On Political Books

May/ June 2013 Overthinking Obama

Forget Kenya. The president’s secret political philosophy is apparently rooted in seventeenth-century Rotterdam.

By Mark Schmitt

Out of Many, One: Obama and the Third American Political Tradition
by Ruth O’Brien
University of Chicago Press, 432 pp.

Few presidents since the founding generation and Lincoln have been treated as significant political thinkers in their own right. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan are all considered to have been representatives of powerful ideologies at their moments of ascent, but we know they were not the authors of those ideas. Bill Clinton may have been the smartest political strategist since FDR to occupy the White House, but I know of no books on the political theory of Bill Clinton—which would, in any event, be an elusive subject. The exception is probably Woodrow Wilson, who would be regarded as a significant figure in the development of political science even if he had never run for office.

But there’s something about Barack Obama that makes people want to interpret him not just as a product of his time and political circumstances but also as a powerful theorist creating a politics of his own. This is common on the right, of course, where Newt Gingrich once asked, “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich was reflecting the work of Dinesh D’Souza, whose book (Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream) and movie (2016) depict Obama as an acolyte of quasi-Marxist postcolonial theory. Numerous books have looked at Obama’s theory of race, and in Reading Obama, the intellectual historian James T. Kloppenberg contributed an elegant account of the ideas that were in the air in Obama’s schooling and in Chicago, and of their debt to American pragmatism.

Ruth O’Brien, a political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, makes a more expansive claim: Obama marks a third American political tradition, one that falls outside both the “Lockean” tradition of unfettered liberties that Louis Hartz celebrated in The Liberal Tradition in America in 1954 and also the civic-republican thread that more recent thinkers, among them E. J. Dionne and Michael Lind, have seen in the line running from Alexander Hamilton through the Progressives and FDR. (Essentially, this the tradition of an active government with a strong role in the economy.) Obama’s third way, according to O’Brien, is not the hyper-cautious centrism associated with the Washington lobbying group that bears the same name, but rather a commitment to democracy as process, to deliberation, to a kind of unity in diversity in which people are bound not by their identities but by participation in a continuous discourse.

O’Brien refers to this tradition as “Spinozan,” or, worse, “Deleuzo-Spinozan,” referring to the recent French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze revived academic interest in the seventeenth-century political thought of Baruch Spinoza, which bears rudimentary hints of the idea of democracy as a kind of never-ending deliberation—long before anything like modern democracy could be observed anywhere in Europe. On these shores, her Deleuzo-Spinozan line is represented by John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Hannah Arendt, and the community organizer Saul Alinsky.

You’ll learn from Out of Many, One that O’Brien is brilliant and erudite, but you won’t learn much about Spinoza, Deleuze, or Arendt. O’Brien strings these and more obscure names together, as if names alone had meaning enough, in a style reminiscent of the philosopher Richard Rorty—a kind of writing that should bear a “Don’t try this at home” warning. In a typical sentence—“Drawing on Deleuzian and Spinozan ethics, Arendt’s Vita Activa, DuBois’s deconstruction of racial mechanization, and Dewey’s insistence on a plurality of perspectives, Obama asks American citizens to go beyond bipartisan discussion”—the names are just decoration for a banal observation. Dozens of sentences begin with phrases like “Obama believes” or “Obama knows” but are followed not by any evidence about Obama but rather a paraphrase of Deleuze, Arendt, or some other author of whom the president may or may not have ever heard. While more congenial than D’Souza’s interpretation, and probably closer to the truth, O’Brien’s Obama is no less a fictional character.

O’Brien is also a poor guide to the substance of Obama’s presidency. She praises Obama for supporting Elizabeth Warren’s ambition to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by appointing Warren’s deputy, Richard Cordray; a few pages later she lauds his diverse appointments to the federal bench. I’m as forgiving of the Obama administration as anyone who was never on its payroll, but even I can’t pretend that Obama supported Warren when he didn’t, or that his appointments to the federal judiciary are any kind of success—he hasn’t made enough of them, and he hasn’t fought to get his nominees confirmed. There are plenty of excuses, and no president executes well on everything, but by no definition can these be considered successes.

The deeper flaw here is the single-minded focus on Obama himself to the exclusion of the context, institutions, and other forces that shape the presidency. It’s a blind spot shared by the Obama haters like D’Souza (and the Republicans who were confident of a Mitt Romney presidency because everyone they know hates Obama), by the long-standing liberal skeptics such as Paul Krugman, and by liberals who cycled from enthusiasm to (predictable) disappointment.

