Learning as He Goes

Book cover
The Obama Questionby By Gary DorrienRowman and Littlefield. 245p $35

Are corporations people? This pivotal question, advanced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 that expanded the rights of corporations to influence elections, has animated a very spirited debate as the presidential election heats up. Can groups (including corporations) be expected to act as good citizens? Or are they inevitably less moral in their motives and actions, as President Obama’s favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, argued 80 years ago?

Professor Gary Dorrien, the Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, wades deeply into this issue in his new book, The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective, which portrays President Obama as both an optimist and a pragmatic problem solver. Dorrien sees in Obama a moral actor who is learning as he goes, but who has artfully managed the erratic passions of the nation even as his administration rode a bronco that bucked from one crisis to another—while egged on by the rodeo clowns from the other side of the aisle who actively rooted for the demise of the rider.


Dorrien is heir to the legacy of Niebuhr, who himself taught at Union for 30 years. Writing about Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), the book that brought Niebuhr his early public acclaim, Dorrien says it established the tropes that Niebuhr invoked for the rest of his career. With an icy and aggressive tone, Niebuhr admonished that politics is always about struggling for power. Human groups never willingly subordinate their interests to the interests of others. Morality belongs to the sphere of individual action, Niebuhr argued. On occasion, individuals rise above self-interest, motivated by compassion or love, but groups never overcome the power of self-interest and collective egotism that sustains their existence. For this reason the appeals to reason by secular liberals like John Dewey, and the appeals to reason and Christian love by social gospel liberals, were (to Niebuhr) “maddeningly stupid.”

With the same thoroughness that Dorrien earlier brought to the study of American Christianity (he is the author of a three-volume history of progressive theology in the United States), he brings an Episcopal priest’s perspective and appreciation for social justice to his analysis of the president’s first term in The Obama Question. Dorrien is as tough on Obama as he was in his earlier writing on Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. The two subjects come together in Dorrien’s perception of Niebuhrian realism as a unifying theme in the Obama presidency.

Dorrien starts by recounting Obama’s early life and education. He assembles a collection of disparate clues about Obama’s thinking on race and politics in America, and shows how his growing admiration for the civil rights movement instilled in him a communitarian spirit. He recounts the story of Obama’s early work as a community organizer, one I myself had a chance to explore when I interviewed all the Catholic priests who worked with the future president in a group of Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago. Dorrien recalls the impact of several tragedies, including the death of Barack Obama’s father in 1982, the death of the president’s brother David in a motorcycle crash in 1987 and ultimately the death of his mother, Ann Dunham, from uterine cancer in 1995 at age 52.

Dorrien then plunges into a detailed liberal critique of the Obama presidency, of the economic crisis and the stimulus package in 2009, of the expanding health care crisis and the drama over passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and of the efforts to hold banks accountable for millions of home foreclosures and job losses. Christian liberals in general are comfortable with all these efforts, though there is also a sense that much more could have been done.

Dorrien does a creditable job deconstructing Obama’s foreign policy. Even Christian ethicists who celebrated the end of torture and the generally conciliatory tone of the Obama State Department have had fits of dyspepsia over the continued growth of military budgets, the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen and the increase in civilian deaths associated with the use of drone aircraft.

The author sees Obama searching for balance in response to each crisis: overthrowing Qaddafi in Libya, the commando raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and Obama’s measured words when he received the Nobel Peace Prize on the eve of the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Dorrien turns to Niebuhr to explain the president’s rationalization for these violent actions. He writes, “Niebuhr, refashioning Augustine’s [just war theory] argument, contended that the love ethic of Christ defines the highest good in the realm of personal life, but justice is the highest good in the social realm.... Faced with the fact that attacks upon innocent people occur, the biblical command not to kill must give way to the command of love, interpreted as the duty to protect the innocent, just as Augustine taught.”

The book begins with a story about Dorrien running into Niebuhr’s daughter Elisabeth on the day Barack Obama was elected president. Flush with excitement, she exclaimed to him, “Gary, this is better than we deserve!” But in the end, the book is about the sobering reality of the intense four-year partisan struggle that ensued. Dorrien does a thorough job of chronicling the pugnacious denunciations by Obama’s critics, and then of making the more apocalyptic ones look terrifically foolish.

The biggest shortcoming of the book may be that Dorrien tries to take on Obama’s critics all by himself, mostly without citing Obama’s many other defenders. The author is also strangely silent about the drama of Obama’s relationship with the Supreme Court, with no discussion of the Citizens United decision or anticipation of the court’s historic deliberations on Obama’s health care reform legislation—which they upheld in June. But The Obama Question puts into words the frustration many liberals feel with the obstructionism of the Republicans since Obama took office. Dorrien offers some hope that the president’s most creative and courageous efforts facing down, to use John F. Kennedy’s words, “tyranny, poverty, disease—and war itself’’may yet meet or exceed the early expectations of so many who believed in him.

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Vincent Gaitley
6 years 3 months ago
Republican obstructionism?  Oh, grow up liberals, this is the same political tactic Democrats use against Repubicans and nothing more.  But keep in mind that Obama enjoyed a majority in the House and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for his first two years.  His arrogance, inexperience, and schoolboy notions of economics crab his ability to lead domestically; in foreign affairs, Obama has merely copied over George W. Bush's shoulder.  Why liberals become so hopeful when politicians spout themselves as messiahs is beyond me, Obama is another dim energy saver bulb mistaken for a high wattage one.  Such bulbs blink on and off annoyingly before they burn out.  Then they need replacing.


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