Obama and his progressive critics

Sullivan, Cole, and Tomasky agree with the view, oft expressed here, that the Obama record is more than respectable.

Sometimes I feel rather alone in my continued insistence that Barack Obama is a great President, and my frustration with those who attack him from the left. So let me point to three people who more or less agree with me about the President and his critics: Andrew Sullivan, John Cole, and Michael Tomasky.

To some extent, Obama has real policy differences with some of his progressive critics: he’s a Hamiltonian at heart, who thinks that a sound economy depends on a healthy big-business sector and doesn’t much mind making some fat cats even fatter if it moves the country forward. So it’s natural for people who wish that Obama actually was the socialist the tea parties believe him to be to be somewhat disappointed.

But most of the tension, I take it, is about tactics: Obama and his progressive critics have different views of what is possible and how to get it done. Temperamentally – whether naturally or deliberately I’m not sure – he’s calm, unexpressive, and patient to a degree that seems almost preternatural in our political culture, which if it were a person would be a drama queen with ADHD. Those less calm and patient than he is can find that unnerving.

I’m especially happy to see Sullivan, who has spoken loudly on behalf of the impatient on the one set of issues where he takes the strongly progressive side, acknowledge that Obama’s approach to gay rights is racking up a string of successes. And Sullivan captures in a phrase what I take to be Obama’s central virtue: “a lethal and patient strength.”

As between Obama’s critics and us Obamabots, the differences take on an additional dimension: how to deal with the (necessarily imperfect) leadership of one’s own political grouping. Given the pressures on any President to compromise, there needs to be some counter-pressure to stand firm. To some extent, that sort of pressure can even be helpful to a President in dealing with the other side: a militant labor movement no doubt helped FDR in dealing with Republicans and conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill. But here I’d sharply distinguish between policy criticism and personal abuse: calling your guy a wimp or a sell-out is almost never helpful.

This is only partly a disagreement about tactics: mostly it comes from a much deeper place. Some people want to believe the best about their leaders; others think the can only demonstrate their capacity for independent thought by denouncing the powers that be.

Now Sullivan is a reasonable conservative rather than a liberal, and Cole is a refugee from conservatism. So you could think of their support as what Obama would be getting from intelligent and thoughtful conservative Republicans, if such entities still existed. But Tomasky is a card-carrying progressive. And he sees more or less what I see: a President with deeply progressive goals and values, who is doing a pretty damned good job in an insanely difficult environment, and who deserves – in the face of the insane hatred coming at him from the wingnut-dominated Republican Party – mostly full-throated support.

That doesn’t mean keeping silent about, for example, the cave-in on impunity for torture. But it does mean acknowledging the difference between the Bush Administration’s eagerness to cover up its own war crimes and crimes against humanity and the Obama Administration’s (regrettable) acquiescence in the political and operational realities that would make prosecutions difficult and costly.

The narcissism of small differences is a powerful force in politics; the side that gives in to it less tends to win. This year, and two years from now, it’s important that it be our 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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

29 thoughts on “Obama and his progressive critics”

  1. Obama is not merely caving in on impunity for torture. He is maintaining a secret prison in Afghanistan at which he is permitting torture to occur. He is engaging in "extraordinary rendition." He is imprisoning people without due process and arguing in court that prisoners at Bagram have no right to habeas corpus, but may be imprisoned indefinitely without due process. He is arguing in court that a torture victim may not sue for damages. The former cocaine user is trying to deport someone for possessing a single Xanax pill without a prescription. He is imprisoning more whistleblowers than Bush did. If Bush hadn't done all this first, then you might be shocked that Obama is doing it.

  2. The main problem with Obama is how he has continued the extraordinary executive power claims. He hasn't moved for more transparency. He's used Bagram as a means to deny Habeas. Et cetera.

    Now while he made it clear that he wasn't going to walk the walk when he voted for cloture on FISA amendments during the campaign in spite of making campaign promises to do the opposite and filibuster this has still be a disappointment.

    I don't see a way to purge this toxin from our government easily. Obama looked like he might attempt it at various points in the campaign, but now that he's in power it isn't happening.

  3. To the extent that I am disappointed with Obama, it is not for his failure to act — as you say, there are very real political and practical constraints on what he can do — as on his failure to speak to issues even where his ability to act is constrained. By way of example, even if he cannot get legislation passed to control greenhouse gases, if he does not talk about global warming, how will that legislation ever happen? Yes, there are Republican wingnuts talking the crazy talk, but that makes it even more important that the crazy talk be challenged.

