn't interested in tackling immediate problems such as employment or immigration reform. Instead, by his own admission, he's using his presidency fundamentally to change the essence of America. This process began more than a century ago, and Obama is the fourth president (following Wilson, FDR, and Johnson) to move this "progressive" project forward. Professor Kesler, using each man's own words--written and spoken--as source material, explains in detail where their ideas came from and the damage those ideas have done for generations of Americans.
Philosophical note: Another title for the book might well have been, "How Bad Ideas Harm Us All."
A partial list of the bad ideas:
People are essentially good, not fallen.
History exists as an actual force in the world.
Progress is always for the better.
Each era creates its own truth.
Government by experts makes things better.
There are no natural rights, just human rights.
How Progressivism/Liberalism Has Unfolded Under Four US Presidents:
Each starts with a crisis; Promotes government expansion; Is thwarted by a war (Except Obama)
1. Woodrow Wilson: Son of a minister and gifted academic, Wilson absorbed German idealism,
provided the theoretical base for the Progressive project.
2. Franklin D Roosevelt: Came from privilege but was enlightened by polio. Used the Great Depression as an excuse to expand government. Made "human rights" into economic rights.
3. Lyndon Johnson. A disciple of FDR's, he inherited the programs, got them adopted, then watched in horror while the "experts" bungled things at home and in Viet Nam.
4. Barak Obama. Liberalism's fourth and last chance, possibly. He's the leader who will bring us through the inevitable conflict to come to perfection. It remains to be seen whether his war policies will defeat his agenda.
The only flaw in the book, if that's what we should call it, is the final section where Prof. Kesler approaches Obama's thought and presidency. Kesler's comments are accurate and useful but his tone is that of a professor correcting a bright but sloppy student. Obama fans will likely be offended by such a tone, as Obama's opponents will nod in agreement. The slightly politial nature of the Obama section makes this a 4-star book: excellent but not a masterpiece.
I do not agree with the book’s implied thesis that Obama is a sort of megalomaniac who uses Progressive / Liberal ideologies to promote himself. My impression is that he’s a humble personality with the same sorts of values of faith, family, and country that most of the rest of us have. I understand that most readers of this book will have a contrary opinion. I’m basing this review on the part of the book that interests me, and that is the question of whether or not Obama has wrapped himself in the Progressive ideology or whether he is a non-ideological leader (like perhaps a Bill Clinton) who may have some core beliefs, but in matters of public policy tends to dabble a little here, and a little there, depending on which way the shifting winds of public opinion blow.
My first critique is that the book is written in dense sentences and long, multi-page paragraphs. It would have been easier to comprehend if it were written in a lighter style of short sentences and paragraphs. Even an intellectually-deep book like this one can be written in a reader friendly format.
In terms of substance, author Charles Kesler's premise is that Obama's primary failing isn't that he's an extremist in the sense of being a Communist or Socialist, but merely that he's a "decent man" who "believes in justice" and therefore thinks of himself as being a Progressive.
Kesler doesn't explain, at least to my satisfaction, what a Progressive really is. He explains PART of the early Progressive agenda as it originated in the late 1800s, the part of the agenda that sought, successfully, to expand the scope of government in extending its regulatory authority over corporations, banks, and railroads engaged in interstate commerce.
However, he doesn't describe the heart of Progressive ideology, which is the belief that government has the obligation to restore the balance between Labor and Capital.
Progressives believe that Labor (employees) and Capital (employers) should work together in a virtuous circle whereby Labor creates Capital, Capital invests in businesses that employ Labor, the laborers of those businesses save and invest some of their wages, thereby creating more capital for business expansion, businesses use this capital to expand, more people are hired, more capital is created, and so on to infinity. When this virtuous circle occurs the economy becomes ever more prosperous for business owners and their employees. Labor and Capital prosper together.
Progressives believe that because there are almost always more laborers available than there are opportunities to employ them that employers (Capital) enjoy an inherent advantage over employees (Labor). Employers hire and fire employees and thereby exercise a considerable power to control their livelihoods. Employees do not hire and fire employers and usually do not have much, if any, leverage to increase their wages and working conditions.
