Obama’s record: what Ambinder missed

Marc Ambinder, who has my respect for what I take to be his good-faith effort to maintain his objectivity in the race for President, and who has hit John McCain some pretty good licks recently, repeats what seems to me an egregious error he made way back in May: Ambinder quotes an attack on Obama premised on the claim that Obama has no record, and treats that as a legitimate claim.

In this case, Ambinder simply asks his readership to name Obama’s accomplishments, against the background of a story reported (or invented) by that blue-ribbon fool Richard Cohen in which an unnamed Democrat, asked to mention one of Obama’s accomplishments, lists his speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention, the implication being that Obama didn’t do anything noteworthy before and hasn’t done anything noteworthy since.

That strongly implies that Ambinder, who after all is attentive to public affairs, can’t himself name any of Obama’s accomplishments. Maybe that’s true, but if so all it means is that Ambinder hasn’t bothered to do some basic Googling.

A short list of Obama’s deeds, counting only his time in elected office, would include, in Illinois:

* Children’s health care.

* The earned income tax credit.

* Ethics reform.

* Videotaping of police interrogations (an anti-torture measure, since imitated elsewhere, which required Obama to win the support of law enforcement groups who started out hostile to it).

In Washington:

* More ethics reform.

* Work on “loose nukes” with Richard Lugar.

Of course no legislator ever does anything alone, but that’s not a bad record; year-for-year, it’s much stronger than McCain’s, even counting the parts of McCain’s legacy he has already trashed, such as campaign finance reform and opposition to torture.

Details on Illinois are in this Charles Peters article; details on DC are in two long posts by Hilzoy, one on Obama’s legislative record and one on Obama’s style of bipartisanship. Really, this stuff isn’t hard to find, though those of Ambinder’s readers he chooses to quote don’t seem to have found any of it. To ask “What’s Obama’s record?” without looking it up, like asking “What are Obama’s specific proposals?” without checking his website, is journalistic malpractice, because asking those questions that way reinforces the impression carefully created by Obama’s opponents that he doesn’t have a record or detailed positions. And that is simply false, just like the claim that he didn’t want to visit wounded soldiers if he couldn’t bring cameras.

It’s already clear that McCain is working from the Rove playbook: tell lots of lies about your opponent, gambling that some of them will stick and that the press won’t have the gumption to call “bullsh*t.” I bet it won’t work this year; with Ambinder, Joe Klein, and Andrea Mitchell all off the reservation this early, it looks to me as if McCain is going to lose his gamble on the supinity of the press. Still, it’s sad to see a good reporter contribute to a bad line of argument.

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