Capitolism

Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

A Philosopher President?

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By Guest Blogger Ryan Berg

Harvard historian and prominent intellectual James T. Kloppenberg spent the last two years of his research reading an impressive corpus of literature on President Obama.  Kloppenberg poured through Obama’s books; his essays; his speeches; every article published in the Harvard Law Review during Obama’s three years there; and even interviewed his former professors.  What is Kloppenberg’s theory after all his research? He posits Obama “is a true intellectual—a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.”

The American public is deeply skeptical of intellectuals, formerly an asset for Pre-Modern Presidents.  I want to bracket the question of why the American public does not favor intellectual public figures—perhaps, those more educated than themselves—and focus on a different question, namely, is Obama a philosophical president? What is the instrumentality of his intellect? How does it shape his leadership skills, from a more objective standpoint independent of the voter’s perception?

Kloppenberg takes John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson as his models of previous philosophical presidents.  The philosophical presidencies of most Founding Fathers appear as an asset, for instance, in the case of John Adams advocating neutrality during the wars between France and Great Britain.  But the argument cuts both ways.  The philosophical background of Wilson’s presidency—he remains the only American President to earn a PhD—appears as a hindrance, for instance, in the Versailles negotiations following World War I.  “Self-determination” (instead of “Balance of Power”) and the League of Nations were idealistic philosophical notions, which Wilson sacrificed almost everything for, while remaining cognizant of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s objections back home.  Wilson insisted on the democratization of diplomacy; open diplomatic negotiations (as opposed to the confidential and continuous negotiations of previous periods); diplomacy by conference; and the “one nation, one vote” principle of the League of Nations despite Lodge’s understandable objection.  (For the curious, Lodge’s objection: how does “one nation, one vote” give incentive to the Great Powers to work within the world system the League of Nations tried to promote?) More practically, Lodge was also Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and as such, he had the influence to ratify the League of Nations had Wilson negotiated a League with these changes.  Later, President Roosevelt remedied this problem when he negotiated a United Nations including a Security Council for the traditional Great Powers.  But the League of Nations debacle shows that Wilson was a rigid idealist, rather than a politically pragmatic leader.

As the greatest Twentieth Century example of Kloppenberg’s philosophical president and idealist, Wilson maintained that there existed some mystic bond between himself and “the people”—and not just the American people.  Wilson thought he maintained a special bond with all people, if only he could penetrate the fog-barrier of governments, politicians, diplomats, and other officials to convey the sweetness and light of his universal message.  As Harold Nicolson has put it: “Woodrow Wilson, with his academic intelligence and missionary spirit, did not realize that foreign affairs are foreign affairs, or that a civilization is not a linotype machine but an organic growth.  He believed that the misfortunes of mankind were due to the faults of statesmen and experts and that ‘the people’ were always right.”

If President Obama is a philosophical president, how do we account for the political pragmatism of the last 18 months? Are Obama’s actions consistent with Wilson’s philosophical idealism? If Wilson is the definition of a modern philosophical president par excellence, President Obama is not a philosophical president.  Wilson was very rigid in refusing to accept Senator Lodge’s reservations concerning the League of Nations, while Obama has signed almost every bill the Democratic Congress has put before him, in whatever form it has arrived.  He has done this despite historic Democratic majorities in both chambers, when one would expect a popular president to be able to pass his agenda mostly on his own terms.  This “take what you can get approach” describes even his most signature legislative accomplishments—the stimulus package, health care, and financial regulation.  Of course, one might say that Wilson operated in a less politically polarized environment, without the robust voice of a Rahm Emanuel telling him how to navigate the political scene.  Yet, Wilson surrounded himself with people far different from the former Chief of Staff.  The Wilson Administration had no use for the type of political pragmatism and expediency advocated by Rahm Emanuel.

Trapped by this argument about Wilson, Kloppenberg may retort (immodestly) that the model of a philosophical president is Lincoln, who was fascinating in his “pragmatic” application of principles.  Yet, Lincoln was not a philosophical pragmatist; he was a believer in natural rights, which pragmatist philosophers such as William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce denied.  Obama has not taken the “high road” in any of his rhetoric in the sense of telling the nation (honestly) where we stand and where we need to be in terms of freedom and natural rights.  Setting standards for us to meet and aspire to, even if one does not accept completely the philosophical foundations of these standards—as we see sometimes in Hobbes and Locke—is important for an American President in the philosophical tradition.  (As an aside, in Natural Rights and History, Leo Strauss argues that the experience of fascism and communism in the Twentieth Century led to a rebirth of natural rights theory.)

Among contemporary politicians, there are few philosophical politicians.  To be sure, Obama is a serious intellectual, but he is not a philosophical president, especially if Wilson is the model (and even less so if Lincoln is).  Some knowledge of philosophy—perhaps a lot of it—is helpful for a practical man to understand the basis of his actions and standards.  But Wilson took his ideas to approach the ultimate reality of what is and hence was less likely to compromise, whereas Obama has compromised, at least with his own party (it remains to be seen whether he will compromise with Republicans), in the name of political pragmatism and expediency.  Thus, Professor Kloppenberg’s forthcoming book would benefit from such distinctions as intellectual vs. philosophical and political pragmatism vs. philosophical pragmatism.

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One Response

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  1. This is a brilliant essay. I thought I understood WW; now I understand him better.

    seadragonconquerer

    November 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm


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