U.S. Intellectual History Blog

President Obama and American Intellectual History

Guest post by Leo P. Ribuffo (a version of this essay was to have been presented at the S-USIH conference).

At some point late in his term President John Kennedy read and respected Listen, Yankee, C. Wright Mills’s attempt to “present the voice” of the Cuban revolution.  A month before he died, JFK used a French journalist to send an oblique message to Fidel Castro about the prospect of improved relations.  Castro must understand that Kennedy was president of the United States “not some sociologist.” (1)

In many respects it is odd to write about a president for the Society for United States Intellectual History (SUSIH), a group dedicated to the revival of intellectual history including the “history of ideas.”  So let’s start with a definition.  I’m not defining “intellectual” in Richard Hofstadter’s ebullient sense as someone who lives for ideas, if any such person has existed since the day John Stuart Mill met Harriet Taylor.  Rather, in the Wright Millsian sense, my intellectuals are people who use ideas as elected officials, policy wonks, social critics, or ideologists. 

It is hard to measure the policy impact of intellectuals, even those who both espoused grand theories and held important offices.  President Harry Truman began containment before George Kennan coined the term.  The Alliance for Progress would have existed without Walt Rostow’s modernization theory, though Rostow’s silly historical comparison of Latin America in 1961 and the United States during a Jacksonian era economic “take off” contributed to the unwarranted optimism.  Economists have had the best luck.  Walter Heller convinced Kennedy to endorse a Keynesian deficit to stimulate the economy even though JFK had trouble distinguishing between fiscal and monetary policy.  In general, however, intellectuals exaggerate the influence of complex ideas and of intellectuals.
Complex ideas encountered in youth do seem to have influenced one major modern presidential decision.  Before pardoning Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford not only prayed and took Communion at Saint John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, but he also recalled lessons from his “legal realist” law professors at Yale who had taught that “public policy often took precedence over a rule of law.” (2)

Certainly presidents are affected by what intellectual historians used to call the “climate of opinion”–which presidents also have significantly helped to shape since the early 1900s. The Enlightenment republicanism of the first six presidents, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis as a rationale for imperialism and an explanation of the Great Depression, and the ubiquitous Munich analogy of the Cold War era stand out as cases in point.

But consider another case SUSIH members might think as odd as Jerry Ford legal realist:  Dwight Eisenhower’s vision of the United States as a “middle of the road” corporate commonwealth. (3) During the “fifties” moderation was the dominant rhetorical theme (trope may be substituted if it makes readers feel smarter):  consensus history, pluralist social theory, neo-Freudian psychology, economic fine tuning, and if you went to the Rand Corporation, advice on how to fight a moderate nuclear war.  Eisenhower admired longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, a social psychological critique of so-called extremism that overlapped with the jargony versions offered by Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset.

Unlike Ike, Obama is a Hofstadterish intellectual who takes ideas very seriously as a person if not necessarily in his day job.  While trying to figure out the world and his place in it as a young man, he read widely, including the works of African-American writers male and female, Friedrich Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot and Peter Drucker.  Certainly he knows that C. Wright Mills wasn’t just “some sociologist.”  At age 34 Obama published a powerful, stylized account of his education in the Henry Adams sense, Dreams from My Father.  He is obviously very smart which, given the centuries of stereotypes about African-Americans, is absolutely wonderful though a source of added animosity on the Right.

Yet Obama is not a uniquely intellectual modern president.  Professor presidents Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft wrote books on American government that are still worth reading.  So did Herbert Hoover.  Some of Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches on government and society merit attention too, and a colleague specializing in the topic tells me that TR’s naval history of the War of 1812 holds up well.

Exemplifying pack journalism Jonathan Alter dubbed Obama “professor-in-chief.” (4) What “professorial” means in the news media stereotype is that Obama is more thoughtful than the typical national political reporter and feels uncomfortable with emotional appeals beyond the obligatory “hopey-changey thing,” as Sarah Palin described Obama’s inspirational side in the best quip of her career.

Although journalists have uncovered an enormous amount of information about Obama’s early life, no one seems to have paid much attention to what sort of intellectual he was like as a teacher at the University of Chicago.  Judging from his pre-presidential and early presidential speeches, he is at his best mulling over ethical issues with policy implications.  Some of these were very good, especially the Reverend Wright speech, Cairo speech, and Nobel Prize speech.

