The Chronicle Review

How Obama Sees America

The intellectual legacy of our 44th president

Jacquelyn Martin, AP Images

President Obama commemorates the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 civil-rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
September 25, 2016

As the presidency of Barack Obama reaches its end, assessments of his legacy are bound to proliferate. Historians, of course, resist the rush to judgment; such evaluations require the passage of time and the slow emergence of perspective. Even so, certain dimensions of the legacy of Obama’s presidency have already become clear.

Obama did not spring full-blown from the mind of Zeus. This man of African and American heritage quite consciously fashioned himself and his political program from materials he inherited from the American past. As he made abundantly clear in The Audacity of Hope (2006), he shares the convictions of many social democrats who preceded him. First, he believes in what he calls "ordered liberty," a conception of freedom that involves not only the absence of illegitimate restraint but also — and equally important — both an awareness of the need to internalize moral and civic laws, and a commitment to securing the conditions necessary for the exercise of that liberty. Second, he believes in equality — not merely the empty and formal equality of opportunity that all Americans are said to enjoy, but social and economic equality of the kind that most white Americans experienced from the mid-1940s through the early 1970s, a period of rapid economic growth and low inequality.

Third, Obama believes that the tradition of interpreting the Constitution, which he describes as a "nation arguing with its conscience," reflects a solid commitment to the idea that law should be alive rather than fixed — that we must continue to adapt our laws in response to our changing convictions. Fourth, Obama believes in government regulation of the economy, a graduated income tax, and a robust safety net, all of which are necessary to advance the common good and protect against the emergence of an aristocracy of wealth inimical to a democracy. Finally, he believes in securing, at last, the promise of equal treatment for all Americans contained in the civil-rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

But there is a difference that separates Obama from his predecessors. Whereas earlier generations of Americans committed to similar ideals and programs usually considered them either consistent with God’s will or mandated by reason, Obama understands that they are simply part of our cultural and historical inheritance. They are what we have decided that we value, and they are no less precious to us as a result. That claim is contentious. It is also complicated.

As the first American president to come of age after the cultural and intellectual revolutions of the 1960s, Obama showed, not only in his memoir Dreams From My Father but in much of what he has written, that he realizes there are no universal, timeless, and fixed truths that all humans must embrace. Instead, like the late 19th- and early 20th-century American pragmatist philosophers William James and John Dewey, and like cultural anthropologists (such as Obama’s mother), Obama understands that all knowledge is particular, historically situated, and provisional. In contrast to the postwar generation of Americans who embraced the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Obama belongs to a chastened, skeptical generation that might share such ideals but doubts they can be shown to rest on the bedrock of divine law or rationality or applied without difficulty to every society. Instead they are contingent and historically conditioned cultural products, hypotheses to be tested in practice rather than doctrines to be affirmed as sacred.

The evidence of Obama’s commitments to this cluster of ideas — which you might call "anti-foundationalist" or, to use the older term associated with the philosophical tradition of James and Dewey, "pragmatist" — is scattered throughout Obama’s writings and speeches. Among the consequences of this sensibility, consistent with an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge, is an awareness that all perspectives are partial, and all of our beliefs should be scrutinized according to the best available evidence.

To those for whom such an approach to politics is synonymous with spinelessness, and those who believe that all success comes from unyielding adherence to unchanging principles, pragmatists will always appear too quick to compromise and too cowardly to stick to their guns. The United States contains many people, on the left and the right, who share that view. Obama does not.

Almost everyone who has known Obama agrees that an openness to differing perspectives is among the defining features of his character. During his presidency, it has manifested itself repeatedly. His willingness to compromise with conservatives has left him vulnerable to critics (though I believe, in time, he will be counted among the most effective reformers of the last century and a half).

Those who want to grasp President Obama’s contribution to American cultural history should simply read or, even better, listen to his words. One might start with his first inaugural and end with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, or review his eight State of the Union addresses. But I think four speeches, from the last two years of his presidency, stand out as emblematic of his defining qualities.

Like the pragmatist philosophers, Obama understands that all knowledge is particular, historically situated, and provisional.
The first came in Selma, Ala., in March 2015, 50 years after the police attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Obama observed that Selma was among the places "where this nation’s destiny has been decided," when "the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher" all collided on that bridge. That "clash of wills" helped determine that "the true meaning of America" would be "an inclusive America." Although victory was neither "preordained" nor "complete," the marchers "proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate" if enough ordinary people come together to shape the future. "What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?" The marchers in Selma helped open "the doors of opportunity" for all Americans, and reminded us that America is "a constant work in progress" and that "our work is never done."

