U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama’s Psychological History

The string below is reproduced from a Facebook discussion of Jackson Lears’s review of two books (by Sally Jacobs and Janny Scott) that appears in the London Review of Books:

[Opening entry from me, Tim Lacy] Check out the review below [above]. And here’s the commentary I added at my profile page: “Most of this review is a complicated, informative look at Obama’s family history. At the end Lears hits you with some lefty pessimism about where Obama’s presidency is headed. Fine. The last year has inoculated most of us from that. But in the very last line—Boom!—Lears implies that Obama would be willing to draw us into a war with China. …Wow. …There’s pessimism, and then there’s pessimism. Lears thinks that Barry has inherited his father’s arrogance, and is willing to apply it Bush-43-style to our foreign policy.” …Am I the only one that sees this a bit far out?

Comments:

John Haas ?”… while the president dispatches US troops to Australia and the secretary of state to Burma.”

The horror.
11 hours ago · Like

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Ben Alpers
To be fair to Lears, his argument about China is that we would never accept Chinese troops in Venezuela as we expect the Chinese to accept US troops in Asia. Obama, Lears concludes, is insisting on “the open door” not war with China, though he does suggest that the policy risks danger: “The open door for US involvement in Asia, flung wide in Japan’s face a century ago, is now reopened in China’s. One can only imagine the American reaction, were China to make a similar move in Venezuela or Colombia. Obama’s recoil from disappointment may turn out to endanger us all.” I don’t read Lears as saying anything controversial about what Obama is doing here, though one might well question Lear’s psychological explanation for it as well as his sense that Obama’s policy is fraught with danger for the US and the world.
10 hours ago · Like

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Ben Alpers How has the last year inoculated us against lefty pessimism about where Obama’s presidency is headed? Or, rather, how has it so inoculated you?
10 hours ago · Like

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James Livingston
The paranoid style in American political biography, rendered now as psychological reduction to the ruined dreams of the father? This piece is of course a poignant measure of the academic Left’s profound disillusionment with Obama. And the antidote–not the cure–is, of course, James Kloppenberg’s long march through the intellectual history of the president, beginning in earnest with the legal realism and pragmatism learned at, uh, Harvard. But you can reach certain of Lears’s conclusions by another, less reductionist path, and that would entail only this knowledge: like most academic leftists who believe the electorate has been in thrall to the Right since Reagan, Obama reads the country as center-right, and therefore believes he must compromise with the addled agenda of the Republican Party. In fact the country is center-left, and so this attitude of compromise with the Right is mostly unnecessary (see, to begin with, the Pew Poll Andrew Hartman cites). But notice: the academic Left wanted Obama to overrule what it took to be the right-center majority, in the name of truth, justice, and the real American way. The president, being a politician who studied Lincoln closely, doesn’t believe he can ignore or flout public opinion, the practical embodiment of consent, so he’s bound to disappoint those who, like Dick Cheney, don’t care about this predicate of democracy. And notice this too: Obama is in essential agreement with the academic Left on the benighted state of the majority’s opinion; he just can’t get around it by declaring it stupid.
10 hours ago · Like

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Tim Lacy Ben: The lefty pessimism has been consistent enough—steady and at a low-enough level–for those who pay attention to not be fazed by yet another appearance of it. I have grown quite used to it. I suggested others may share my sense, but I don’t guarantee it.
10 hours ago · Like

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Tim Lacy Ben: On your first comment, I don’t see Obama as someone to recoil from disappointment in that fashion. I say this as a psychological comment, but it derives from 2+ years of watching him (remotely of course) react politically to things.
10 hours ago · Like

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Tim Lacy Jim: Thanks for putting into words a portion of my reaction, namely that this piece measures the academic left’s disillusionment with Obama. And I want to be clear—I share some of it. I don’t agree, however, that only the academic left wanted Obama to overrule the perceived center-right majority—a lot of rational, centrist, and moderately progressive folks wanted him to work harder against that perceived group.
10 hours ago · Like

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Ben Alpers Tim: I think we agree in our assessment of Lears’ psychological explanation. To me it seems unnecessarily complicated. There are things that have surprised me a bit about the Obama administration (e.g. its tepid environmental record), but its foreign policy is pretty much exactly what I expected based on what Obama said throughout the 2008 campaign.
10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

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James Livingston
When I say overrule, I mean disregard and forge ahead, public opinion be damned, ala Cheney, unitary executive and all that. If you believe in public opinion as the embodiment of consent, you can’t ignore it. If you read that opinion the way the Left, academic or not, does–as the expression of a population duped by the Right, ala Thos Frank–you’re stuck either with compromise or with the dictatorship of the A students, those who know better than you do what’s best for you.
10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

