True to His Word

Article excerpt

Byline: James T. Kloppenberg

Note to critics: Read (or reread) his books. Obama is doing just what he said he would do.

Every old-fashioned American amusement park had a fun house with mirrors that exaggerated your features. One mirror lengthened your legs, another widened your middle, a third made your face a wavy mask. If you stood in the right place, you vanished into endless distorting reflections. Nowadays, the political stage has become America's communal fun house, and nobody looks stranger than Barack Obama.

The president's critics on the right deride him as a radical socialist seething with anti-American rage. To them, he's a frightening success who has transformed the federal government, ruined the economy, and undermined national security. To the left, Obama is a tragic failure who squandered his chance for dramatic change: no single-payer health-care plan, no heated battle against Wall Street, and endless war in Afghanistan. If the president is struggling these days, the critics say, it's perhaps because he's out of touch with Americans, and even at odds with his own principles.

Yet Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. Perhaps the critics should read--or reread--the president's own books. Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006) are the most substantial works written by anyone elected president since Woodrow Wilson (who wrote several books before he won election in 1912). In laying out his philosophy, Obama contrasts the GOP's excessive individualism with the ideal of "ordered liberty" and the rich traditions of civic engagement typical of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. He also criticizes orthodox Democrats for too quickly dismissing market solutions and too often defending failed government programs. Above all, he criticizes the hyperpartisan atmosphere of contemporary public life.

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.

Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it's a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. …