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Barack Obama Political Philosophy Politics The Opinionsphere

The Real Obama Enigma

[digg-reddit-me]A thought-provoking essay by Liam Julian in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review explores the relationship between Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr. The essay unsurprisingly concludes that Obama failed to learn the essential lesson of Niebuhr (unsurprising because it appears in the far-right Policy Review) – namely that: 

[M]an must act forcefully but humbly and free from naïve expectations.

Julian explains the appeal of this Niebuhrianism as a kind of balancing act:

[Obama] is a liberal, as was Niebuhr, and idealism smolders within even the most sensible liberals. The point is not to suffocate the idealism but to control its flames…

The conservative Julian sees Obama flaming idealistically in his first few months in office because any liberalism is too much for him. But E. J. Dionne – like most liberals – sees Obama as constantly balancing opposites, attempting to control the risks associated with progress while not yielding to a reactionary politics:

That’s the Obama enigma: boldness wrapped in caution rooted in an ambivalent relationship to the status quo. This is why Obama will, by turns, challenge not only his entrenched adversaries but also his natural allies.

The Obama enigma is about balancing opposites. It is an idealistic pragmatism, a conservative liberalism. This constant balancing is inherent in every aspect of the Obama administration. As James Surowiecki observes in the New Yorker with regards to the banking crisis for example:

[T]he Administration is trying to do two things at once. In solving the current crisis, it’s partnering with Wall Street, using the existing system to try to stabilize the economy. But in thinking about the future it’s trying to use hostility to Wall Street to bring about serious changes in the system. This is quite a balancing act: let’s hope the Administration can pull it off.

52 replies on “The Real Obama Enigma”

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