Criticizing Obama: actions v. character

Politics ain’t beanbag. I didn’t think I was voting for a saint. I can disagree with Obama without finding him disagreeable.

A friend wants to know how I can reconcile outrage over the Warren pick with continued admiration for our President-Elect. Easy: Politics ain’t beanbag.

Obama has a tough hand to play, and I’m not certain that this move won’t turn out to be for the best. If he didn’t have a solid set of positions on equality for gays and on reproductive choice, or if I thought inviting Warren to pray meant that Obama was planning to back off those positions, I’d be more concerned.

But since I think the decision was a combination of generosity of spirit to those who voted against him (ill-judged, in my view, because it involved insulting many of those who voted for him) and (possibly acute) political calculation, I can make my outcry in good conscience but without revising my evaluation of Obama’s character.

Obama is, as far as I can judge, a fundamentally good human being, but I didn’t think I was voting for a saint: nor would I want to. As Machiavelli says, the nature of public life is such that the ideal ruler is one who is basically good but has learned to be able not to be good when the public interest demands it. At the very worst, Obama now has a favor in Rick Warren’s favor bank. Warren owes him one. I don’t doubt that, at the right moment, Obama, like the Godfather, will call in that debt.

I have criticized Obama in the past, expect to do so in the future, and feel that I can do so without compromising my political loyalty to him. The country has a huge stake riding on Obama’s success: that goes double for liberals and Democrats. By criticizing his actions without calling into question his character, we can improve our odds.

Update From Obama’s presser this morning (emphasis added):

Q Good morning, sir. I have a question about Pastor Rick Warren. He holds a number of social views that are at odds with your own views and with those of some of your very strong supporters.


Q I’m wondering, what went into your decision to choose him for this prominent role as you embark on your own presidency, at a time when you’re dotting every i and crossing every t, to send some important signals.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Well, let me — let me start by talking about my own views. I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on, and something that I contend — intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.

What I’ve also said is that it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues. And I would note that a couple of years ago, I was invited to Rick Warren’s church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion. Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak. And that dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been all about; that we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere when we – where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.

So Rick Warren has been invited to speak. Dr. Joseph Lowery, who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren on a whole host of issues, is also speaking. During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that’s how it should be, because that’s what America’s about. That’s part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. And so, you know, that’s the spirit in which, you know, we have put together what I think will be a terrific inauguration. And that’s, hopefully, going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.

So that’s Obama’s message, delivered not through some back channel but right in front of the cameras: Warren has been invited precisely as a dissident voice on equality for gays and on reproductive choice, not because Obama is going soft on those issues. Again, I don’t agree with BHO: it seems to me that Warren has been and continues to be disagreeable and uncivil, so that inviting him to give the invocation is a two-edged sword as far as civility is concerned.

But his statement illustrates why I’m willing to criticize him on his actions – and perhaps the criticism he has faced helped produce today’s strong reaffirmation of his beliefs – without doubting for a moment that he and I are on the same side, and Rick Warren on the other side.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: