Politicians have long exploited the symbolic power of books. In “Six Crises” (1962), Richard Nixon wrote of a conversation with newly elected President John F. Kennedy. “Every public man should write a book,” Kennedy told Nixon, “because it tends to elevate him in popular esteem to the respected status of an ‘intellectual.’ ” There are other reasons for politicians to write books — profit and public exposure. But the accolades from a tale well-told can burnish an image, as Kennedy found with “Profiles in Courage” (1955), and Barack Obama discovered with “Dreams from My Father” (1995) and “The Audacity of Hope” (2006).
The influence of books lies at the heart of two new ones about President Obama. They take very different approaches and reach very different conclusions about the president, his intellect and his politics. In “Reading Obama,” James Kloppenberg, a professor of intellectual history at Harvard, studies not only Obama’s own writings but also the writers who shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg interviewed Obama’s professors, examinedarticles he edited while president of the Harvard Law Review and analyzed his two books.
The president’s books provide the hook and organizing principle for “Reading Obama.” Kloppenberg is attracted to the political and historical aspects of “The Audacity of Hope,” and that book plays a larger role in his analysis than “Dreams From My Father.” He writes that “Audacity” is “often dismissed, incorrectly, as a typical piece of campaign fluff.” But in Kloppenberg’s eyes, the book reveals Obama to be a philosopher-president, someone whose peers include Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson. His reading of Obama convinces him that the president fuses “three distinct developments”: the American democratic tradition, the philosophy of pragmatism, and the academic debates that defined campuses during his educational years. Each contributed to the president’s desire for compromise and consensus.
Kloppenberg’s method does not always provide original insight into Obama’s ideas, but it does reveal the careful, career-long thought behind them. For instance, Obama’s commitment to pragmatism — what Kloppenberg calls “philosophical pragmatism” as opposed to Bill Clinton’s “vulgar pragmatism” — requires him to admit that, sometimes, it doesn’t offer the best solution. “It has not always been the pragmatist,” Obama writes in “Audacity,” who “has created the conditions for liberty.” In a 2006 story for Time, Joe Klein counted more than 50 of these “on the one hand . . . on the other hand” formulations in Obama’s book. Klein saw them as a sign of the then-senator’s political savvy. But “Reading Obama” suggests they were something else: the result of a sincere and coherent worldview.
Kloppenberg works through many influences on Obama, from James Madison to Gordon Wood’s scholarship on Madison, in a style that is clear, methodical and dry. (One exception comes in his wonderfully barbed asides about the Washington media.) But “Reading Obama” also delivers terrific capsule histories of the movements and individuals who had an impact on the president — the turmoil in legal studies in the 1980s, figures ranging from John Rawls to Clifford Geertz. This is not a beach read, but it will teach you much about Obama.