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Barack Obama, Niebuhrian Progressive

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Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, knows his Niebuhr as thoroughly as anyone alive, and yesterday he gave a talk here at Trinity--where he gives a weekly seminar--on his latest book, The Obama Question, which makes a powerful case that Barack Obama is a Niebuhrian progressive who doesn't deserve all the flak he's got from liberals. The particular object of Dorrien's argument is his friend and new colleague Cornel West, who campaigned hard for Obama in 2008 but ended up feeling betrayed politically and personally. Last year, West bitterly vouchsafed to Truthdig's Chris Hedges that Obama was "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it."

As staunch a liberal--and regular Obama critic--as he is, Dorrien considered such accusations profoundly unwarranted, so he put aside his manuscript on post-Kantian theology and wrote his defense. While it has to be read for itself, here's a taste of what it has to say on the president's foreign policy.

Obama wants Americans to take pride in the good works of American empire and to play better with others. In his thought, as in Niebuhr's, liberal internationalism and realism fold together, since working together is what actually works to secure America's interests. Like Niebuhr, Obama combines a love affair with the American experiment with an ethical critique of American presumption. But Nibuhr had no real responsibilities for statecraft; he was free to write whatever he thought. Obama, responsible for the world's all-time superpower, and accountable to its electorate, has to work much harder at indulging its presumptions about itself. (pp. 161-62)

If Dorrien has Obama right--and I think he has--it's little wonder that he so infuriates those Americans, on the right as well as on the left, who are full of passionate intensity. They go crazy when he fails to indulge their presumptions, as at the April 2009 press conference in Strassbourg when he opened his response to a question from Ed Luce of the Financial Times on whether he belonged to the "school of American exceptionalism" with: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." The quip has served as the basis for a legion of Republican attacks on Obama for anti-exceptionalist heresy.

After his talk, I asked Gary how his friend Cornel had reacted to the book. He replied somewhat ruefully, "I haven't heard from him yet."

Topics: Politics
Tags: niebuhr, obama

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