Is It Time to Give Obama A Break?
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over the past couple of weeks there has been a great deal of sturm and drang from the left about President Obama for failing to fulfill the promise of his 2008 campaign. Bob Kuttner's claim in the Huffington Post that Obama isn't really a progressive was perhaps the most prominent recent example; but there was also Eric Alterman's cri de couer in the pages of Nation and Glenn Greenwald's regular fulminations at Salon. Today, Politico weighs in. Yet, so many of these criticisms seem deeply misplaced and divorced from the very real constraints on Obama's ability to follow through on his agenda.
What so many of these criticisms ignore is the unprecedented level of GOP obstructionism and collusion from centrist Democrats. What stopped a bigger stimulus from being enacted in 2009? Filibustering Republicans and centrist Democrats. What stopped the public option? Joe Lieberman, centrist Dems and the GOP. What is stopping an extension of unemployment benefits from being passed? The GOP and Ben Nelson. What is stopping climate change legislation from becoming law? Republicans who don't believe in the science of global warming and Democratic Senators from coal and gas producing states. I could go on.
Those who argue that Obama should have "fought harder" for these unattainable goals are making arguments that lack a very basic understanding of presidential power, particularly in an era when political parties are nowhere near as powerful as they once were. This is the very nature of domestic legislating. It's not pretty, but it's the system we've got.
And in fact, what is most aggravating about these assertions is that they tend to ignore the President's shining progressive success - health care reform. Indeed, in an entire op-ed criticizing Obama's progressive credentials, Kuttner mentions health care reform once but offers the back-handed compliment that Obama showed "rare hands-on leadership." You'd think that passing the most important piece of social policy legislation in more than 40 years - and guaranteeing health care coverage for 30 million Americans - would rate a bit higher. Think again.
And the constraints on domestic policy also exist in foreign policy even though on these issues the president has far more latitude. For example, on Afghanistan I think the President made a huge mistake in supporting escalation last December. I continue to believe that he could have resisted the generals, but it would have taken almost all of his political capital to do so . . . at the same time that he was trying to pass health care reform. It's one of the reasons I don't necessarily begrudge his decision to escalate vs. the far worse decision to not demand his generals come up with a better, more realistic strategy for achieving US goals in Afghanistan.
And it wasn't as if liberals gave him a lot of ammunition back in the spring of 2009 or even the summer and fall in resisting the military's COIN fetish. To a large extent, on Afghanistan, the president's hands were tied - tied by his own rhetoric, tied by his own supporters who cheered lustily when he said he would devote more attention to the war in Afghanistan (myself included), tied by a military that organized a crackerjack PR campaign to force his hand, tied by his liberal supporters for failing to push back on the military and tied by an opposition party that cares more about the politics of national security than they do national security policy.
And while it's much harder to defend Obama on his civil liberties and rule of law positions, I hark back to something I wrote in March when word was leaked that KSM would not get a civilian trial after all:
Of course, Obama is not blameless here. He has at times needlessly upset the left; he's failed to make critical appointments to the judiciary and other federal positions; his rhetoric on terrorism has dangerously aped the Bush-era "war on terrorism" narrative; he has failed to take bolder steps on dealing with torture and rule of law issues and in some cases has taken a step back; he perhaps took too long to jettison the post-partisan rhetoric and take on the GOP's know-nothingness and mindless, naked obstructionism. But these critiques only tell a small part of the story.
The depressing conclusion to all this is that a good part of our political class isn't really that interested in promoting the rule of law when it comes to dealing with the threat of terrorism. That so many Americans are willing to go along with this; and that so many politicians are either willing to use the fear of terrorism to abrogate the rule of law (or are unwilling to stand up for it) is not all on Barack Obama. It's on America.
Instead when you consider how often depraved that opposition is, for example, in opposing economic stimulus for political gain or lying about the impact of proposed legislation or branding any effort to moderate US foreign policy as "weakness" or "surrender" . . . well Obama looks pretty good by comparison.After all American politics is not a zero sum game; it's a competition between two competing forces in which sometimes the lesser of two evils is the better choice.
There is with every president and every leader both good and bad - but in the face of unprecedented political opposition Obama's track record is one that is far more glass full, than glass empty. Indeed I would argue it's about three-quarters full.
Maybe it's about time that the left (myself included) gave Obama a break . . . and aim their broadsides at the real enemy of progressivism and good governance in this country. Or perhaps we can continue to dump all over Obama and then sit around and wonder in 2013 how Mitt Romney got elected President.