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Morning Jay: Senate Outlook, The Philosopher King, Steele Watch, and More!

6:30 AM, Oct 28, 2010 • By JAY COST
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2. The Philosopher King. Well, this is a rarity. Check out this article from the New York Times previewing a new book by Harvard historian James Kloppenberg. The title? Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition. It’s the kind of hagiographical treatment that President Obama just doesn’t receive very much these days. Fortunately, Kloppenberg lays it on real heavy:

Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.  “There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson,” he said.

To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce…

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Obama's pragmatism is now a philosophical virtue? What it seems to me that Obama is being praised for is his willingness to cut deals and get half a loaf. 

Isn’t every president like this to some extent? Did liberal academics praise George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s when he cut his budget deal with the Democrats, even though he violated his "no new taxes" pledge?  Did they see that as a sign that he was "updating ideas to navigate the world in which (he) live(s)?" Heck no!  They just laughed along with Ann Richards as she pitied, “Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth!”

I think there is a real tendency in some quarters to elevate the "profane" qualities about Obama into sacred traits. His deal-cutting and flip-floppery are not signs of a politician looking to maximize his chances of election. They are instead reminiscient of “William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce!”

One of the first proponents of this view of looking at Obama was…Obama himself! Check out this passage from the Audacity of Hope

Two days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School.

"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win," the doctor wrote. "I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you." (…)

The reason the doctor was considering voting for my opponent was not my position on abortion as such. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, suggesting that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." He went on to write: "Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. ... I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Long (and turgid) story short, Obama takes the offending passage down from his site. We are to believe that the reason why is because he has learned some important lesson about respecting the opinions of others and the presumption of good faith. 

But isn’t this just the normal tacking to the center that all politicians do? And isn’t the ultimate motivation here just to get votes? Of course it is! He had some hardcore pro-choice language on his website (although he blamed a staffer!) to appeal to the Democrats in the primary. Then after the primary he took it down. Every politician does that, and when 99.9 percent of them do, we roll our eyes and call it pandering. But when Obama did it? Well, it was “extend(ing) the presumption of good faith to others!”


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