Historians and the Obama Narrative

Dianne Pinderhughes delivered her inaugural address as president of the American Political Science Association on the same evening that Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Presidency of the United States. Pinderhughes recalled the coincidence during the 126th annual meeting session on “Historians and the Obama Narrative,” sharpening the sense among her audience of just how fresh and ongoing the history of this president remains.

As panelist and Tufts University professor Peniel Joseph quipped, if journalism is the rough draft of history, then what is history itself when it’s being written not in hindsight but in mid-stream? And how, asked panel chair and AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, do historians judge a sitting head of state?

It’s a far different task with regard to our current president than it would be for many of his predecessors: this is a man with a serious paper trail. So, one route—taken by panelist and Harvard historian James Kloppenberg—was to read the president: to subject his books, speeches, law-school syllabi, and even his mother’s dissertation to the same scrutiny and contextualization that one would for a more conventional intellectual history.

What Kloppenberg found, he explained, was a man whose worldview has remained remarkably consistent over time. Obama’s claims to moderation and bipartisanship are, to Kloppenberg, not mere political posturing; they are the very foundation of his worldview. Kloppenberg’s Obama is a Pragmatist (in the Jamesian rather than the lower-case “Chicago Style” sense), someone able to see the world from a variety of perspectives, finding no single truth, but remaining always open to re-framing and reassessment. Panelist and University of Pennsylvania professor Tom Sugrue mostly concurred, describing a president with a still unwavering faith that “reason can lead to reconciliation.”

Kloppenberg’s audience seemed largely persuaded as well, and many of the day’s questions had thus to do with the possible tension between Professor Obama and President Obama. How, for instance, as a commander-in-chief waging at least two wars, can he ask men and women to sacrifice their lives for a truth that’s merely provisional? An audience member visiting from Mexico wondered if the pensive cast of mind that’s such a good fit for historians, intellectuals, and community organizers could create paralysis for a president. All present agreed that “Barack Obama is not Stokely Carmichael,” but many also gave nods of assent to Joseph’s remark that whether or not this president was seeking to claim a place in the combative, bruising Black Power tradition, he wouldn’t be in the White House without it.

See also our previous post on an undergraduate’s perspective of the “Historians and the Obama Narrative” session.

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