Hello Everyone,

David Brooks discovered early in the presidential primary campaign that one of Barack Obama’s favorite philosophers is Reinhold Niebuhr. These many months later, I have finally read the new edition of Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. As a result, I understand President Obama better; the book confirms my faith in him.

Andrew Bacevich is the author of The Limits of Power – I have commended the book to you before, and he will be teaching at my alma mater, Amherst College, this fall. He writes in the new introduction to Irony, “The times in which we live call for a Niebuhrian revival. To read Reinhold Niebuhr today is to avail oneself of a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present…Simply put, [The Irony of American History] is the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy.” And, I would argue, it is among the most important on U.S. domestic policy, as well.

Some of you (like my friend Dave Johnson) are students of Niebuhr, but most of us are not. If I read him in college, it didn’t sink in. Having now read Irony, I better understand Obama’s embrace of nuance, complexity, and common sense, as well as his sense of pragmatism and moderation. It has also reinforced my belief that Obama is a deeper and more serious thinker than most presidents in recent memory.

I wrote an Obamagram entitled “Flak from All Sides” in July 2008. I think that continued criticism of him from the left and the right is a good sign. As Brooks said on Sunday morning, Obama is a “moderate, pragmatic liberal” in keeping with “his temperament”. Despite the predictable demands from the left that he take more radical positions and the ludicrous caricatures from the right that he is a “socialist”, Obama remains true to Brooks’ description.

As I’ve said before, the President’s “approval ratings” are likely to improve – and rightist “anger” will subside – as unemployment declines – just as President Reagan’s did. The latter’s bottomed out in 1983 at 35% when unemployment hit almost 11% in the last major recession. President Obama’s are currently at 47% (see attachment).

Criticism from the left may persist, however. This was brought home a couple of weeks ago when I attended a small gathering to hear about a new book. The liberal author prematurely contends in the very first line of the book: “… Barack Obama is at risk of being a failed president.” Unfortunately for the author, the book was released a couple of weeks before the landmark health insurance bill became law, which was quickly followed by the new Start Treaty and the unprecedented conference on nuclear non-proliferation, and financial regulatory reform is at hand. Failed, my foot!

This author, like others of his ilk, wants a reincarnation of FDR – a president who will take radical measures to lift us out of another Great Depression. But as I wrote in April 2009, the recession that we have just experienced was unusually severe and could have been a calamity, but wasn’t. It has turned out to be more like the 1983 recession than the Depression.

When I read books that are rushed to market, I am motivated to find more serious works that have stood the test of time and, therefore, can shed some meaningful light on our President and our times. The Irony of American History fits the bill.

The purpose of this piece is to urge you to delve into this nearly sixty-year-old book, recognizing that it is not an easy read. To whet your appetite, I offer here a few excerpts from it. Naturally, they cannot do justice to Niebuhr’s philosophy, but it’s a beginning.

In Bacevich’s introduction, he writes about what Niebuhr saw as “…the dilemmas confronting the United States as [it emerged after] World War II as a global superpower. The truths he spoke are uncomfortable for us to hear –…the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism; the indecipherability of history; the false allure of simple solutions; and finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power…Niebuhr cherished democracy as ‘a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems…’” [emphasis added]

Niebuhr writes about:

Humility. “…Modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management. [We Americans need] …a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of [history’s] perplexities.”

Pragmatism. “…our actual achievements in social justice have been won by a pragmatic approach to the problems of power…Our achievements …represent the triumph of common sense over the theories of both our business oligarchy and the speculations of…social scientists …We are, in short, more virtuous than our detractors, whether foes or allies, admit, because we know ourselves to be less innocent than our theories assume. The force and danger of selfinterest in human affairs are too obvious to remain long obscure to those who are not too blinded by either theory or interest to see the obvious. The relation of power to interest on the one hand, and to justice on the other, is equally obvious. In our domestic affairs we have thus builded better than we knew because we have not taken the early dreams of our peculiar innocency too seriously. Our foreign policy reveals even more marked contradictions between our early illusions of innocency and the hard realities of the present day than do our domestic policies.”

Flak from all sides. “… the spirit of forgiveness which is the final oil of harmony in all human relations and which rests upon the contrite recognition that our actions and attitudes are inevitably interpreted in a different light by our friends as well as foes than we interpret them.”

Maturity. “…our American nation, involved in its vast responsibilities, must slough off many illusions which were derived both from the experiences and the ideologies of its childhood.”

The irony of being a superpower. “The first element of irony lies in the fact that our nation has, without particularly seeking it, acquired a greater degree of power than any other nation of history…But the second element of irony lies in the fact that a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security and serene in its infant innocence.”

Nuclear disarmament. President Obama clearly understands the irony of “weapons of mass destruction” (a term used by Niebuhr) – the idea that we believe we must threaten to blow up the world in order to save it. Hence the President is determined to move toward a nuclear-free world – but, in small, achievable steps.

Socialism. If Niebuhr were alive today, he would see irony in today’s demands of the far right for “the socialist American government to stay out of our lives” [my quotation, not his] while the communists’ predicted in the last century that, under its ideology, the state would “wither away”.

Excessive individualism. “…our exaltation of the individual involves us in some very ironic contradictions. On the one hand, our culture does not really value the individual as much as it pretends; on the other hand, if justice is to be maintained and our survival assured, we cannot make individual liberty as unqualifiedly the end of life as our ideology asserts.”

Communitarianism. “The concept of ‘the value and dignity of the individual’ of which our modern culture has made so much …is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it. It is threatened whenever it is assumed that individual desires, hopes and ideals can be fitted with frictionless harmony into the collective purposes of man.”

Unbridled capitalism. “…we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach.”

American cult of prosperity. “…every ethical and social problem of a just distribution of the privileges of life is solved by so enlarging the privileges that either an equitable distribution is made easier, or a lack of equity is rendered less noticeable…Yet the price which American culture has paid for this amelioration of social tensions through constantly expanding production has been considerable. It has created moral illusions about the ease with which the adjustment of interests to interests can be made in human society…It has also created a culture which makes ‘living standards’ the final norm of the good life.”

I urge you to read Reinhold Niebuhr to better appreciate the moderation of President Obama and the depth of his thinking and to better understand the ironies from which America cannot escape.

Please, as always, pass it on.


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adobe pdf file Attachment: Presidential Approval Ratings


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