  4. There's also Theda Skocpol at TPM the other day.

    Like the man said, the republic of my imagination lies in the extreme left of celestial space. I'm unlikely to be completely gratified by any possible President. (What strikes me is how feeble the critics' imaginations seem to be. If they're gonna go down that road, can't they at least spare a thought for the wolf dwelling w/ the lamb?) But politics isn't just about self-expression. Presidents aren't dream dates. Any movement that requires perfect agreement & perfect competence, or anything remotely like them, as conditions of its support renders itself irrelevant, & cedes public life to others.

  5. Obama does indeed seem to work very hard but quietly and without overt drama on issues that he genuinely cares about or that he sees as achievable. By doing so, he has had some real accomplishments, on DADT and especially on health care. The subdued, even secretive nature of these campaigns leaves those of us who'd cheer on such efforts wondering whether he's abandoned them. The currently relevant example is carbon emissions: I'm quite certain Obama is aware of the issue's importance, and I hope it's another issue like health care and DADT on which he's calmly getting all his ducks in a row while we onlookers see no apparent progress being made. But I've got little on which to rest those hopes, other than my pro-Obama prejudices.

    And the caveat here is huge: on civil liberties, Habeas corpus, executive power, and the state secrets privilege Obama has been no better than the truly appalling Bush administration, some few (and unfulfilled) noble statements of intent during the first few months of Obama's term excepted. Given that Obama is a former constitutional law professor, is some sort of liberal, and made powerful statements on some of these topics during the campaign, the disappointment and the feeling of betrayal are profound.

  6. And the caveat here is huge: on civil liberties, Habeas corpus, executive power, and the state secrets privilege Obama has been no better than the truly appalling Bush administration, some few (and unfulfilled) noble statements of intent during the first few months of Obama’s term excepted. Given that Obama is a former constitutional law professor, is some sort of liberal, and made powerful statements on some of these topics during the campaign, the disappointment and the feeling of betrayal are profound.

    My sentiments exactly. As an Obama supporter, I am deeply disappointed by what can only be described as his utter failure to make dramatic changes in this area.

    I really think Mark's next-to-last paragraph grossly minimizes Obama's culpability in torture and the various other detainee-related issues.

    Among other matters, why did the Administration argue against Arar?

  7. Most of us are stuck in the show biz aspect of politics; the Repubs excel at this level. Obama sees beyond the the show biz, and seems to bypass showiness (the “calm” aspect of his character. However, he DOES get things done.

    Maybe he is not going not fast enough, but look at the weak, stupid Dems that he needs to work with.

  8. So, what are you saying here Mark? You agree with the "….(regrettable) acquiescence in the political and operational realities that would make prosecutions difficult and costly." You think Obama has been pretty steady, a real go-along-to-get-along guy?

    Yeah, great. Apart from being utterly cowardly and unprincipled when it comes to things like war crimes and civil liberties and apart from continuing the coverup of the many atrocious practices of Bush appointees (many of whom still sit at their desks looting and sabotaging the agencies they work at)BO's had occasional flashes of adequacy. What more can we ask of the man?

    God forbid our leaders undertake anything costly and difficult just because it's right, or because it redresses crimes againt humanity.

  9. In the opening comment in this thread, I forgot to include Obama's having ordered the murder of a U.S. citizen, and his preventing a U.S. citizen from flying back to the U.S. — both without any due process. (On the latter, see http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2010/06/banishe… including its closing question, "How on earth can Barack Obama stand by and continue to allow stuff like this to happen?"

    Furthermore, Obama's not prosecuting Bush's war crimes would not be looking backward, as Obama claims, but would be looking forward, to deterring future war crimes. By allowing Bush and his underlings to escape responsibility for their crimes, Obama, together with Congress, are effectively legalizing these crimes. And the proof is that Obama is right now engaging in them. The last I heard, ordering someone to be murdered is illegal. It doesn't matter how successful Obama is with his domestic policies. He is a criminal and should be impeached and criminally prosecuted. Otherwise the next President will feel free to commit the same crimes.

  10. Obama works so quietly behind the scenes that we never hear of any backroom pressure applied when legislation is being crafted.

