An Interview with James Kloppenberg

James T. Kloppenberg is an American historian and the Chair of the Harvard history department, where he serves as the Charles Warren Professor of American History. Educated at Dartmouth (A.B. 1973) and Stanford (M.A., 1976, Ph.D., 1980), he teaches courses on European and American thought, culture, and politics from the ancient world to the present. His most recent book is Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.

The Politic: Firstly, who is Barack Obama?

JK: He is not only a very skillful politician, but also a very well-educated and thoughtful student of American history and American political thought.

The Politic: What are the biggest misunderstandings that both the left and the right seem to have about Obama?

JK: I think the left projected onto him a set of radical plans that have no foundation either in the ideas he advanced in The Audacity of Hope or his 2008 presidential campaign. The right has misinterpreted the emergency measures made necessary by Bush’s economic catastrophe as a radical departure from American democratic traditions when they would be better understood as the completion of a longstanding set of programs beginning with the New Deal and developing through later Democratic administrations.

The Politic: What is philosophical pragmatism? What makes Obama a “philosophical pragmatist?”

JK: The early pragmatists – William James and John Dewey – directed their criticism against systems of philosophy (whether empiricist or idealist traditions) that claimed privileged knowledge of absolute truth. They argued that in many domains, experimental approaches were better than dogmatic proclamations of the truth. Obama shares that commitment to uncertainty and experimentation in politics.

The Politic: Who is the most surprising person that had an influence on Obama?

JK: I would say James Madison, who is typically unfairly characterized as a conservative thinker when he was the architect, as much as any other single individual, of the American democratic project. In his account of Madison in The Audacity of Hope, Obama shows awareness of Madison’s creative role in the Constitutional Convention and his commitment to the democratic process of finding compromises and solutions to problems that would be impossible if people proved unwilling to compromise with each other.

The Politic: How has Michelle Obama shaped his worldview? Does she share his philosophy?

JK: It’s hard to know based on his books, but his writings show a reverence for her and deep affection for her and her family that quite clearly, by his own estimation, left a powerful imprint on him. I think his admiration for her family’s love for each other and her parents’ commitment to their family and to their work impressed on him the importance of both a stable family and the crucial role played by the availability of employment.

The Politic: How does Obama differ from Bill Clinton?

JK: They are both very well educated and extremely intelligent people. I haven’t seen a similar interest in American political thought in anything Clinton has written, so I think that’s probably the distinction. I think they are both very deeply engaged in the process of electoral politics and have gifts, but different gifts. People have commented on Obama’s more cerebral approach to politics and his more reserved personality as detrimental when compared to the more ebullient, outgoing good ol’ boy son of Arkansas. I think those are simply differences and I don’t know that one or the other is necessarily better suited to politics. I think the contrast between them is pretty apparent when you read their writings and compare them as presidents.

The Politic: With whom should we compare Obama?

JK: It’s difficult to say because he’s only two years into his first term, so I think at this stage, he is similar to many presidents who presented ambitious legislative proposals and had mixed results. That would include Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. To this historian, his ultimate legacy remains very much an open question and it is too early to assess after only two years.

The Politic: How did your views on Obama change when researching the book?

JK: When I first encountered Obama, like most people on the left, I thought he was another moderate like Bill Clinton. It wasn’t until I read The Audacity of Hope that I saw how ambitious his aspirations were and how sophisticated his understanding of the democratic process was. I think both his willingness to compromise and interest in identifying what is possible spring from a very sophisticated understanding of how democracies must function. I was not aware of that until I read both books. I think he’s shown a tendency in his first two years to find the issues on which he can build coalitions. That ability or predilection for compromise has caused him to be pretty savagely criticized by a lot of my friends on the left, but it seems to me that they are misunderstanding him if they think he was once a radical and then became a moderate. I think he has been committed to coalition building his entire career and that his first two years demonstrate his commitment to getting things done rather than taking grandstand positions that cause his proposals to get shot down.

The Politic: How did Harvard Law shape Obama and how did his time on the Harvard Law Review reflect this?

JK: I think his experience at Harvard Law School was powerfully influenced by the importation into legal scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s of a whole range of ideas from American social theory. These included ideas from the history of science associated with Thomas Khun, ideas from cultural anthropology associated with Clifford Geertz, and the idea of civic republicanism in 18th century America, all of which transformed the way in which the legal academy understood ideas in general and the role of law in particular. I think that infusion of ideas from social theory shows up in a surprisingly large number of the articles that were published in the Harvard Law Review while Obama was in law school. For his last two years, he served on the editorial board, and his final year, he was what they call president, or what we could call editor-in-chief.

The Politic: How does he fit into the age of the sound bite?

JK: Very, very poorly [laughter]. Because he sees the complexity of issues and understands the necessity of taking into account different points of view and deep cultural differences among Americans, he is inclined to see the full range of views on any issue. That makes it very difficult for people to pigeonhole him because he doesn’t think in simple thoughts, but in complex, nuanced thoughts. There’s not much room for that in 21st century American public life.

The Politic: Is there a particular time he would have been better suited for?

JK: He would have been much better suited to the late 18th century, but as he knows as clearly as anybody else, there would have been no room for a mixed race man in 18th century American politics. I think he would have fit very nicely with the generation of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison. While he is in some ways ill-suited to the politics of our day, the fact that he managed to get elected president shows that he is not quite as ill-suited to them as that characterization might suggest. He is more amphibious than we give him credit for. I think his natural environment might be the seminar room in a top tier law school like the University of Chicago, but as he demonstrated as an elected member of the Illinois State Legislature and the United States Senate, and now as President of the United States, though he is not Bill Clinton, he can work a crowd and inspire people to get behind him. I imagine we will see more of Obama the campaigner in the coming years than we saw in the past two years.

The Politic: What should we expect to see over the next two years?

JK: That’s a good question and one of the professional liabilities of being a historian – I don’t think I have a better window on the future than anybody else does. I hope that we see a renewed commitment to the idea of economic equality that he discussed in his writings and in the 2008 campaign. I think I am among the many people who would like to see him take a stand opposing the extension of the Bush tax cuts as forcefully as he did in 2008. I would like to see him make good on his commitment to a critical evaluation of our military adventure in Afghanistan and begin withdrawing U.S. troops from that hopeless operation. I would like to see him reemerge as the champion of the ideas of a continuing progressive democratic project. As he heads into his reelection campaign, I think we are likely to see that Obama reemerge. That is what attracted me to him in his writings and I think we’ve seen glimmers of that. His performance during the health care debate was much more consistent with his record than some of his critics on the left have argued that it was. I think that if he restores the campaign for addressing the growing problem of economic inequality to his agenda, he can restore the confidence that many of his friends on the left had in him, without further antagonizing those on the right. I think he will be able to locate himself in a very old and venerable Democratic tradition of addressing problems of inequality, not by increasing the size of the federal bureaucracy as many conservatives fear, but by using the graduated income tax as the best mechanism for both increasing government revenues and addressing the problem of growing inequality.

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