“Obama is a sophisticated and incisive student of American history, American law, and American political thought,” said James Kloppenberg, author of “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.”

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

The measure of the man

3 min read

Historian Kloppenberg analyzes Obama through his writings

It was only when he was overseas that James Kloppenberg began seriously thinking about Barack Obama.

“When I was in England in the fall of 2008, I discovered that there was so much interest in Obama as a phenomenon,” he recalled. “In order to understand him better, I re-read his books.”

At the time, Kloppenberg, chair of the History Department and Charles Warren Professor of American History, was lecturing at the University of Cambridge in England. “I had given seven lectures on American political thought and was about to write my eighth and final lecture when I discovered that all of the themes in the preceding seven lectures are played out in Obama’s books,” said Kloppenberg.

“Obama is a sophisticated and incisive student of American history, American law, and American political thought,” he said. “It’s somewhat surprising that people consider him to be enigmatic, because we haven’t had another president who has given us as full a record of both his life — in ‘Dreams from My Father’ — and how he thinks, as he does in ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ ”

Kloppenberg’s simple undertaking to better familiarize himself with the United States’ current president resulted in his latest book, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.”

The book, a study of Obama’s ideas, “is the kind of book an intellectual historian would write about someone 200, 100, years ago,” said Kloppenberg, who noted that “it’s unusual to write about a living figure.”

But nothing Kloppenberg had read on Obama addressed the question of how Obama is situated in American history.

“In the last month, I think it’s become even more urgent to get out the message of this book because so many journalists, who frankly don’t know very much about American history, are making wild claims about how he’s influenced by his Kenyan father, and is a radical socialist, and an anti-colonialist,” Kloppenberg said.

“But after I read his books, I began to see that his commitment to bipartisanship is rooted, not just in a desire to be strategic, but instead in what I see as a really sophisticated and robust conception of deliberation — that you cannot have at the beginning of a process of debate the same understandings that you have at the end of that process.”

Kloppenberg acknowledges the demonization of Obama in recent months, but is optimistic for his re-election prospects in 2012.

“There’s been a sustained campaign that conservative journalists have been waging to persuade the American people that what Obama is doing is un-American,” he said.

But Obama is a problem solver, according to Kloppenberg. “That’s been his characteristic approach to politics from the time he was still a student. Instead of invoking dogmas, he offers solutions. And that’s the theme that runs through both of his books — that we don’t know the truth in advance of discussion or experimentation.”

“A part of the reason I’m happy to have written this book is it provides the counter-narrative that locates Obama in a vibrant and vital and continuing American democratic tradition.”