Barack Obama


President Barack Obama


Some amateur psychologists have recently characterized Barack Obama as "arrogant," notably editorial writer Jonas Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. Yet Obama repeatedly said “This campaign is not about me. It’s about you.” On another occasion he said, “It is hard to find your individual potential or sense of self-worth unless you are also concerned about the collective potential and self-worth of others.” One biographer, Mark Halperin, in particular noted that Obama agonized about running for the presidency because he did not feel up to the job. The amateur psychologists share one shortcoming in common: They project their own personalities and thereby tell more about themselves than about Obama. -- Michael Haas, October 12, 2010

Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition by James T. Kloppenberg, Department of History, Harvard University is yet another effort to make sense of a president who has puzzled many. The book imposes a template on Obama that emerges from the author's quest to understand the intellectual history of American politics. Scraps of writing about Obama are seized upon to prove that Obama is primarily a pragmatist, not just pragmatic, but also an agnostic regarding the truth of many intellectual schools of American political thought, which though discussed in the book are not clearly enough presented for those unfamiliar with them. Yet there are two important gaps. One is that he does not list Social Darwinism, a major view among many Republicans, past and present. Second, the lack of an index entry for "Hawai`i" is mirrored in his failure to examine the role of the Aloha State in shaping Obama's fundamental values despite Obama's many statements to that effect. Whereas Kloppenberg talks of "conflicting" intellectual traditions, Obama's alternative rendering, derived from his experience Hawai`i, is that there is a perspectivism in all of us when we assert our political preferences. In Hawai`i the pluralism of views is identified with the existence of alternative cultures that work side by side rather than conflictually. Thus, Kloppenberg views Obama as torn between conflicting philosophical strands, whereas Obama considers himself enriched by multiple perspectives as a challenge to find "common ground," an assignment that is taken for granted in Hawai`i. Kloppenberg sees no pattern in where Obama ends up in his efforts to negotiate compromise, possibly because he does not understand how communitarianism works in practice. Similar to most Mainland scholars, Kloppenberg fails to appreciate how the different cultural groups in Hawai`i overcame the ill effects of pre-statehood Social Darwinist Republican rule during the very years when Obama lived in Honolulu because that narrative is sparse. The monocultural Mainland has many subcultures but still fails to understand what life is like in a truly multicultural society that embraces interculturalism--learning from other cultures. When Kloppenberg spends time in Hawai`i, he will be enriched. -- Michael Haas, January 23, 2011

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