O’Brien is right that Obama represents an American political tradition, though there’s no need to go back to seventeenth-century Rotterdam to find it. The focus on democratic process, reform, and an ideal of deliberative democracy has been shared by many of the less successful Democratic candidates (and a few Republicans, like Representative John Anderson in 1980) since the 1950s. It’s the tradition of what historian Sean Wilentz called the “beautiful losers,” beginning with Adlai Stevenson, and journalist Ron Brownstein called “wine track” candidates (people who talk about “new politics”) as opposed to the more electable “beer track” candidates like Bill Clinton (who focus more on basic economics than on the nature of politics). Obama’s passion has always seemed to be more for a richer and more collaborative form of politics than for any particular vision of economic justice.

Obama’s presidency has been the first real test of a politics focused on reform and democratic participation rather than traditional bipartisan bargaining—and it has failed. Over the last four years, American politics split sharply into the two primary traditions: the first a sort of hyper-Lockeanism represented not just by the Tea Party but even by Mitt Romney’s division of the country into “makers and takers,” the second a demand—driven by circumstances and crisis—for a much more active, expansive government role in the economy. Economic issues, once a natural zone of compromise, began to seem more like social issues, matters of irreconcilable absolutes. There wasn’t much room in the middle, and for a period, Obama’s discursive strategy seemed wholly irrelevant. Obama was pulled between trying to cut a “grand bargain” with an intransigent right and taking a fierce stance in favor of economic stimulus, job creation, and a publicly backed guarantee of health insurance. He did neither one well, although he somehow still survived to reelection.

Perhaps the whole approach was a mistake from the start, and Obama should have adopted an aggressive, ambitious posture to counter his opponents—or Hillary Clinton should have been president. Alternatively, one could argue that Obama didn’t invest enough energy in reform, process, and deliberative democracy. Imagine, for example, if instead of letting Congress figure out health reform, and instead of driving the policy from the White House (as many liberals contend he should have done), the administration had organized hundreds of mass community discussions, using the technology perfected in deliberations on topics such as the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, to involve tens of thousands of citizens in the questions of how (and even whether) to ensure universal access to health care and lower societal costs. It might not have worked, but it might have provided an alternative outlet to the raw anger of the Tea Party and the violent town hall congressional meetings of the summer of 2009. Nor did the administration live up to the promise to fundamentally change the power relationship among campaign donors, lobbyists, and government—but should we really be surprised that the most successful fund-raiser in modern political history would not ultimately be willing to shake things up?

Another possibility is that a crisis is simply the wrong moment for new politics. In a way, it’s miraculous that Obama was able to build the foundations for some very different approaches to governance, such as the Race to the Top education program, within the panicked, hateful environment of the economic crisis. Reading, for example, the recent report from the Republican National Committee on its party’s woes, one can see the effort to find a way out of the apocalyptic, all-or-nothing politics of 2009-2012, a politics that is unsustainable and out of equilibrium. As the political system slowly returns to balance, this might be the moment for a fresh politics, a new relationship between citizens and government, and a chance for Obama’s mode of politics—which, after all, reflects a deep American tradition—to show its strengths.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience: Buy from Amazon.com.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.


  • Stephen on May 11, 2013 12:31 PM:

    Talk about projection! Straight out of Chicago, this piece absolutely invests too much thinking relative to Obama's approach to politics. Three simple words really go to sum up the man and his actions: "Rules For Radicals".

  • lakelady on May 12, 2013 1:17 PM:

    Hillary Clinton should have been president.

  • Theodore P. Savas on May 12, 2013 1:33 PM:

    This entire article overthinks the man. He is a focused idealogue and if you look at who he befriended growing up and during his early and middle-adult years, read his books, look at his mother and Frank Marshall Davis (mentors both), the pew he sat in for 20 years, and then pull out his ACTIONS as president, there is no smoke, there is no mirror, and there is no confusion. That man believes in is a Marxist theology, his sympathies lie in big central government here, and with the Islamic world abroad. His utter inexperience in the private sector is painfully obvious, as is his lack of any managerial ability. I would not have hired him in 2008 to run my small company of eight employees, and after watching him for 5 years, I would not do so now.

    None of this surprises me, but it seems to confuse the writer. Almost always the most simple explanation is the most accurate.

