Presidents and Political Thought

Presidents and Political Thought

Presidents and Political Thought

Presidents and Political Thought


"What did the president know and when did he know it?" takes on a whole new meaning in Presidents and Political Thought. Though political philosophy is sometimes considered to be dry and abstract, many of our presidents have found usable ideas embedded within it. In this first comparative study of presidents and political theory, David Siemers examines how some of them have applied this specialized knowledge to their job. Presidents and Political Thought explores the connection between philosophy and practical politics through a study of six American chief executives: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton. Writing at the intersection of politics, history, and philosophy, Siemers combines his extensive understanding of political philosophy with careful research and analysis of individual presidents to produce provocative and astute judgments about how their understanding of political theory affected their performance. Each chapter examines a particular president's attitude about political theory, the political theorists he read and admired, and the ways in which he applied theory in his activities as president. Viewing presidents through the lens of political theory enables Siemers to conclude that Madison and Adams have been significantly underrated. Wilson is thought to have abandoned his theoretical viewpoint as president, but actually, he just possessed an unorthodox interpretation of his favorite thinker, Edmund Burke. Often thought to be so pragmatic or opportunistic that they lacked any convictions, FDR and Clinton gained their orientations to politics from political theory. These and other insights suggest that we cannot understand these presidencies without being more aware of the ideas the presidents brought to the office. Siemers's study takes on special relevance as the United States experiences regime change and a possible party realignment because, as he notes, Barack Obama has read and learned from political theory, too. Avoiding much of the jargon that often accompanies political theory, this book demonstrates the relevance of political theory in the real world, chronicling both the challenges and potentially rich payoffs when presidents conceive of politics not just as a way to reward friends and punish enemies, but as a means to realize principles.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalien
able Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of
Happiness.” Those simple words are our starting point as Ameri
cans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but
the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be
able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Dec
laration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal
and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declara
tion … orients us, sets our course, each and every day.

—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

It is mistaken to say that America has got along nicely without
political philosophizing…. this nation, more than any other, is a
work of political philosophy.

—George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft

The long presidential campaign of 2008 allowed the American people to get acquainted with Barack Obama—at least in a certain sense. We discovered that, as with any human being, many different things have contributed to making Barack Obama who he is. His experience with multiple ethnicities and cultures, in Hawaii and in Indonesia, seemed to have a profound effect on him. So too did his anthropologist mother, who taught her son that there is value in each culture and religion. As described in Obama’s autobiographical account Dreams from My Father, a quest to discover more about his absent father’s life and to connect with his African relatives animated his early adulthood. His discovery that churches are the social and spiritual glue of the black community in Chicago transformed his life. In 2008 we got to know these things and with them to know Obama the person, quite well.

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