This morning I read Alan Brinkley’s review of James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. I have been eager to read this book since I first noticed its appearance a few months ago. After reading Brinkley’s review I want to read it even more.
Brinkley begins with a great summation of Obama’s problems–short, concise, and to the point:
Two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, the global exuberance that greeted his victory has dramatically faded. The worst economic slump since the 1930s has dragged on for nearly two years with no end yet in sight. The Obama Administration’s stimulus package (along with the much-hated but essential Bush-era TARP) has succeeded in stopping the unraveling of the economy, but unemployment remains stuck just below 10 percent. His signature health-care bill is under ferocious attack, with state attorneys general around the country filing suit to weaken or repeal it and with congressional Republicans vowing to block any corrections or improvements to the bill. The war in Afghanistan, which has become Obama’s chosen conflict, is no more successful than the Iraq War that he opposed. His approval ratings are in the mid-40s, and it is not hard to imagine that they could go a lot further down. And he faces an energized, if not particularly organized, insurgency–the Tea Party “movement”–which has helped invigorate the right and the Republican Party. In the meantime, much of Obama’s base–liberals, leftists, and many others–feel deeply disappointed, if not betrayed. It may be that no president since Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt has faced such a stubbornly difficult set of crises as the ones Obama is confronting, none of which he created. But it was probably inevitable that he would be blamed for them even so.
He concludes with a powerful statement about why the United States has not embraced Obama:
Obama is one of the most articulate and intelligent men ever to have been president. And his understanding of ideas and faiths is consistently impressive. As Kloppenberg makes clear, Obama grasps a wide range of political and social theories. He is remarkably open-minded in his judgment of values with which he disagrees. He embraces pragmatism at the same time that he embraces communitarianism and idealism. He understands many social worlds, both black and white. The famous cadence that brought him to the attention of the nation in 2004–“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America”–expresses a view that, for Obama, has been more than a phrase. It represents the vision of reconciliation and community that he tried to create in his campaign and in his presidency, and that he may continue to try to create in the future.
But at least for the moment, we do not live in a nation that yearns for reconciliation and community. We live, instead, in an increasingly polarized nation–a polarization most visible in government and politics but visible as well in ordinary interactions among ordinary people. Overcoming the deep rifts within American society is a great and worthy goal, and Obama may one day be the person who can bridge the growing divides. But in the meantime, there is work to be done–shoring up the economy, helping the unemployed, fighting off the right–and that work does not seem likely to be achieved by the pragmatist’s commitment to shared ideas and “deliberative democracy.” If we are not sure yet how much of Obama is a pragmatist and how much is an idealist, we do know how much more of each we need him to be.
Presidents are not judged only by their ideas and their hopes. They are judged by their accomplishments. And accomplishments, especially in politics, require more than eloquence and more than intelligence. In the increasingly polarized political world that Obama faces, dreams of consensus and reconciliation are not what progressives seek, nor what the nation needs. The world the President inherited requires political skills, conviction, toughness, and the willingness to fight–the very things Obama’s many admirers are waiting to see.
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