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Reading Obama:
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
James T. Kloppenberg

Book Description | Table of Contents
Introduction [in PDF format]


"In short, Mr. Kloppenberg's brief intellectual biography of Mr. Obama provides an excellent portrait of the shining self-image of the progressive intellectual."--Peter Berkowitz, Wall Street Journal

"Reading Obama is a welcome addition, not least because it is the first book to try to tease out a coherent political philosophy from the president. Kloppenberg, a prominent intellectual historian at Harvard, does this not by analyzing Obama's pre-presidential record or his campaign rhetoric or his policies but--like a senior professor sizing up a tenure aspirant--by reviewing Obama's published dossier. The chief works, of course, are Obama's best-selling books--his semi-fictional memoir, Dreams from My Father, and his campaign trial balloon, The Audacity of Hope; but Kloppenberg also draws on a passel of other writings and, most originally, on the issues of the Harvard Law Review over which Obama presided as editor in 1990. Pragmatism is a subject close to Kloppenberg's heart, and his expertise. Among his many learned writings on the subject are the landmark Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920, which appeared in 1986, and "Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?," a brilliant article in the Journal of American History in 1996, many of whose ideas resurface in his new work. With his breadth of knowledge and his simplicity of prose, Kloppenberg is a fine guide to these ideas. And lest we suspect that he is merely projecting a set of ideas he esteems onto a politician he admires--Obama, after all, has described himself as "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views"--Kloppenberg is careful to elucidate the reasons for the happy congruence."--David Greenberg, New Republic Online

"Kloppenberg has written an analysis of the intellectual influences that have shaped President Obama's world view. Those who find Obama puzzling need only study the books he read as a student, look at writings by his professors, and read his academic and autobiographical writings to understand what he thinks, why he thinks the way he does and how his presidency reflects the intellectual conclusions he has drawn from his education and life experiences. Obama impressed his law professors with his "exceptional intelligence' and "striking ability to resolve conflicts." As Kloppenberg explains, "his commitment to conciliation lies in his idea of democracy as deliberation, his sure grasp of philosophical pragmatism, his Christian realism and his sophisticated understanding that history, with all its ambiguities and ironies, provides the best rudder for political navigation. Reading Obama offers a fascinating view of the man Kloppenberg calls ''the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century"--Newark Star-Ledger


"Jim Kloppenberg, one of the country's finest intellectual historians, has come up with a remarkable idea as to how we can understand President Obama: just read what he has written and take it seriously. Think of Kloppenberg as the Bob Woodward of investigative philosophical analysis. He's written a fine and hugely informative book."--E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and author of Souled Out

"An intellectual biography of a practicing politician might nowadays seem a contradiction in terms, but James Kloppenberg, one of America's leading intellectual historians, draws penetrating insights from a close examination of the ideas that animate Barack Obama. Reading Obama shows the powerful impact on Obama's politics of his engagement with the late twentieth century revival of philosophical pragmatism and civic republicanism. Obama takes ideas seriously, and Kloppenberg details why that matters for all of us. This is a fine example of contemporary intellectual history."--Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

"Obama is not just a powerful speaker, but a thinker engaged with the ideas of his country and his age--this argument by historian James Kloppenberg should therefore fascinate anyone interested in American politics or how ideas shape public life. Tracing the influences of Obama's family, educational, and work experiences on his ideas, Reading Obama locates a unique individual in the crosscurrents of American democracy and continuing fights over American ideals."--Martha Minow, Harvard Law School

"Reading Obama strikingly illuminates the man, enriching our sense of his intellectual formation and commitments and significantly deepening our understanding of his place in history. In the face of the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the moment, this book reminds readers of the enduring force of an alternative tradition in the American past, and sketches that tradition with care and persuasion."--Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University

"In this arresting, highly informative book, Kloppenberg shows how Obama was shaped by the intellectual debates of the 1980s and is thus the first president since Woodrow Wilson to deeply absorb and act upon the most sophisticated social theories of his generation."--David Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

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File created: 4/21/2017

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