    I could list many instances where the White House failed to act (e.g. to merely *talk* to Lieberman about his health care filibuster threat), adopts a concede-first-then-negotiate approach to legislation (numerous), or simply does nothing and leaves it all up to Congress. Then there's favoring Geithner-Summers and distancing from Volker. The two Supreme Court nominees are not as liberal as Bush nominees were conservative. The Obama-approved Deficit Commission could end up destroying much of the FDR/LBJ legacy. No bones have been thrown to the left. Oh yes, there's that civil rights stuff mentioned in comments above.

    I don’t think he’s strongly anything. That’s the rap on technocrats, which is basically what he is. A technocrat takes the political situation he faces, pretty much as a given, and navigates through that maze as best he can.

    Citing Sullivan is hardly the gold standard on how progressive Obama is. And John Cole has simply become deranged. That blog has turned into 98% Obot territory. I don't know Tomasky, so can't comment on him.

    The Republicans are insane and I'm glad Obama is in the White House instead of McCain, but let's not kid ourselves. Obama is losing the left. If he's anything, he's a centrist Democrat, so I'm not surprised at what he's doing. But others on the left thought they had a progressive in Obama and now don't like what they see. They don't hate the guy, they're just dispirited. And that will have an effect in the elections this year and in 2012.

  11. Once again, no serious observer believes we are not better off than we were on January 19, 2009. But if you want to win in both the short and long term, you build upon the base that elected you instead of pissing on them and telling 'em it's raining.

    "a Hamiltonian at heart": Yes indeed. And Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are "savvy businessmen" according to BHO. Is the President already angling for his next job? Once again, no one begrudges a rich man or woman his or her money, if it was earned legitimately. Which is not the case for either of these Masters of the Universe. That the President could even think about saying this in public is strong evidence that he fails to understand where we are right now and how we got here. And that is a pity. As for all the lies about retrieving our country from the clutches of Cheney and his minions, your other commenters have that pretty well covered.

    As for your exemplars, Quiddity has that covered pretty well, too. Not that they are wrong necessarily, but Cole is the exact analog of the college sophomore whose world gets rocked by Atlas Shrugged and has the scales fall from his eyes, while Sullivan is a johnny-come-lately who, as an older, smarter, more perspicacious political actor has no real excuse for his previous worship at the altar of Reaganism and his support for the half-assed assertions of the PNAC. Besides, he helped loose Charles Murray on the world back when he was Marty Peretz's editor-on-retainer. Tomasky? Seems to have potential and his heart is in the right place.

    Keep up the good work, Mark! I do hope you are right. But all the same, I'm done with the President for now. Until we hear from him what he is going to do rather than why he can't do what he said he would, I'm just going to work on my golf game and look for my spots to vote for the Green Party, which probably won't happen in this deeply crimson state.

  12. Yes, it's certainly better to have a president who is not plotting to subvert democracy and install single-party rule. I did think, when I voted for him, that I might be voting for more than that.

  13. KLG refers to voting for the Green Party. As things stand now, I would vote for Obama in 2012, even though I consider him a war criminal. The reason is simply that any foreseeable Republican candidate would be likely to torture more people than Obama is torturing, and to imprison more people without due process than Obama is imprisoning without due process. If I can save some people from torture or imprisonment without due process by the simple act of voting for Obama, then I have a moral obligation to do so.

  14. One has to examine Obama's reluctance to put teeth into any of the negotiations he strikes with business. We are a nation of laws and there is an expectation of Obama to do as Bush did in many ways. When he gives a speech on the current oil mess he needs to come armed with a legislative solution designed to keep this from happening again and also a timetable by which he would report on his own progress. Bush did this bt Obama is more inclined to negotiate and point to his extracting concessions as a sign of success, Quite frankly, I don't need Obama as caped crusader or rushing up on white steed to reason with those wo consider his capacity to rely on reasoning a weakness. I'd feel better with a president who will lead a Congress on legislation that is somewhat more "sticky". After all, we are a nation of laws or used to be. I think his approach is geared more to infotainment, albeit with a progressive sentiment. It may well work for him since we've missed that for a long time but it might not work out so well in the long run.

    "Temperamentally – whether naturally or deliberately I’m not sure – he’s calm, unexpressive, and patient to a degree that seems almost preternatural in our political culture"

    Many descriptions of Obama contain a similar and sometimes awe-inspired reference to some inscrutable nature. Assessments needn't be so heady and will almost certainly be as much of a passing fancy as those feel-good moments that make nary a dent on the rightward ratcheting that deregulation over Bush's two terms has brought about. Obama simply does not hold a candle to that and earns deserved criticism for it…your "Hamiltonian" characterization notwithstanding.