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Ben Alpers
Jim: I agree about the implications of Frank’s argument, but I’m less convinced that the Left (academic or otherwise) universally accepts it. There are just as many who insist that the public is actually to the left of the Democrats. On at least a handful of issues–a healthcare public option, ending US involvement in Afghanistan, and taxing the wealthy are three examples–polls suggest that they are…though I think this optimism about public opinion can lead one into political deadends just as Frank’s pessimism can. But especially since 2008, I’ve heard the argument that our political system has been captured by economic elites and is unresponsive to public opinion more frequently on the left than Frank-like arguments that a majority of the public have been duped by the right.
10 hours ago via mobile · Unlike · 1

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Varad Mehta From a recent Gallup poll: 42% of Americans describe themselves as “conservative,” 37% as “moderate,” and only 19% as “liberal.” The center-right sure adds up to a lot more than the center-left. http://www.gallup.com/poll/151814/Americans-Huntsman-Romney-Paul-Closest-Ideologically.aspx
8 hours ago · Like

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John Haas That depends on what those “moderates” mean by the term. Many no doubt think “liberal” is an extreme designation. Many of those self-described “conservatives” also happen to generally support the New Deal.
8 hours ago · Unlike · 2

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James Livingston
The NORC at Chicago and the SRC at Michigan have been for years asking these so-called conservatives what they want, and they have invariably said–until June of this year–that they want more public spending on health and education. So it all depends on what you mean by “conservative.” Newt Gingrich was, and is, right, most self-professed conservatives are actually liberals who don’t trust or understand the people who act on “liberal” principles. Irving Kristol was also right in suggesting, back in 1978, that so-called liberals in the US had evolved into social democrats of the European kind.
8 hours ago · Unlike · 1

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John Haas
Yes to JL. We do have some “Manchester liberals” in this country–libertarians and those that lean in that direction. We have very few real conservatives–if by “conservative” you mean those who want to conserve (“good”) values and life-ways, and who see threats to those coming as much from the market as from “big government.” Our “liberals” are more social democrats, and are rooted as much in the progressivism of Lincoln and (T) Roosevelt as they are in anything else. If we want American labels for American predilections, we might better see contemporary American “conservatives” as essentially Jacksonians, and “liberals” as Whigs. Like the Jacksonians, American conservatives are not afraid of executive power (as long as their guy has it) and they’re not shy about big government when it’s associated with war. Government spending designed to benefit everyone–or, even worse, demographic groups not their own–they hate, however, along with a national bank/federal reserve, national roads/green energy, and red and brown folk hanging around on land they desire . . .
8 hours ago · Like

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Let’s continue the discussion here! (or is it ?) – TL

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, I read Lears’s last paragraph as slightly more alarmist than you do. It reminds me of the afterword/acknowledgments of _Rebirth of a Nation_, where Lears suggests that American culture is approaching or has reached a “catastrophic” moment, and that not “the” future, but “a future” — any future — is very much in doubt. I wouldn’t say his conclusions here are apocalyptic, but this is at least a jeremiad.

  2. LD: That’s a bummer about the end of *Rebirth of a Nation* because it’s in the top 5 of my to-read queue. I hope everything else in it is, well, more intellectual? – TL

  3. LD,

    I, too, read Lears last paragraph as alarmist (and a bit incredible). Where I disagreed with Tim’s reading was over Lears’ understanding of Obama’s intentions.

    Lears is certainly suggesting that war with China might come. But he isn’t, at least as I read him, suggesting that Obama is “willing to draw us into” such a war, so much as suggesting that Obama might accidentally provoke one.

  4. Tim, _Rebirth of a Nation_ is absolutely worth a read. Lears’s thesis is interesting, and his argument is (mostly) convincing. His “Liberal bias” and disaffection with the Bush administration come through in places, but not in any way that detracts significantly from the work. The afterward is just an acknowledgment of his subject position, which we all know anyhow. Two of my profs regularly assign the book, and I have read it with both of them. I think it’s worth your time.

    Ben, I assume Obama is familiar with the excellent advice of The Princess Bride about land wars in Asia, and I too am pretty sure he intends to follow it. However, Lears’s psychological explanation for how Obama prefers Navy Seals to Congress lingers over the last paragraph. Lears seems to me to be saying that Obama is somehow spoiling for a fight. I don’t think he’s right, but I think that’s what he is suggesting.

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