But explanation of policy, with all of the inevitable simplifications, isn’t Obama’s strong suit.  Having worked at a business information company before becoming a community organizer, he surely knows the difference between fiscal and monetary policy.  Indeed, Paul Volcker credits Obama with the best understanding of economics of any president he has met. Yet Obama has never used this knowledge to explain the virtues of Keynesianism during the Great Recession as cogently as Kennedy (and his speech writers) did amid the relative prosperity of 1962.  Nor would he dare to join JFK in decrying the “myth” that government is “big and bad–and steadily getting bigger and worse.” (5) Times have changed.  What was once an arguable economic theory briefly in the ascendant among liberal politicians has become at most a hidden heresy. (6)

Undoubtedly there are psychological factors affecting Obama’s incessant moderation and repeated calls for cooperation in “one United States of America” without blue states and red states long after congressional Republicans rejected cooperation.  Recognizing that hostility to government is “as American as apple pie,” as Obama said after the 2010 elections, perhaps he also sees no point to picking fights he will lose in a historically conservative country at least a third of which is even more economically conservative than usual (relative to the existing spectrum) at the moment.

Psychology and politics aside, Obama’s incessant moderation intersects with part of the prevailing climate of opinion, not with the thunder on the Right but with the partly sunny day with a chance of showers forecast by the Center-Left.  We encounter moderate punditry from E. J. Dionne, moderate Keynesianism from Lawrence Summers, moderate social philosophy from Michael Sandel, and, at the Center for a New American Security, advice on how to fight a moderate drone war.  Trendy buzz words like “civil society” and “communitarianism” should not obscure historical continuities.  Somewhere Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset are smiling.

What about those conservative and Right-wing thunderstorms?   I have written often about the American Right, the chronically obtuse liberal and radical response to it since the 1930s, and the limitations of the historical profession’s recent belated discovery that there are lots of conservatives in the United States and most of them believe in God. (7) So I will restrict my comments here to four points.

I will begin with just about the only thing Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote that I agreed with until he opposed the second Iraq War.  In 1955 during the first post-World War II discovery of conservatism by liberals and radicals, Schlesinger wrote:  “What matters  . . . is not the conservatism of the professors  but the conservatism of the industrialists, bankers, and politicians.” (8) When I first read this passage four decades ago, I thought Schlesinger should have added the clergy.  Now, with all due respect to intellectual historians highlighting Richard Weaver or Leo Strauss, I would in addition emphasize war veterans, gun owners, popular novelists (some of whom are clergy) and–here too–economists (even if they double as professors).

Second, much of the Right’s assault on Obama is consistent with its perennial mistaken belief that ideas have more consequences than they do. One prominent example of this bad intellectual history is Dinesh D’Souza’s charge that Obama as a teenager absorbed his ostensibly radical views from his maternal grandfather’s Communist drinking buddy Frank Marshall Davis.

Third, we need to consider the possibility that the Right broadly conceived has changed more than the Left broadly conceived since their respective contemporary origins during the 1930s.

Fourth, we need to think about the unthinkable, that the United States for roughly a century has been in complex ways a conservative country. 

For more detail beyond these points, come to a session I organized at the American Historical Association convention in January called Studying the American Right, Center, and Left–All at the Same Time!

In the meantime, keep in mind that Barack Obama is President of the United States not some intellectual historian.


1. C. Wright Mills:  Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba (New York:  Ballantine,, 1960), 8.  The Kennedy anecdote comes from Norman Birnbaum, “The Half-Forgotten Prophet:  C. Wright Mills,” Nation, March 20, 2009.

2. Gerald R. Ford, A Time to Heal:  The Autobiography of Gerald R. Ford (New York:  Harper and Row, 1979), 173-175.

3. See the classic essay by Robert Griffith, “Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth,” American Historical Review, February 1982.

4. Jonathan Alter, The Promise:  President Obama, Year One (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1980), 267.

5. Kennedy omitted the term Keynesian economics, probably out of prudence, but his address at the June 1962 Yale commencement included something even more heretical by current standards, an explicit acknowledgement that the United States could learn lessons from Western Europe about effective government and economic policy.

