The president’s books provide the hook and organizing principle for “Reading Obama.” Kloppenberg is attracted to the political and historical aspects of “The Audacity of Hope,” and that book plays a larger role in his analysis than “Dreams From My Father.” He writes that “Audacity” is “often dismissed, incorrectly, as a typical piece of campaign fluff.” But in Kloppenberg’s eyes, the book reveals Obama to be a philosopher-president, someone whose peers include Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson. His reading of Obama convinces him that the president fuses “three distinct developments”: the American democratic tradition, the philosophy of pragmatism, and the academic debates that defined campuses during his educational years. Each contributed to the president’s desire for compromise and consensus.
Kloppenberg’s method does not always provide original insight into Obama’s ideas, but it does reveal the careful, career-long thought behind them. For instance, Obama’s commitment to pragmatism — what Kloppenberg calls “philosophical pragmatism” as opposed to Bill Clinton’s “vulgar pragmatism” — requires him to admit that, sometimes, it doesn’t offer the best solution. “It has not always been the pragmatist,” Obama writes in “Audacity,” who “has created the conditions for liberty.” In a 2006 story for Time, Joe Klein counted more than 50 of these “on the one hand . . . on the other hand” formulations in Obama’s book. Klein saw them as a sign of the then-senator’s political savvy. But “Reading Obama” suggests they were something else: the result of a sincere and coherent worldview.
Kloppenberg works through many influences on Obama, from James Madison to Gordon Wood’s scholarship on Madison, in a style that is clear, methodical and dry. (One exception comes in his wonderfully barbed asides about the Washington media.) But “Reading Obama” also delivers terrific capsule histories of the movements and individuals who had an impact on the president — the turmoil in legal studies in the 1980s, figures ranging from John Rawls to Clifford Geertz. This is not a beach read, but it will teach you much about Obama.
In contrast to Kloppenberg, Jack Cashill takes a withering view of Obama as an author. He complains that the president’s books contribute to “the foundational myth of Obama as genius.” In “Deconstructing Obama,” he presents his thesis that Obama did not write his books and that he turned to “unrepentant terrorist” Bill Ayers for assistance.
Cashill, an author and blogger who has a doctorate in American Studies, argues that Obama was “desperate” in 1994 for help in finishing his overdue first book, “Dreams From My Father,” and turned to Ayers. Recognizing Obama as a politically sympathetic up-and-comer, Ayers agreed to write or rewrite parts and to edit others. Like all politicians, Obama got plenty of help with his speeches and, when it came time for his second book, “Audacity,” he encouraged his staff to ape Ayers — and even brought back the man himself to ghostwrite the book’s prologue and much of its epilogue.