Following a study describing President Obama as the rare “philosopher” President — in the mold of Adams — the Wall Street Journal, in an article that mocks conservative polemicists like Dinesh D’Souza but does its damnedest to imitate him, comes to this conclusion. Obama’s not professorial or intellectual, although it’s true that professors like him.
Professors imagine Obama is one of them because he shares their attitudes: their politically correct opinions, their condescending view of ordinary Americans, their belief in their own authority as an intellectual elite. He is the ideal product of the homogeneous world of contemporary academia. In his importance, they see a reflection of their self-importance.
Rather, the assumption that Obama is an intellectual type is, like the inflammatory rhetoric that our author struggles to distance himself from even as he duplicates it,
[A] needlessly elaborate explanation for an unremarkable set of facts.
Occam’s razor suggests that Obama is a mere conformist–someone who absorbed every left-wing platitude he encountered in college and never seems to have seriously questioned any of them. Kloppenberg characterizes Obama as a skeptic, not a true believer. We’re not sure he has an active enough mind to be either one.
One can come up with any number of adjectives to describe the President these days. “Conformist,” “dumb,” and “radical” (the latter two implied) wouldn’t be my first choices. Passing a bill peppered mostly with Republican ideas from just years earlier hardly qualifies as the unquestioning regurgitation of “left-wing platitude[s].” A set of homespun or aggressive remarks, extracted from their campaign context, are rarely representative of one’s intelligence. And if we see a deficit of high-minded and intellectual debate, query whether a President who’s clearly capable of just that would feel a need to hide it, given the aggressively anti-intellectual climate of the past two years.
Although the right would disclaim it with so much handwaving, the opposition has a critical role to play in the creation of any political climate, and the message has been clear for some time that intellectual, fact-based arguments will be met with dismissal at best, and suspicion of its motivations, at worst. Who are “scientists” to lecture us about climate science?!
This isn’t to say that President Obama is a victim of circumstances. Rather, he’s doing the best to navigate a tough environment, and if one worldview guides him in that process, it would seem to be characterized by not partisanship, but by the lack of precisely that conformity of which he stands accused.
President Obama has never been reliably liberal (as the disappointed gay-rights lobby can testify), and none of this should be surprising. In fact, it’s really been quite obvious, from day one, that President Obama has struggled to cast himself as the third-way liberal candidate, in the mold of the early (but not late-term) Tony Blair, jettisoning unpopular elements of liberal philosophy, and dressing up the remainder in the symbology and rhetoric of the right. (It’s not for nothing that Obama continues to close major speeches with Bush’s trademark, re-introduced “God bless America” line.) The more important question is why this has been so profoundly unsuccessful.
One suggestion: the “supermajority,” such as it was, allowed the opposition to tie Obama to an economic crisis not of his own making, which he’s in fact taken remarkable and thus-far successful steps to ameliorate. This disappointment functions as the wedge by which all manner of other attacks may find purchase. The President’s efforts towards symbolic reconciliation address a point rather far up on the pyramid of self-actualization: one that a large portion of America does not yet have the luxury of contemplating.
This is a lot of work to get to the simple and obvious point that the President’s fortunes won’t improve until the economy does. But perhaps we should hold off on judging the success of his “worldview” until it can be evaluated in a vacuum.