  15. First, what everyone else, especially Warren Terra, said about civil liberties. Second, I believe the cowardice charge is well earned, because ending the policies in question (see Henry's comment for a partial list) don't involve compromises with congress; they merely require resolve. Obama showed incredible rhetorical prowess during his campaign. Here was a man who could make Americans look the other way on Reverend Wright – a small miracle, let's be honest. And yet to deploy the same talents defending the rule of law, well, that's just too difficult. Better to keep suspects detained indefinitely than suffer the weak-on-terrorism charges of the right. How is that not cowardice?

  16. Sorry, Mark. I don't even have to get into the fact that Obama has Bush II's Defense Secretary and General Petraeus, or that he is supporting rendition and torture, or that he is more interested in plugging leaks about military and civil liberties abuses than plugging the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Or that he has expanded the war in Afghanistan and let loose that ridiculous talking point that we now must exploit Afghanistan's resources as a reason to keep putting Americans in harms' way in that benighted nation. It is in basic economics that Obama stands foursquare with the corporate economic elite in our nation, and against unions and against workers' economic interests. No talk of card check. Talk of dismantling Social Security and Medicare, though. No public option, let alone any understanding of the practicality of single pay as both a talking point and policy. But Orrin Hatch's proposal in 1993 for health insurance reform is what he just pushed through.

    Where Mark is really wrong is that Obama is not a "Hamiltonian at heart." Hamilton knew that the fundamental issue is nation-building and nation-sustaining. He would have seen the practicality of the solutions posed above at this juncture in American history. Hamilton never took a dime when other congressmen and people like Jefferson saw nothing wrong with making money off inside knowledge of government policies. Hamilton supported the assumption of debt for the larger goal of building up the nation's credit and trying to start domestic manufacturing–at a time when there were few guilds, let alone labor unions, and most people were into subsistence farming. To not see how Hamilton would have applauded the New Deal is to fail to understand the man. Mark has obviously not read Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton or simply failed to grasp the essence of the book.

    Yes, I thank God every day that McCain/Palin are not the executives leading our nation and I am deeply saddened at the nutcases that roam the leadership of the Republican Party in general. But if I can't be critical of a president who is to the right of Eisenhower, then what's the point of having a political discourse? Also, why is it that true, practical and-time tested solutions as the ones posed above are not allowed into the political conversation? If we don't speak about these solutions, they will never get discussed from on high. If that is critical of Obama, then so be it. Now is a serious time. The deficits and debt will become important and devastating at some point, and that is why these solutions posed above are important to talk about, and begin to implement now.

  17. Somehow the beginning of my previous comment did not get in. My fault, not the system's. The solutions I spoke of that Obama has failed to support to rebuild our nation are: (1) significant and massive infrastructure rebuilding, which will employ tens of millions of low-skilled workers and expand business opportunities in general; (2) labor law reform including card check to ensure that the productivity and income gains are better distributed throughout the nation's people; and (3) tariff policies that tax goods coming in from nations which exploit their workers. We need to rebuild our industry, and that starts in the mid-west and southern mid-west to re-populate those areas after 60 years of depopulation from mechanized agriculture. We build with the latest green technology for a win win among the professionals and engineers as well as low-skilled workers.

    So are these ideas liberal-left, conservative, what? The discourse in our nation is ridiculously focused on cultural issues as the definers for "liberal" and "conservative." Oh well. If this is all a criticism of Obama, then so be it.

  18. Nobody here is addressing what Tomasky said. Obama does not have remotely the numbers in congress that LBJ or FDR did. Therefore expectations for him to equal or even approach the achievements of those two Presidents are completely unrealistic. I agree, I think it's an airtight argument.

    The move for progressive critics of Obama now is to build a real movement that can exert pressure. They are currently far too small a segment of the Democratic base. Yet they think otherwise. This needs to be corrected. They need to think long term and figure out how to get to 50pct plus 1 *inside the Democratic party*.

    When this happens, I'll join you, because on the substance of issues I agree. But I think most of you PCO's have ideas about efficacy and what's plausible that I find strange and rigid. PCO's also don't seem to realize that there are many centrists in the party, and that that's OK…at least until you build a majority.

