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Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition Paperback – February 26, 2012
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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
"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
"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
"This is a fascinating book, not just because it deals with the current president of the United States, but also because it explores the development of modern political philosophy and tries to establish direct links between it and the political performance of Obama."--Alan Dobson, LSE Politics and Policy blog
"In his excellent book Reading Obama, James Kloppenberg offers a broad and deep interpretation of the education of Obama from 1961 to 2004."--Anglican Theological Review
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
There is no "negative" aspect of Obama in this book, this is a straight as an arrow book arguing the spheres of influence that Obama has been in, such as Harvard, the books he read, the time period that he grew up in and where he was living and surmising what may have influenced him. He uses Obama's two books as a guide to understand his political thought, his view on American History, and his view on progressive/pragmatic philosophy of the Democratic Party.
I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about progressive/pragmatic philosophy, than to read this book and try to understand Obama, as I said, I think he misses Obama by a mile. He does bring out a very interesting discussion of the time that Obama grew up, the education that he received, specifically at Harvard (I thought that was a very interesting section), the discussion on race and the history of politics and philosophy behind that. This is a very interesting book, very much worth the read.
Having said that, I had planned to begin a review of this book by saying that it was a "must read" for anyone who had been a fervent Obama supporter and was now suffering from disillusionment over Obama's seeming lack of willingness to take on the right wing conservatives in a more combative way such as, for example, going for broke on the health care legislation (i.e. a public option) or drawing a line in the sand on letting Bush tax breaks for the wealthy expire. Then I was going to say that you will discover in this book a deeply principled President in touch with the roots of American history in all its democratic ambiguity.
True enough, but now I should add, if you haven't read the book already, that it is a scholarly "intellectual history" book, focusing on the roots of Obama's "ideas", the "way he thinks" about politics. I am a history buff, especially American history, and in my retirement I delve into religion and philosophy a fair amount. So I "eat up" books like this. I am also an unabashed "liberal intellectual". If you don't fit into any of those categories you might not find this book all that readable. This seems to be the main problem for reviewers who gave 2-3 stars and mocked the book. In the spirit of what I believe is Obama's "way of thinking", I hasten to add that the disparagers of this book all have very valid complaints and their annoyance with the "academic" nature of the book is perfectly reasonable. Many on the right despise Obama's alleged "elitism" and there is enough ample "anti-intellectual" attitude about in America to make Obama a target given his towering intellect.
For the likes of me, however, I found the book a bit eye-opening and even comforting. In an America that is "fracturing" (from a reference to one of Kloppenburg's resources, "Age of Fracture" - which I now want to read) - Obama offers the very "fallibalism" and commitment to democratic debate that is sorely needed. Kloppenburg acknowledges that the jury is still out on whether Obama's Presidency will prove successful or not with this commitment. The intransigent certainty with which the right confronts every policy issue today in their ideological boxes, is daunting to say the least. But at least this book makes clear that Obama is far from naive about what he faces politically from the right.
The basic conclusion and arguments made in this book are well summarized in the reviews that give 4-5 stars. If you fancy yourself a student of history and enjoy a dash of religion and philosophy to whet your intellect and are on the "left" politically, and rather unsure of Obama and whether you can trust him or not, then give this book a read. Otherwise, perhaps you had best ignore it.
James T. Kloppenberg's 'Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Tradition' is an erudite book. There are places in which 'Reading Obama' is written above the tenth-grade level at which I am told most Americans, even those with advanced degrees, prefer to read.
The book's erudition and use of terms, names, and concepts unfamiliar to me could have put me off, yet I found Kloppenberg's "threads of thought" so interesting that I simply highlighted unfamiliar items and looked them up later. I have listed terms below and might add more, since I am sure to re-read parts of this book.
I do not want to sell Kloppenberg short as an unclear writer. He is, rather, a scholarly writer, informing those in the fields of political science and history in addition to the general reader (like me) with more than a passing interest in President Obama. Kloppenberg defines most terms as he goes along, and he also provides a helpful "Notes on Sources" section and an index.
Had Kloppenberg added a glossary, would this book's readership be a bit wider? This thought nagged me as I read the book. So, to help those who plan to read the book navigate it as smoothly as possible, I have compiled a list of unfamiliar terms:
fallibilism: "the experimental habit of mind"
foundationalism: the belief that knowledge is built upon certain principles, givens, or unquestionable beliefs
hermeneutics: the science of interpretation
inimicable: adverse in tendency or effect
technocracy (I am unsure of this one. My dictionary defines it as "a theory and movement, prominent about 1932, advocating control of industrial resources, reform of financial institutions, and reorganization of the social system, based on the findings of technologists and engineers.")
For an even smoother ride through Kloppenberg's prose, it would not hurt to familiarize yourself with John Dewey and William James, both proponents of pragmatism (the philosophy that only workable ideas are worth consideration).
Kloppenberg's `Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition,' is, to my knowledge, the first serious book to look at President Obama's thinking in and of itself while considering Obama's place in the American political tradition.
This book deserves every bit the attention of bestsellers that simply don't get Obama right and leave too many readers with as many questions, if not more, than when they began.
So, how does Kloppenberg succeed where others have fallen short?
From the outset, we can be sure that Kloppenberg has read Obama's two books carefully. He gives 'The Audacity of Hope,' considered by some to be little more than campaign fluff, at least as much attention as the literary and personally revealing 'Dreams from My Father.'
For the Obama junkie who wants to read more of Obama's writings, Kloppenberg's research brings to light at least two Obama-penned articles: 'Why Organize?', which Obama wrote in 1990 after his three years as a community organizer, and an article that Obama wrote as a Columbia undergrad for its newspaper 'The Sundial.'
The articles reveal much about how Obama thinks, and Kloppenberg provides a thorough analysis of both.
At Occidental College, Obama took two course under Roger Boesche: history and political theory. There, Kloppenberg reports, Obama encountered a wide range of thinkers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madsion, and some of the Anti-Federalists who opposed the U.S. Constitution.
One issue I would like clarification on concerns a passage from `Dreams from My Father' in which Obama talks about his rebellious youth at Occidental and the alliances he formed there.
Kloppenberg states that Obama "learned enough to be able to quote Frantz Fanon..."; however, based on the scene related in `Dreams,' it's not clear that Obama began these discussions, just that he was a part of them. Obama even misspells Frantz as "Franz" in 'Dreams from My Father.'
I won't give away too many surprises in the book (there are plenty for those who have been fed a steady diet of misinformation from the right-wing blogosphere).
Here's one "teaser": you will be surprised to learn that Obama, though trained by fellow organizers Kellman, Kruglik, and Galuzzo in a type of Alinsky community organizing, split from them and Alinsky's tactics to pursue his own vision of organizing. [*]
This is the book to read TODAY about Obama. Certainly, Obama is a complex, intelligent man -- not every action of his will be transparent, and it won't always be easy to "read" him. Still, especially given Kloppenberg's book, there is less excuse to claim that Obama's actions are utterly mysterious, his exotic background unfathomable. In short, it's time for us all to move forward. Kloppenberg leads the way.
[*] This contrasts with fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton's relationship to Alinsky, whom she met in person and wrote her thesis on at Wellesley College. Contrasting Obama and Hillary's relationship to the "father of community organizing" can be an interesting exercise.