James T. Kloppenberg is Charles Warren Research Professor of American History at Harvard University. He has written about American politics and ideas from the seventeenth century to the present and the relation between contemporary critical theory and historical writing. His book Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011) explains the reasons for Barack Obama’s commitments to democratic deliberation and conciliation by examining his intellectual formation and his understanding of American history. His most recent book is Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (2016), a study of the cultural preconditions necessary for democracies to flourish. He is currently working on three projects: a history of social democracy in Europe and the US; a study of philosophical pragmatism in dimensions of American culture ranging from the arts to the sciences; and an interpretive overview of the American democratic tradition. In recognition of his teaching, he has been named a Harvard College Professor and has been awarded the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize by the Harvard University Undergraduate Council.
Barack Obama's interest in conciliation was often mistaken for weakness. Instead, as Kloppenberg shows, it grew from his own experience and the ideas that were pivotal in his intellectual formation. The structure of American democracy, and the multi-dimensional polarization of the nation, require presidents to work with those opposed to them. Their inability to bridge partisan divides, which Obama tried to do throughout his presidency, explains the paralysis of American democracy.