    While I'm at it, it's mysterious to me how many progressive critics think that Obama has magical persuasion powers, that he can somehow get, say, Ben Nelson to do what he wants. That is just fantasy. In days of yore, an LBJ could do many things behind closed doors re: fundraising, and pork. Those days are gone. What are you going to do now, open cut federal aid to, say, Nebraska? Yeah, that would play well there for all the other D's in the state. Threaten a committee seat? As if *that* would be enough to change their mind? (Ever try to humiliate someone? It doesn't persuade. It makes them dig in.) Politics is not a school playground.

  19. With respect to the Obama Administration's record on gay issues, you appear to be ignoring the fact that the Administration is itself responsible for all the disappointment, lack of trust and general disdain for its "accomplishments" on these issues. There is a real problem here (the Administration now lacks credibility on gay issues) and it was created by the Administration's appallingly inept handling of these issues. We have, however, learned one thing about how they opeerate: If you raise hell, go around the White House and put together a plan for legislative action, the White House will follow you all the way to the press conference and try to take credit for your actions. Fine. That may have been Obama's intention all along, but it's certainly not fierce advocacy.

  20. "…it’s mysterious to me how many progressive critics think that Obama has magical persuasion powers, that he can somehow get, say, Ben Nelson to do what he wants." Yeah. Obama just couldn't do anything with Blanche Lincoln, but when it came down to it in the primary runoff versus Halter, he and his surrogates pushed her over the line. Where for a few months she will support the President maybe 50% of the time and then likely retire to K Street or her "plantation" where she can continue to milk farm (sic) subsidies. Halter was perhaps only slightly more likely to win in November than Lincoln, but if he had won his support for the President would have been much more dependable. Anyway, hardball politics is not the same as playground humiliation.

  21. That doesn’t mean keeping silent about, for example, the cave-in on impunity for torture. But it does mean acknowledging the difference between the Bush Administration’s eagerness to cover up its own war crimes and crimes against humanity and the Obama Administration’s (regrettable) acquiescence in the political and operational realities that would make prosecutions difficult and costly.

    That is, Obama's eagerness to cover up other people's war crimes.

    He doesn't even have to prosecute. Obama could've just declined to oppose the Maher Arar appeals. But first he says "no torture commission, leave it to the courts," and then "uh, but no, these suits should be thrown out of court too."

    He does not give a damn about the most basic human rights.

  22. From Glenn Greenwald at salon.com:

    Even in the context of America's wretched civil liberties abuses over the last decade, the case of Mohamed Hassan Odaini stands out. He was 17 years old in 2001 when his father sent him from Yemen to study at a religious university in Raiwand, Pakistan, and when a campus house in which he was staying there was raided by Pakistani authorities in early 2002, he was turned over to the U.S. and shipped to Guantanamo, where he has remained without charges for the last eight years (he's now 26). A federal court this month granted his habeas petition for release, finding that the evidence "overwhelmingly supports Odaini's contention that he is unlawfully detained." Worse, the court described the multiple times over the years — beginning in 2002 and occurring as recently as 2009 — when the U.S. Government itself concluded that Odaini was guilty of nothing, was mistakenly detained, and should be released (see here for the court's description of that history).

    Despite that, the Obama administration has refused to release him for the past 16 months, and fought vehemently in this habeas proceeding to keep him imprisoned. As the court put it, the Obama DOJ argued "vehemently" that there was evidence that Odaini was part of Al Qaeda. In fact, the Obama administration knew this was false. This Washington Post article this weekend quotes an "administration official" as saying: "The bottom line is: We don't have anything on this kid." But after Obama decreed in January that no Yemeni detainees would be released — even completely innocent ones, and even though the Yemeni government wants their innocent prisoners returned — Obama DOJ lawyers basically lied to the court by claiming there was substantial evidence to prove that Odaini was part of Al Qaeda even though they know that is false. In other words, the Obama administration is knowingly imprisoning a completely innocent human being who has been kept in a cage in an island prison, thousands of miles from his home, for the last 8 years, since he's 18 years old, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.

    It really is hard to imagine many things worse, more criminal, than imprisoning people for years whom you know are innocent, while fighting in court to keep them imprisoned. But that's exactly what the Obama administration is doing. Every day that Odiani is kept in a cage is a serious crime. Just imagine what has happened to his life by being shipped off to Guantanamo for 8 years, starting in 2002 during that camp's darkest days, with absolutely no justification.

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