What Is Obama Reading?

One traditional way of occupying the time between Election Day and the Inauguration of a new American President is to discuss the books the President-Elect might be reading in preparation for the New Job. Reports of books Obama is said to be reading abound. Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best known one (lesson: keep your enemies close by appointing them to the cabinet). Obama himself is fond of pointing out how much time he is currently spending reading Lincoln’s own writings. Another two books often mentioned on Obama’s reading list are Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (the symbiosis between text and politician is so perfect here that one suspects Alter wrote his book in anticipation of Obama’s victory), and Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World.

Yet one book that is less often mentioned but that could perhaps provide a better insight into Obama’s presidency is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler is a famous behavioral economist (other readers of this blog could probably comment on his intellectual Weltanschauung), and Cass Sunstein is a well-known American legal scholar. A couple of decades ago Sunstein developed the concept of the “incompletely theorized agreement,” as a way of addressing the conflict of incommensurable political positions (In his 1988 book Legal Reasoning and Political Judgment, one of the intellectual sources of what came to be knownas new “legal pragmatism”).

Perhaps Obama will adopt a version of the legal minimalism that Susstain and others have advocated? How would this relate to a claim that is often heard, and that has been most philosophically formulated by Simon Critchley: namely, that at the center of Obama’s thought and self-definition there is nothing more (and nothing less!) than a fathomless Void?

P.S. What books was George W. Bush reading in the winter of 2000-2001, while he was preparing to transmutate from barely elected President-Elect to Commander in Chief (also known as “The Decider”)?


  1. It’s “Void” in the positive sense of the word, right?

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