Barack Obama and the Niebuhr Presidency

R. Drew Smith

By R. Drew Smith

This brief essay was originally published at along with two other posts dealing with Barack Obama and the 2012 election.  The president was sharply criticized by Princeton professor and social critic Cornel West over the weekend, primarily for not caring about poor people.  R. Drew Smith sees the first black president as a pragmatic disciple of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism.  AGB

Barack Obama has noted the influences on his thinking of prominent, twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, but Obama’s presidency has more strongly embraced core tenets of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of approximating rather than absolutizing our political ideals, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with our deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those proximate objectives.

Niebuhr’s analysis provides reinforcement to the adage “politics is the art of compromise.” Most American presidents have been clear on this point — although there have been strong arguments for at least two recent exceptions. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter and of George W. Bush, who both cited Niebuhr as influential in their thinking, were much less given to a Niebuhrian approximation of good than Obama seems to be. Both Presidents Carter and Bush were sharply criticized for their uncompromising leadership styles. Ironically, President Obama has been equally criticized for his compromising style.

For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued for its intrinsic value (i.e., compromise for the sake of compromise), nor merely out of a desire to achieve or retain positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Similarly, Obama has understood that, in politics, you rarely get everything you want and, in order to set some of what you want, and to govern on behalf of all of the people, you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. This has been his approach in each of his major legislative initiatives and in the battles over the federal budget — with his end results being successfully formalized policies that in each instance have been decried on several fronts for their presumed deficiencies.

Here Obama is not being inconsistent with what he projected during his presidential campaign. He was elected in large part because he symbolized a change from politics-as-usual. He represented a bigness in his projection of ideals at the heart of the American political imagination — ideals related to being a nation fundamentally committed to rights, freedom, and opportunity for its citizens and for the world. Obama’s health-reform bill, his economic stimulus program, his budgetary battles over key educational and social-service assistance he believes are definitive of American government, and his diplomatic or military pressures in support of political reforms in Egypt, Libya, and Ivory Coast are more suggestive than not of the idealism supported by voters in 2008.

Obama has certainly not been pitch-perfect in the compromises he has reached. The current budget’s draconian cuts to safety-net programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) smack of a familiar calculation about the political expendability of the poor — or, in Obama’s own words, “asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it.” Should programs effectively responding to persons most in need have been non-negotiable items in Obama’s budget, and in his presidency? Asked another way, was acceptance of the funding cuts to a program like WIC in the interest of a proximate good, or was it an unwillingness to take required actions for achieving that proximate good?

American presidents possess significant leadership capital, and how they choose to expend that capital is what defines their presidencies. What defined Obama’s candidacy was that it embodied something more in the eyes of voters than his personal quest for the office. The fact that he has been able to achieve constructive compromises within America’s polarized, zero-sum political context is a feat for which he deserves applause — and one for which he was singularly well-suited. Nevertheless, his presidential term, and his prospects for reelection, will turn on how well he connects his political actions to a broader good and how well the American people understand those connections.

Dr. R. Drew Smith is Director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has edited numerous volumes on churches and public life, including Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment and New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. He is currently writing a book on black churches and contemporary public policy activism.

3 thoughts on “Barack Obama and the Niebuhr Presidency

  1. I agree with Niebuhr and Obama that politics is the art of the possible. I fear that Obama sets the threshold of the possible too low. Two recent blog posts provide cases in point. Grace Bauer is certainly correct that there are two systems of criminal justice in the US of A–one for “respectable” folks–the kind of people I associate with on a day to day basis, and another for the people who are most in need of blindfolded Lady Justice (not Lady Justice with her brains scooped out). The post “Supreme Court ruling shreds fourth amendment” is the other. While Obama is not directly responsible for SC rulings, and that ruling would have occurred even if his appointees Sotomayor and Kagan had dissented with Ginsburg, he could have submitted more “liberal” appointees to the Senate. He compromised and made more conservative appointments.

    I have to ask, “Where will he draw a line in the sand” for his ideals?

  2. However, President Obama’s decision not to push for passage of legislation he personally supported (and avowed in his “Change” campaign) during the tenure of the Democratic majority House early in his Presidency severely limited the amount and kind of change his Presidency will have brought. Bipartisanship is a good thing when it serves the citizens of America, but when Wall Street gets its share, and Main Street gets one limited stimulus package, which works, but doesn’t do enough, that’s not compromise for the greater good. And when the “least of these” get pushed even farther down while the rich get tax cut extensions, whatever the rationale, that’s not Christian, or Abrahamic philosophy.
    This may not be fair criticism of an African-American President. I’ve heard the opinion that any controversial work could essentially not have been done on the Beltway because as the first black President, the reaction by the racist establishment (and the masonry structure he parachuted into as the President) could not allow him to make significant changes to the nation during his time in office, and he essentially produced as much change as he could. The excited majority who voted for Obama expecting “Change” undoubtedly expected more than insurance companies no longer being able to refuse coverage to people because of pre-existing health conditions. The Tea Party would not be much more racist if President Obama had pushed through 2 stimulus packages, or hired fewer Goldman-Sachs alumni and Republican holdovers for his cabinet. If significant change isn’t possible in Washington DC with the present party system, it isn’t morally acceptable to campaign on it, and maybe, just voting for someone to have an African-American, a woman, or a member of a party that was once accessible to voters is not enough. A third-party candidate may be more practical, especially if a Democratic or Republican President will not necessarily have the cooperation of her or his Senate and House.

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