David Leonhardt’s NY Times interview with Pres. Obama on the topic of economics has attracted plenty of notice. While speaking unusually candidly, without any of his advisors at hand, Obama demonstrates a fairly nuanced grasp of both the issues of the day and the complaints that many of his detractors have aimed at his Robert Rubin-inflected centrist economic team. Leonhardt also includes a random factoid that stuck with me more than anything else. Obama tells him “he had become sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings — ‘Netherland,’ by Joseph O’Neill.”
Sure enough, a week or two later and ‘Netherland’ has shot up the charts.
A cursory look at the books that Obama has previously mentioned as his favorites yields some seeming contradictions. During the campaign, Laura Miller of Salon claimed that Obama would make one of the “most literary presidents in recent memory,” citing his professed love for Melville, Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, and others. Furthermore, she noted of his early Chicago years, “Obama lived so much like a retiring writer — spending many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of ‘philosophy and literature’ — that some of his colleagues assumed he was gathering material for a novel.” But then she makes the case that the most important book in Obama’s literary formation was Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals — not exactly the pinnacle of storytelling. In the NY Times, Michiko Kakutani reported that Obama “immersed himself” with philosophers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine during college. How does someone so enthralled with serious literature and philosophy wind up identifying with Alinsky’s soulless political manipulation? How do you hole up in a spartan apartment with masterpieces and emerge enamored with Rules for Radicals?
To me, some of the economic policies that Obama advocates — socialized health care, cap-and-trade, etc. — reflect the same kind of lack of moral imagination that you would expect from someone whose reading was limited to policy briefings with the occasional Alinsky tract thrown in. But at times in the interview, as when he mentions the visceral appeal of jobs performed by hand and when he claims that his grandmother wrote better than his U. Chicago law students, his approach seems less technocratic than literary in a down-to-earth way.
If you delve into Obama’s reading habits, as Miller and Kakutani did, the theme that emerges is Obama’s literature-steeped search for his own role in the world. Naturally, this search steered him toward the writings of others trying to understand the role of black men in society, like Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Toni Morrison. There isn’t such a clear explanation for why, out of all of the authors he read, Alinsky would be the one that Miller would associate with his political approach.
I don’t know. It seems paradoxical to me that the president would be regarded as the face of political efficiency by day, orchestrating massive domestic policy changes by the handful and captivating the media, while remaining a soul-searching, Joseph O’Neill-loving, wannabe novelist at night. It is tough to reconcile these two characters: the pragmatic wonk who surprises economists with an off-the-cuff tour de force interview on economic issues, and the Harvard Law grad who eschews the corporate world to lock himself in a Chicago apartment with the Great Books.
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