Progressives believe that without any superior power to constrain them, employers will use their economic advantage to replace their current workers with lower cost labor, thereby creating a constant downward pressure on wages as employees are made to compete against each other to work for lower and lower wages. What employers don't understand is that after they beat down the wages of their workers they don't have any customers left who have money to buy the products their business produces. In the absence of any higher power Capital beats down Labor, then Capital goes bankrupt because Labor doesn't have money to purchase what it produces.
PROGRESSIVES BELIEVE THAT WORKERS MUST HAVE WAGES SUFFICIENT TO PURCHASE THE GOODS AND SERVICES THAT THEIR LABOR PRODUCES.
Progressives believe that government must be the higher power that restores the balance between Labor and Capital. They believe that government must:
1. Enforce a minimum wage so that wages can not be beaten down indefinitely.
2. Increase the demand for labor by mandating a 40-hour week with premium pay for overtime; eliminating child labor; and creating Social Security pensions so that older workers may retire from the work force and open up opportunities for younger ones.
3. That in extreme circumstances, such as economic depressions, that government should become an "employer of last resort" to soak up the idle workers that business can't hire. The idea here is to maintain sufficient purchasing power to prevent the entire economy from failing.
4. That government should regulate the activities of banks and large corporations to prevent them from colluding to cheat consumers. Banks that accept the public's money are a public trust and must be regulated by government to insure their solvency. Corporations must not be allowed to use their concentrations of capital to unfairly rig markets in their favor by forming anti-competitive trusts or price-fixing cartels, which they did all the time before the Progressives reined them in with the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act.
Free market purists don't believe that government should have a role in overseeing the employee/employer or producer/consumer relationship. Thus there IS a great philosophical divide between Obama's beliefs and the laissez-faire orientation of Conservative Republicans.
To me, the most insightful part of the book is:
Obama is neither an old-fashioned Progressive nor a radical postmodernist. Part of what makes him interesting is how he handles the conflicting strains of his own thought. As a decent man, he believes in justice, and identifies with the civil rights movement's insistence that Jim Crow was manifestly wrong and the cause of black equality manifestly right. As a self-described progressive, he believes in change...
Kesler is absolutely correct that Obama ISN'T a Progressive, at least not in the sense that Progressives define themselves. If Obama really WERE a Progressive, we'd be hearing about the Progressive ideal of restoring the balance between Labor and Capital. He would be talking about raising the minimum wage, passing laws to improve employment security and pensions, and imposing tariffs on jobs-destroying imports. Genuine Socialists like Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez regard Obama as just another "Classical Neoliberal" bent on promoting capitalism at the expense of labor.
My opinion after reading the book is the same as it was before, that Obama is more a dabbler than a committed Progressive ideologue. I believe he made Healthcare Reform a priority NOT because he sees it as part of a unified Progressive Agenda, but because he believes that it has merits on its own in expanding access to affordable healthcare to people of modest means. He has entirely ignored the rest of the Progressive agenda of raising the minimum wage, passing laws to improve employment security, etc. If Obama does transform the country along Progressive lines, it will happen on a piecemeal basis rather than as part of any grand design on his part. But opinions differ on what his real intent may be, so read the book and come to your own conclusions!
This book is thought-provoking and must be read on a scholarly plane. If you're comfortable with reading in deep-thinking mode and don't mind dense prose, then by all means delve into it and decide for yourself whether Kesler's points have merit.
Update 03/16/2017: I read this book during the campaign of 2012 when I was undecided on whether to vote for Mitt Romney or Obama. I ultimately voted for Obama, the one and only time I have ever voted for a Democratic candidate for national office, since I began voting in 1980. I actually donated to Mitt Romney's campaign in 2008, so I had been predisposed to vote for Romney in early 2012. But as I learned more about the two candidates it became clear in my mind that Obama had succeeded sufficiently to justify his re-election. I came to view Romney as the sort of jobs-destroying predatory capitalist that has attacked the middle class and cost our people in the Midwest millions of jobs. I voted in Manistee County, Michigan in 2012, a county that is 94% White, and evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Manistee County voted for Obama 52% to 46%.
In 2016 I voted for Donald Trump in Florida. Manistee County voted 55% for Trump and 40% for Ms. Clinton. Many counties in the Midwest flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016. The people in these predominantly White, middle-class counties saw Obama as a moderate friend of the Middle Class in 2008 and 2012 and voted accordingly. In 2016 we were looking for change again and voted for Trump.