Obama then struck a note he had been sounding since the spring of 2008, when he gave his famous "race speech" in Philadelphia in the middle of the presidential campaign. He rejected the notion that "racial division is inherent to America," adding, "If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO … [or] your gay friend." Although "this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us," he insisted, the changes are real.

A few months later, in June, President Obama delivered a speech in Charleston, S.C., in memory of the pastor and eight members of the Emanuel AME Church congregation murdered by a white supremacist. The pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, "embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words" and "that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation."

Obama has repeatedly shown that he believes the Judeo-Christian tradition remains a vibrant source of moral standards as well as a useful guide for civic action, and his account of the history of the Mother Emanuel church, once destroyed because it was founded by a foe of slavery, underscored that point. Black churches harbored runaway slaves and nurtured civil-rights workers; they "have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way." Black churches have also been targets, and the most recent murder descended from a long history of violence used "to terrorize and oppress." Such acts were intended to "incite fear and recrimination," thereby deepening racial divisions. But the murderer could not have expected that "the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness."

Searching for some significance in the slaughter, Obama focused on the South Carolina governor’s call for the removal of the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds. That act by Nikki Haley represented "one step in an honest accounting of America’s history" and registered "the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union." Rev. Pinckney understood, President Obama concluded, that "justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other," that any person’s liberty depends on the liberty of others, and that "the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart." Near the end of his speech, he began, at first tentatively, and then with growing confidence, to sing the hymn "Amazing Grace," and the congregation joined him. I doubt those who heard it will forget it.

In February, Obama appeared at the state legislature of Illinois, where his political career began. He began by joking with his former colleagues about his mistakes as a fledgling legislator. Then he turned serious. Among the few regrets of his presidency, he confessed, was "my inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics." He had been unable to "translate" to Washington what had been possible in Springfield. When citizens realize that the consequence of hyperpartisanship is stalemate, it "makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void." He continued: "When either side makes blanket promises to their base that it can’t possibly meet," such as cutting taxes but not services, or waging war without requiring sacrifices, or "bashing" either unions or corporations without "acknowledging that both workers and business make our economy run — that kind of politics means that the supporters will be perennially disappointed." Obama insisted that, without abandoning "our most deeply held principles," it was still possible "to forge compromises in pursuit of a larger goal."

In a commencement speech at Howard University, the president insisted that democracy only works when people respect those who disagree with them.
 Those ideas were amplified in his commencement address at Howard University in May. Speaking to an audience attuned to the anger recently sparked by police shootings, Obama acknowledged that African-Americans had plenty of reasons to be outraged. In typical fashion, though, he asked the graduates and their families to see other sides of American life. "We must expand our moral imaginations," he said, to encompass "the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages." In recent decades, that man’s world had been "upended by economic and cultural and technological change" that he felt "powerless to stop. … You got to get in his head, too." Democracy only works, the president insisted, when people respect those who disagree with them. When we shout, we cannot hear, and change "requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise." Certainty is not enough; in fact, it’s counterproductive. "If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want."

As he has done throughout his career, Obama has tried to embody that counsel himself. In recent years, the understandable fury over police shootings has prompted some in the Black Lives Matter movement to insist that anger and intransigence are the only appropriate responses to a system stacked against them. But as the young African-American political theorist Brandon M. Terry, an assistant professor at Harvard, wrote recently in Dissent, the increasing militancy of some black writers and activists has become part of the problem. Terry advises developing "an ethos of humility and self-criticism that, over time, will generate more powerful ideas, arguments, and hopefully, coalitions. Trust and respect — and substantive political power — will come only from a mutually enriching process of engaging with and arguing over needs (like safety, income, and education) and values (that is, the ethics of punishment, ideals of masculinity, nativism, and so on) as well as policies."

At a moment when most opinion polls find, contrary to predictions eight years ago, that blacks and whites consider race relations worse now than they were when Obama was elected, it seems clear that his most important long-term contribution to U.S. history would be to persuade Americans, against all odds, to adopt that ethic of reciprocity — an unfinished mission. Democracy in America remains a work in progress, a quest to make one out of many. The nation will move in that direction, however, only if we can recover the expansive ideals, the rejection of dogmatism, and the commitment to finding common ground that propelled Barack Obama to national prominence in the first place.

James T. Kloppenberg is a professor of history at Harvard. His recent books include Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2010).