Favorite Books Of 2010

Favorite Books of 2010: Mara Liasson Suggests Actually 'Reading Obama'

Reading Obama cover

Favorite Books 2010 asks NPR personalities to write about one book from the past year that stood out as a favorite. Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent.

For those of you who are sick of the sturm und drang of partisan politics but who still have a little space left on your shelf of books about President Barack Obama, here's a new one off the beaten track. It's called Reading Obama, by James Kloppenberg, and instead of a personal biography or an overheated attack on the 44th president, it's an intellectual history.

I cover the White House and the president, and I often wonder if there is such a thing as "Obamaism." This book offers one definition. Kloppenberg is the chairman of the history department at Harvard; he's written books about liberalism and social democracy, and he places Obama squarely in that progressive intellectual stream. Kloppenberg offers an answer to one of the great ironies about reactions to Obama: how the same man can be vilified as a socialist and derided as a sellout to Wall Street.

According to Kloppenberg, Obama's writings and speeches show that he is an adherent of philosophical pragmatism, a home-grown American philosophy developed at the end of the 19th century by William James and John Dewey. Philosophical pragmatists are anti-absolutists. They believe that compromise, public debate and civility are the building blocks of true democracy. Kloppenberg believes Obama's cerebral caution and his nuanced understanding of both sides of a debate are not personality traits or signs of weakness; they are a philosophical choice.

But what if there is no one in the opposite party to compromise with? Then the search for common ground comes up empty-handed, as Obama's seems to be doing.

To Kloppenberg, Barack Obama is a man of ideas — one of the most penetrating political thinkers elected to the White House in the past century. And the author may be right. But his book also puts Obama's failings into a philosophical context. All that cerebral detachment and flexibility make it hard for Obama to communicate the righteous passion that voters want. (That too is ironic, since righteous passion was exactly the trait voters seemed exhausted by after eight years of George W. Bush). And it makes it harder for Obama to inspire and persuade.

The most interesting part of the book for me is when Kloppenberg connects Obama's travels in Africa to his pragmatic philosophy. In Dreams from my Father, Obama writes about a conversation he had with a Kenyan historian who tells him, "If you make the wrong choice, then you can learn from your mistakes and see what works."

That's exactly where the philosophically pragmatic president is right now, starting to share power with the Republicans, figuring out what kind of midcourse correction he wants to make.

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, by James T. Kloppenberg, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 296 pages.

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