Next week the spring semester begins here at the University Oklahoma. For the first time, I’ll be using the second volume of the 7th edition of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition in my American Social Thought honors course. One of the changes to the 7th edition of AIT was the inclusion, almost at the end of the volume, of a piece by Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (2008). More commonly known simply as “the race speech,” this was the address he gave as his first presidential campaign dealt with a crisis during primary season over remarks by his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. With the Obama presidency coming to an end just as my course begins, I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days about the appearance of this piece in The American Intellectual Tradition and about Barack Obama as an intellectual .
Obama is far from the only president represented in the pages of The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume I includes multiple works by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln. Volume II is notably less presidential. Besides Obama, only Woodrow Wilson appears. And Obama’s speech was the only piece by a president newly added to either volume in the 7th edition.
There are a handful of other speeches by presidents (and presidents-to-be) that one might imagine fitting into Volume II of the Hollinger and Capper collection: Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech; Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; FDR’s first inaugural address, “Four Freedoms” speech, his 1944 State of the Union address proposing a Second Bill of Rights, or a number of his Fireside Chats all come to mind. But none of these are particularly intellectually (as opposed to politically) original or significant. The “Crisis of Confidence” speech comes closest, I think. The first half of it was a self-conscious attempt by Jimmy Carter to make a kind of public philosophical statement. It grew out of conversations with a number of significant intellectuals. And it reflects some important strains of 1970s thought that happen to be otherwise absent from The American Intellectual Tradition. But, if push came to shove, I’d probably choose to include an excerpt from, e.g., Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism over the Carter speech.
Though many of our earliest presidents are now generally understood to have been significant intellectuals in their day, since the Civil War, few presidents have either been understood to be or even wanted to be understood to be, intellectuals. Richard Nixon, I think, liked to be seen as a policy intellectual, especially after leaving the White House in disgrace. But I don’t think he produced anything of great intellectual significance. Intellectuals played an important part of the image of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but JFK’s role – real or imagined – was as a kind of patron. The American Intellectual Tradition does feature a number of thinkers closely associated with presidential administrations, such as David Lilienthal (FDR) and Walt Rostow (JFK and LBJ).
Obama, is then, extremely unusual among modern presidents in both presenting himself as an intellectual and in being taken seriously as one. Hollinger and Capper are far from the first major intellectual historians to affirm Obama’s status as an intellectual. In the middle of Obama’s first term, James Kloppenberg published Reading Obama (Princeton University Press, 2010), which argues that Obama should be considered a pragmatist not only in the colloquial political sense, but in the philosophical sense as well, an heir to the legacy of William James, John Dewey, and more recent thinkers like Richard Rorty. Obama’s status as an intellectual was underscored by th president he succeeded and will be by his successor. George W. Bush and Donald Trump are two of the least intellectually curious men ever to occupy the White House.
Though judging very recent presidencies is always difficult, I think it’s fair to say that Obama has also benefitted in comparison to George W. Bush in other ways. Though the first scholarly surveys to rate the Obama presidency have judged him successful but not great, placing him in the second quartile of presidents, George W. Bush is generally ranked in the fourth quartile, among the failed presidents. The Trump presidency may similarly bouy Obama by comparison.
But I wonder how Obama’s status as a thinker will be judged in future decades…and how that judgment will be related to the overall judgment of his presidency. A number of fellow historians I know see Obama’s seriousness as a thinker as one of the signal virtues of his presidency. I’m less sure. The intellectual significance of a president has historically only been tangentially related to his success. Though some of our great presidents have been significant thinkers, most notably Abraham Lincoln, others, like FDR, were not. And I wonder whether, in hindsight, Obama’s brand of pragmatism might come to be seen as tragically ill-suited for the political times in which he governed. If, as now seems likely, many of the major achievements of the Obama administration – from the Affordable Care Act to the Paris Climate Agreements – may be nothing but a memory a year from now, how might that change the way political historians judge him as a president and intellectual historians evaluate him as a thinker?
 Until last year, I taught a one-semester Honors course called American Social Thought that covered (most of) both volumes of the Hollinger and Capper collection. I’d been teaching it for years. However, about a year and a half ago, in a fit of good sense, I realized that this material would be much more sensibly split into two courses: one built on the material in Volume I, the other built on the material in Volume II. I taught American Social Thought thru 1865 last spring; this spring I’m teaching American Social Thought, 1865 to the Present. In retrospect, my old way of doing the course seems simply nuts.