  • Ken Shaffin on May 12, 2013 2:01 PM:

    You have completely ignored, as usual for a MSM writer, the innate dishonesty of Obama and Hillary, that explain the essence of why their roots in ideology seem as elusive as this writer reveals while critiquing another's attempts to explain away Obama's presumed highbrow thinking along with his four years of ineptitude as a leader. It has become oh so obvious for all to see who are willing to avoid their preconceptions and notions that these two harbor not, as the author sums up with, any "deep American tradition" of political purity, but rather a basic self-interest and narcissism of one's own greatness. Their lies about Benghazi are the most illustrative of their lack of integrity and moral character which is one "deep American tradition" of American's expectation in their leaders. Obama is a failure. As is Hillary. That is all we need know any further about them.

  • Ken Puck on May 12, 2013 2:27 PM:

    I have no illusions that Barack is a deep thinker. He absorbed Saul Alinsky's dogma wholesale and has lived it. He seeks only to demolish America in its present form and then await what happens next, which he believes will be Shangri-La. Bizarre. No other word for it.

  • JohnO on May 12, 2013 8:39 PM:

    I agree. Everyone should stop over-analyzing this creature. He is a stone psychopath. Nothing he does will ever make sense to a normal person and it is a waste of time to try.

  • Bruce S on May 14, 2013 2:08 AM:

    Who directed all the mental patients over here?

  • g on May 15, 2013 3:23 PM:

    Throw a net over them! Were they all summoned by a link at World Nut Daily?

    Pretty telling that they are happy to declare "psychopath" and "radical" and "demolish America" without citing even one coherent example.

  • Doug on May 15, 2013 7:54 PM:

    Let's see now, a community organizer, a State Senator and then a U.S. Senator. What do these three have in common? How about: They rely on *convincing* others to work together; usally by words, but also by example? Which, to me anyway, fully explains Mr. Obama's approach to the Presidency. It's also the way most voluntary organizations work and, after all, voting in this country. being completely voluntary, could be looked on in that way.
    That the approach Mr. Obama seems to have adopted hssn't worked well can, I think, be placed squarely at the actions of his opposition. It's obvious that, for Mr. Obama'a approach to work, there *has* to be give and take; yet NO modern President has had to face a 100% united opposition on EVERYTHING he has proposed. None.
    As best I can tell, Mr. Obama's approach to governing is to approach it exactly as almost all previous Presidents have; a process where one doesn't get everything wished for but, at the same time, one gets *something*. You know, just as most people do in their everyday lives? A hint: that may very be exactly why Mr. Obama was re-elected.
    Such an approach obviously won't work when the opposition would rather crash the economy than vote for anything that *doesn't* make the President appear in a bad light. However, faced with such an opposition, would *any* other approach to governing, or style of governing, have been more successful? I can't see how.
    What's pitiful is the failure of pundits and the MSM to, at the very least, take note of the extent of the unprecedented opposition faced by President Obama and how that form of opposition then affects the ability of anyone to govern that really needs exploration. In which case then, O'Brien as provided neither a valid critique of Mr. Obama's method of governing nor even noted vallid reasons for any failures.
    All those trees, wasted You know, just as most people do in their everyday lives? Hint: that may very be exactly why Mr. Obama was re-elected.
    All those trees, wasted...

  • Forrest Leeson on May 16, 2013 1:02 PM:

    "Three simple words really go to sum up the man and his actions: 'Rules For Radicals'."

    Oh, deary deary me, hit-and-run poster -- have you ever considered what the often-invoked phrase "Alinskyite socialist" actually means? Of course not, Glenn Beck never explained it to you, so I'll spell it out.

    A socialist diagnoses the source of the public's pain as Republican policies.

    An Alinskyite (see the very Rules cited) seeks not to mitigate but rather to exacerbate the public's pain -- to oblige it to revolt.

    Consequently an Alinskyite socialist would therefore be -- rather than a conspicuous Marxist -- indistinguishable from a Republican.

    Whether Barack Obama is indistinguishable from a Republican is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • clarence swinney on June 18, 2013 3:22 PM:

    REAGAN=Nnicarauga-El Salvador- Hondurss-Lebanon
    BUSH I---- Iraq—Kosovo-Somalia
    CLINTON =0
    BUSH II=Iraq—Afghanistan--Pakistan
    How many innocents were killed due to our involvement?