U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On The President As Intellectual

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.[1] 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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Thanks for this. You’ve evolved into the blog’s resident assessor of presidential and White House intellectual activities. 🙂

    On this line from your piece: “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.”

    I’m going to make the call now: He was tragically ill-suited, temperamentally in terms of domestic governance, for this political times. But that outcome was not easy to see during the campaign. And then there’s the quiet and explicit racism. I offer these two points because I don’t think that pragmatism, per se, has much to do with his temperament and style.

    One could be both a pragmatist and better negotiator. On that latter, that involves a better assessment of one’s foes limits, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s interesting to contrast Obama’s Niebuhurian realism on the international front with his domestic leadership. I think it was Obama’s fundamental optimism in relation to his domestic opponents that had more to do with his weaknesses as a governor at home. That optimism and generosity were ill-suited for his particular opponents. And then, again, there’s the racism, and how his Congressional opponents responded to the racism of their constituents.

    – TL

  2. Ben,
    Obama was naively optimistic about his ability to forge a new progressive consensus, because he believed he could negotiate on specific issues with (what I’ll call) mainstream conservatives (this goes back to his 2004 Red, White and Blue speech [which he contrasted to Red/Blue States]). He thought he could duplicate his law review experience of granting equal access to fair-minded intellectual adversaries. What he didn’t realize was that he would be dealing with hardcore reactionaries who actually intend to “turn back the clock” and are immune to compromise.
    How does this fit into the American intellectual tradition? It fits because liberals generally assume that historical development is on their side and flows in their desired direction (thus it cannot realistically suffer permanent reversals—setbacks, yes, but not genuine defeats); this belief is based more on an evolutionary sense of humanistic values than it is on the (often suggested) belief in human perfectibility based on reason alone. Liberals can win a war of ideas against conservatives; they have a hard time winning wars of passions against reactionaries.
    Years ago Clive James said that Neville Chamberlain was too much of a gentleman to realize that Hitler wasn’t. The same sentiment applies to Obama and the dark characters that rule the Republican Party.

  3. I’ll take off my historian’s hat and talk about the future, as this post suggests we might, and dissent from both Tim and Drew. Let us recall that Obama accomplished what no Democratic president from Truman forward was able to do: create a framework for the public expansion of health care coverage., that resulted in 20 million more people covered by health insurance. We will see how “repeal and replace” goes, but this accomplishment is enormous, and not a failure because it didn’t immediately achieve what many on the Left wanted–nationalized health care. Whatever happens now, I don’t think we can go back to status quo ante on health care. I would also say that the Iran nuclear deal, as a foreign policy accomplishment is huge, as is the Paris climate agreement. Again, we’ll see what happens. These accomplishments, along with others such as Dodd-Frank, are remarkable. And he did these things in the face of a Republican Party that was dead set against him accomplishing anything at all, and that contained within it a reactionary base that imagined Obama as everything from a Kenyan manchurian candidate to a Marxist revolutionary to an anti-American terrorism sympathizer to a Hitler to an unqualified affirmative action case. I would argue that his successes came because he was both a pragmatic realist–recognizing conditions on the ground and the range of the possible–and a long-view optimist. He took what he could get, instead of being wedded to an ideological position that demanded ramping up conflict in a way that could only result in failure. And the rhetoric of imagining his opponents as reasonable actually served his cause well, allowing him to gain support from those who do wish to imagine that the two political parties are equally responsible for Washington’s failures. I’m not an optimist, but I do think Obama’s pragmatic optimism had a lot to do with his success. And I think we may look back on his administration as second in the twentieth century only to FDR’s in its accomplishments. I would ask those who consider Obama tragically ill-suited to the moment, what standard would you use to evaluate success? Who could have done more and how might it have been done given the opposition in place? Okay, now I’ll put my historian’s hat back on!

    • To take my historian’s hat off too:

      Much depends on how much of the Obama legacy survives the Trump presidency or even this year. Obama accomplished an enormous amount, I agree. But if it all disappears immediately after his presidency, that will — and ought to — affect how we evaluate him. I think I am less optimistic than you that any of it will survive. Unlike you, I absolutely think we can go back to the status quo ante on health insurance. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong. (Of course, merely losing all the accomplishments of the Obama presidency — plus Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare — is, sadly, far from the worst case scenario we may be facing now. For the first time in my lifetime, I am not at all confident in our constitutional order surviving the next four years.)

      What could Obama have done differently? Most obviously not let his party fall apart during his eight years in office. After years of strong leadership under Howard Dean, the party has had markedly weak leadership under Obama. In 2009, rather than turn his campaign apparatus over to the party, as most winning presidential candidates do, Obama founded Organizing for America while putting the party itself under notably weaker leadership. The party performed terribly in the crucial 2010 midterms. The GOP successfully nationalized that year’s state races, aggressively redistricted at both both state legislatures and congress, and set up the situation we find ourselves in today.

      Also: he could have not appointed a partisan Republican to head the FBI.

      Both of these mistakes (and more) reflect the more fundamental errors that Drew mentions upthread.

  4. One could write several posts about the development of The American Intelllectual Tradition, historicizing its inclusions and exclusions. I did something to that effect a few years ago here, from a Latinx perspective. It is interesting to see how Richard Rodríguez is now the sole Latinx representative, particularly because he is quite a controversial figure among Chicanx / Latinx writers and scholars for his conservative politics of assimilation (if anyone is interested on Rodríguez, Cristina Beltrán’s recent articles on him are quite good; she is working on a book on the conservative tradition in Latinx cultures). Rodríguez is fascinating, but a much better figure would have Gloria Anzaldúa, in terms of intellectual significance. But hey, one Latinx is better than zero!

    About the inclusion of the Obama speech, I can’t help but think about in terms of the history of U.S. Blackness and African American intellectual history, taking into account the fact that it is made to stand for such history from 1965 to the present (you have Baldwin’s “Everyone’s Protest Novel” (1949), MLK’s “Protect Your Enemies” (1957), and a Marcuse text on Malcolm X (1965), and after that we jump to Obama’s 2008 landmark speech). With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing discussions about structural racism, racial capitalism, and Black politics of respectability, I can very well imagine the speech disappearing from the next edition, with an excerpt from, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

    I also find interesting that the book includes barely any texts from the seventies, only Chodorow and Said, which are quite scholarly texts, in comparison to many of the texts that precede them from the two previous decades. In fact, there are no texts dating from 1968 to 1977. Now, why would that be, I wonder?

  5. PS: Please excuse the egregious grammar mistakes I made in my comment. The ability to edit comments on the fly in Facebook and other media has hampered my immediate writing output as of late.

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