6. My admiration for Kennedy’s effort to popularize complicated and counterintuitive economic ideas should not be taken as general enthusiasm for his presidency.  His civil rights actions were sluggish even if we apply standards appropriate for a president rather than some sociologist.  Many of his foreign policies were so risky that relatively few Americans now have any real sense just how dangerous these were.  Collective memory of the U.S. public “victory” in the Cuban missile crisis stands out as the prime example.  This obliviousness to the continued relevance of  the Cold War extends to some of President Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers, a disposition amply documented–and misconstrued as wisdom–in James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power(New York:  Viking, 2012).

 7. For a quick summary see Leo P. Ribuffo, “Twenty Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right isTrendy,” Historically Speaking, January 2011.

8. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Politics of Hope (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 80.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. 1. Is this a veiled (or not-so veiled) critique of Kloppenberg’s book on Obama? Why no explicit mention?

    2. Using Dinesh D’Souza as a way to discredit the idea that “ideas have consequences” ( a la Richard Weaver) on the right is somewhat unfair, since it’s not the idea that people are motivated by ideas that is wrong about his book, but his ludicrous evidence-free characterization of the ideas that supposedly influenced Obama through a set of obscure relations. If you want to take on Kloppenberg’s claim about Obama’s actual education and exposure to a body of ideas, and the use he has made of a philosophically pragmatic and anti-ideological frame, do so. But this seems like an attack through the back door.

  2. Kloppenberg seems the obvious target, but I think one could argue (and perhaps Leo might if he responds) that Leo’s really describing/criticizing an attitude of which Kloppenberg is merely the most prominent vessel. The attitude, namely, that “Obama is one of us,” a message which Kloppenberg seemed to be preaching to a (mostly) receptive crowd at the USIH conference two years ago. So while in one sense it seems pertinent to name Kloppenberg, in another it is superfluous.

  3. Leo’s response to Dan Wickberg:

    1. Obviously I don’t deny that ideas, notions, hunches have consequences in life Who could? That would even include what the old Penn crowd (Murphey, Kuklick) used to call hard ideas (e.g., Keynesianism and legal realism in my piece). In general, however, I think intellectual historians exaggerate the influence of ideas as ideas no matter their political positions. Obviously, too, it’s not a simple either/or. Call it dialectical or dialogic. Or re-read Thomas Kuhn or (especially) the “conventional wisdom” chapter of Galbraith’s AFFLUENT SOCIETY, which offered up a paradigm theory for general worldview shifts before paradigm theory became cool (later coolness due to changes in Am society). Similarly, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, William Appleman Williams would have been no less good as thinkers but would have had many fewer consequences if there had not been the “high Sixties” which there probably would not have been without the VN War. Their basic ideas STILL seem good to me but are out of fashion (and considered nutty by many of my students though post 2008 Crash Mills is making a modest comeback). Indeed, instead of inviting the usual “presidential historians” to schmooz at the White House Obama should read Williams’s THE TRAGEDY OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY. Not that it would do much good since Obama is president of the US not some diplomatic historian.

    I think this exaggeration of the power of ideas tends to be worse among conservatives (yes, including Kirk and Weaver and the neo-con “adversary culture” gang down to the grassroots, “My kids had sex because teachers told them about Darwin and put GOODBYE COLUMBUS on the syllabus.”). But it should be equally obvious that I think of D’Souza, a real sleaz, as one of the worst examples, “bad intellectual history,” as I wrote.

    2. Kloppenberg question reminds me of a 1950s story. Sen Estes Kefauver declared that anyone called before a congressional committee to testify should have a real chance to defend himself (a belief Kefauver did always honor in practice). Asked by the press whether this was a reference to Sen Joe McCarthy, Kefauver responded, “Love everybody, that’s my motto.”

    I have read Kloppenberg’s book and readers can see where we disagree. But along with several million people I was trying to figure out what made Obama tick before READING OBAMA appeared in print.

  4. I agree with most of this post but for two exceptions. In what way can Michael Sandel possibly be considered a moderate? It would be a mistake to think all of Sandel can be grasped by his stances on particular issues which do not appear to be extreme, yet a systematic and principled anti-liberalism makes him, if not extreme, anything but a moderate. Also I suspect that, among modern presidents at least, Obama may be rather intellectually advanced and/or sophisticated, partly a function of his unusual breath and variety of knowledge.

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