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Out of Many, One

Obama and the Third American Political Tradition

Ruth O'Brien

Out of Many, One

Ruth O'Brien

With A Foreword by Thomas Byrne Edsall
432 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2013
Paper $29.00 ISBN: 9780226041629 Published May 2013
Cloth $81.00 ISBN: 9780226041599 Published May 2013
E-book $10.00 to $29.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226041766 Published May 2013
Feared by conservatives and embraced by liberals when he entered the White House, Barack Obama has since been battered by criticism from both sides. In Out of Many, One, Ruth O’Brien explains why. We are accustomed to seeing politicians supporting either a minimalist state characterized by unfettered capitalism and individual rights or a relatively strong welfare state and regulatory capitalism. Obama, O’Brien argues, represents the values of a lesser-known third tradition in American political thought that defies the usual left-right categorization.

Bearing traces of Baruch Spinoza, John Dewey, and Saul Alinsky, Obama’s progressivism embraces the ideas of mutual reliance and collective responsibility, and adopts an interconnected view of the individual and the state. So, while Obama might emphasize difference, he rejects identity politics, which can create permanent minorities and diminish individual agency. Analyzing Obama’s major legislative victories—financial regulation, health care, and the stimulus package—O’Brien shows how they reflect a stakeholder society that neither regulates in the manner of the New Deal nor deregulates. Instead, Obama focuses on negotiated rule making and allows executive branch agencies to fill in the details when dealing with a deadlocked Congress. Similarly, his commitment to difference and his resistance to universal mandates underlies his reluctance to advocate for human rights as much as many on the Democratic left had hoped.

By establishing Obama within the context of a much longer and broader political tradition, this book sheds critical light on both the political and philosophical underpinnings of his presidency and a fundamental shift in American political thought.


1 In the Beginning: Locke, Rousseau, and Two Political Traditions
2 The Third Political Tradition—Reclaiming the Frontier: Wagon Trains, Pioneers, and Deputies, but No Cowboys or Nannies
3 Thinking in Threes: Diversity, Destruction, Redemption, and Social Policy Ruptures
4 Obama Stakes the Nation: A Spinozan Stakeholder State, Market, and Society
5 Foreign Stakeholders: Just War and Just Peace in a New World Order of Universal Anti-Universalism
6 A Lose-Lose Leader, or a Script for a President?
7 The Prius Presidency: A “Paramount Empire of Reason”?

Review Quotes
Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania
“Obama’s vision of E Pluribus Unum—a democratic progressive vision—is central both to his own sense of purpose and to his appeal. Ruth O’Brien lays out very concretely how this vision is expressed in Obama’s policy positions and modes of governing. Out of Many, One is a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution to understanding Obama and contemporary American political thought.”

Eric Alterman, author of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama
“Ruth O’Brien’s Out of Many, One is a model of thoughtful, careful scholarship in the service of compelling argument. It’s not been easy to make sense of many of Barack Obama’s decisions since his historic election. O’Brien provides a useful starting point and an important contribution to our understanding.”
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