Presidents and Political Thought. By David J. Siemers. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009. 243 pp.
Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition. By James T. Kloppenberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011. 302 pp.
Presidency scholars have long engaged the question of what makes our chief executives tick; that is, what values and characteristics our presidents possess and how those values and characteristics affect both their prepresidential development and their performance once in office. From James David Barber's classic work to new volumes by leading scholars, such as Stephen J. Wayne (Personality and Politics: Obama Against Himself, CQ Press) and Stanley A. Renshon (Barack Obama and the Politics of Redemption, Routledge) about how the character and psyche of America's forty-fourth president influence his actions, the literature on the subject has grown rich and deep, both in terms of general theoretical development and with respect to individual presidents. Among the interesting dimensions of this burgeoning literature more recently have been works investigating the intellectual foundations and proclivities of American presidents and how the minds of these leaders affect their orientation toward politics and the office of the presidency.
The books discussed in this review essay approach the importance of philosophical praxis in the presidency by evaluating the influence key modern thinkers have had on the worldview and leadership of seven important presidents; specifically, David J. Siemers's Presidents and Political Thought analyzes Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton, while James T. Kloppenberg's volume, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, provides an intellectual biography of the current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama. Although both authors take as points of departure an interest in the way intellectual development and presidential leadership are linked, the nature of each volume's approach to the subject provides for significant differences in depth and impact. For example, Siemers's discussions of presidents ranging from a trio of founding fathers to a trio of Democratic presidents spanning nearly the breadth of the twentieth century provide reliable and insightful, yet brief (the average length of the analysis chapters is about 26 pages), introductions to the...