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Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition Hardcover – October 31, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


A National Public Radio (npr.org/blogs) Mara Liasson Best Book of the Year for 2010

"James Kloppenberg, one of America's foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that [there is] a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg's own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama's thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama's approach to politics and to the Constitution."--Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Review of Books

"One of Kloppenberg's most important claims is that Obama embodies the spirit of pragmatism--not the colloquial pragmatism that is more or less the same thing as practicality, but the philosophical pragmatism that emerged largely from William James and John Dewey and continued to flourish through the work of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others. Kloppenberg provides an excellent summary of the pragmatic tradition--a tradition rooted in the belief that there are no eternal truths, that all ideas and convictions must meet the test of usefulness. . . Kloppenberg is best when he analyzes Obama's own writing--Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope, and some of his memorable speeches. He gives an excellent analysis of Obama's views of Lincoln and of the ways in which he has come to terms with race."--Alan Brinkley, Democracy

"This is an assessment of Obama that will make sense to those who championed his rise to the presidency but who now have reservations about the way he is executing the role. The case Kloppenberg makes is persuasive and, for anyone interested in the larger context of Obama's thinking, he demonstrates that this serious man is a rarity."--Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

"In short, Mr. Kloppenberg's brief intellectual biography of Mr. Obama provides an excellent portrait of the shining self-image of the progressive intellectual."--Peter Berkowitz, Wall Street Journal

"Reading Obama is a welcome addition, not least because it is the first book to try to tease out a coherent political philosophy from the president. Kloppenberg, a prominent intellectual historian at Harvard, does this not by analyzing Obama's pre-presidential record or his campaign rhetoric or his policies but--like a senior professor sizing up a tenure aspirant--by reviewing Obama's published dossier. The chief works, of course, are Obama's best-selling books--his semi-fictional memoir, Dreams from My Father, and his campaign trial balloon, The Audacity of Hope; but Kloppenberg also draws on a passel of other writings and, most originally, on the issues of the Harvard Law Review over which Obama presided as editor in 1990. Pragmatism is a subject close to Kloppenberg's heart, and his expertise. Among his many learned writings on the subject are the landmark Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920, which appeared in 1986, and "Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?," a brilliant article in the Journal of American History in 1996, many of whose ideas resurface in his new work. With his breadth of knowledge and his simplicity of prose, Kloppenberg is a fine guide to these ideas. And lest we suspect that he is merely projecting a set of ideas he esteems onto a politician he admires--Obama, after all, has described himself as "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views"--Kloppenberg is careful to elucidate the reasons for the happy congruence."--David Greenberg, New Republic Online

"Kloppenberg has written an analysis of the intellectual influences that have shaped President Obama's world view. Those who find Obama puzzling need only study the books he read as a student, look at writings by his professors, and read his academic and autobiographical writings to understand what he thinks, why he thinks the way he does and how his presidency reflects the intellectual conclusions he has drawn from his education and life experiences. Obama impressed his law professors with his "exceptional intelligence' and "striking ability to resolve conflicts." As Kloppenberg explains, "his commitment to conciliation lies in his idea of democracy as deliberation, his sure grasp of philosophical pragmatism, his Christian realism and his sophisticated understanding that history, with all its ambiguities and ironies, provides the best rudder for political navigation. Reading Obama offers a fascinating view of the man Kloppenberg calls ''the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century"--Newark Star-Ledger

From the Inside Flap

"Jim Kloppenberg, one of the country's finest intellectual historians, has come up with a remarkable idea as to how we can understand President Obama: just read what he has written and take it seriously. Think of Kloppenberg as the Bob Woodward of investigative philosophical analysis. He's written a fine and hugely informative book."--E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and author of Souled Out

"An intellectual biography of a practicing politician might nowadays seem a contradiction in terms, but James Kloppenberg, one of America's leading intellectual historians, draws penetrating insights from a close examination of the ideas that animate Barack Obama. Reading Obama shows the powerful impact on Obama's politics of his engagement with the late twentieth century revival of philosophical pragmatism and civic republicanism. Obama takes ideas seriously, and Kloppenberg details why that matters for all of us. This is a fine example of contemporary intellectual history."--Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

"Obama is not just a powerful speaker, but a thinker engaged with the ideas of his country and his age--this argument by historian James Kloppenberg should therefore fascinate anyone interested in American politics or how ideas shape public life. Tracing the influences of Obama's family, educational, and work experiences on his ideas, Reading Obama locates a unique individual in the crosscurrents of American democracy and continuing fights over American ideals."--Martha Minow, Harvard Law School

"Reading Obama strikingly illuminates the man, enriching our sense of his intellectual formation and commitments and significantly deepening our understanding of his place in history. In the face of the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the moment, this book reminds readers of the enduring force of an alternative tradition in the American past, and sketches that tradition with care and persuasion."--Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University

"In this arresting, highly informative book, Kloppenberg shows how Obama was shaped by the intellectual debates of the 1980s and is thus the first president since Woodrow Wilson to deeply absorb and act upon the most sophisticated social theories of his generation."--David Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (October 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691147469
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691147468
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,547,583 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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"Conservative" is a word. A 'signifier' in the jargon of philosophy. As a 'word', it ought to have a meaning, to signify something. I've checked my American Heritage dictionary, and I find two primary meanings The first is: "tending to favor the preservation of the existing order". The second is: "moderate, prudent, cautious". To my mind, both meanings would perfectly fit Barack Obama as President, making him patently a "conservative" for better or worse. The "existing order" in the USA is the mixed and balanced economy - loosely watch-dogged capitalism with a modest safety net - paired with the mixed and balanced plan of governance established by the Constitution and its discreet number of amendments. That's NOT the order which radical extremists of the Right want to preserve! By that definition, Sarah Palin and Rand Paul are scarcely conservative. Likewise, it would be hard to make a case that someone who boasts of being a "rogue" and who has participated in a movement in Alaska to secede from the United States should be perceived as "moderate, prudent, cautious."

The Barack Obama whom Professor James Kloppenberg unreservedly admires, whose words and deeds remind the Harvard historian so clearly of those of James Madison, is above all a pragmatic moderate, not attracted to ideology per se of either the Right or the Left, a political man committed -- sincerely committed -- to "deliberative democracy." That commitment has been demonstrated from the beginning of Obama's presidency by his non-imperial relationship with Congress, the 'deliberative' branch of government, and by his cautious attempts to involve the "other party" in bi-partisan discourse. Here's a key paragraph from Dr.
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Format: Hardcover
Do you want to look inside Pres. Obama's head? This book takes you on a tour of the books, ideas, values, and theories that formed Obama's approach to political problems. Prof. Kloppenberg leaves questions of personality and electioneering aside and instead reconstructs Obama's education, finding out who his professors were, what they assigned in class, what arguments abounded in Obama's law school years and in Chicago's activist community, and how Obama came to his current approach--which, Kloppenberg acknowledges, disappoints the left and infuriates the right--about what democracy means: "coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests."

Whether you like Obama's politics and style or not, Kloppenberg gives you good reason to care about how his ideas developed, because what you have here is the best primer available for the major ideas that matter in American society from the Constitution to the present. All those theories and thinkers you've heard of or vaguely remember from college are here, explained in clear, lively language that everyone can understand. Ever wanted to know about rational choice theory? John Rawls? The originalist position on constitutional interpretation? Historical jurisprudence? Max Weber? The idea of "paradigm shift"? Postmodernism? All here, and much more. It will vault your historical and intellectual literacy in a matter of a few sittings with a book full of clever turns of phrase and dryly witty asides.
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Format: Hardcover
"Like his eighteenth-century and early twentieth century predecessors, Barack Obama is a man of ideas." But neither his sensibility, nor his drawing from historical politics, has received due attention. So argues James T. Kloppenberg in his new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. The author, using Obama's own writings as his main guide, traces the influences of the President in order to clarify and defend the President's beliefs and show that they are not as un-American as sometimes portrayed.

Obama's "ideals" stem from a wide range of thinkers: Whitman and Thoreau, Jefferson and Lincoln, even Augustine and Niebuhr. But the greatest influences on the President were the pragmatists, William James and John Dewey, who "argued that a culture of inquiry should supplant a culture of fixed truths." This "denial of universal principles" is a major aspect of the book, and, according to Kloppenberg, of Obama's thinking. The President's view of the constitution, for instance, is not that it is a rigid, unchanging document based upon the shared convictions of the founders, but that it was "cobbled together" as the "result of power and passion," and was meant to serve as a framework in which democracy can operate; its interpretation should change with time and context. In the political sphere, there is "no absolute truth." The belief that "the founders... discovered unchanging Truth and distilled it into the Constitution" is, according to the author, "a comforting fable." The founders, after all, were fallible, and their worldviews and policies are not perfectly compatible with ours, as evidenced by their support of slavery.

What are the President's ideals? Kloppenberg says that "Obama embraces community, liberty, equality, and historicism....
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