Don't Romanticize Obama

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A gushing Esquire essay reminds us that the president's boosters make it harder to hold him accountable to his promises

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Can we just enjoy Barack Obama for a few months?

That's the question Stephen Marche poses in an Esquire essay about the president. "Before the policy choices have to be weighed and the hard decisions have to be made, can we just take a month or two to contemplate him the way we might contemplate a painting by Vermeer or a guitar lick by the early-seventies Rolling Stones or a Peyton Manning pass or any other astounding, ecstatic human achievement?" he writes. "Because twenty years from now, we're going to look back on this time as a glorious idyll in American politics, with a confident, intelligent, fascinating president riding the surge of his prodigious talents from triumph to triumph."

What to make of this fawning description? Upon reading it, I could think of nothing but "A Stroke of Genius?" That short, memorable essay was published at the blog Powerline in 2005. "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice," John Hinderaker wrote. "He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile." Conservatives spent a couple more years enjoying Bush, rather that subjecting him to overdue scrutiny. In hindsight, everyone regrets that.

Recent history has taught us the folly of romanticizing all presidents. Whether during the Bay of Pigs, The Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran Contra, Waco, or Abu Ghraib, or numerous other missteps and scandals besides, we've been shown that smart men err, that power corrupts, and that the executive branch often cannot be trusted to do the right thing. There is no upside to casting the president as some sort of hero.  

But here we go again.

"The turning point came that glorious week in the spring when, in the space of a few days, he released his long-form birth certificate, humiliated Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and assassinated Osama bin Laden," Marche writes. "The effortlessness of that political triptych -- three linked masterpieces demonstrating his total command over intellectual argument, low comedy, and the spectacle of political violence -- was so overwhelmingly impressive that it made political geniuses of the recent past like Reagan and Clinton seem ham-fisted."

Did you gloss over that passage?

Read it again. This is how little we now expect of our leaders. A man showed his birth certificate to scattered kooks, and the release of that bureaucratic form is deemed "a masterpiece." As is humiliating Donald Trump -- a man who is perhaps the easiest to mock of all the reality TV stars!

And then a bit later, we're shown the essay's core: "In 2011, it is possible to be a levelheaded, warmhearted, cold-blooded killer who can crack a joke and write a book for his daughters. It is possible to be many things at once. And even more miraculous, it is possible for that man to be the president of the United States. Barack Obama is developing into what Hegel called a 'world-historical soul,' an embodiment of the spirit of the times. He is what we hope we can be."

Do we really want to be assassins?

But leave that aside. The irony here is that Obama campaigned and won precisely by appealing to our better selves. Were I to run for president (God forbid), I hope I'd give this one minute speech:



If I campaigned thusly, I'd then hope for the fortitude to uphold the ideals I professed. And what I'd most hate to be is a man who unapologetically betrayed my most idealistic supporters. Isn't that what Obama has done?

Consider his speech line by line.

"I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools the need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom," Obama said. "That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens." Go read Cato's Julian Sanchez, the ACLU's blog, or Tech Dirt to see how quickly that promise was broken. "No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime," Obama promised. Once in office, he endeavored to expand their use.

"No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war," he promised. Never mind war critics. He wants to track citizens who do nothing more than carry a cell phone! "No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient," said the man who violated the War Powers Resolution. "The separation of powers works," he said, before asserting that he is empowered to assassinate American citizens without congressional oversight or the due process afforded by judicial hearings. "We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers," he said, before working to shield high ranking Bush officials from being investigated for torture. "And that justice is not arbitrary," he said, in a campaign where he promised that states with medical marijuana laws would not face raids by federal authorities. Another broken promise.

My colleague James Fallows, a man with an impressive array of sharp correspondents, published a note from one of them a few days back, making the case that Obama knows exactly what he is doing.

Here is a lengthy excerpt:

I believe that, when we elect a President, we should be voting for someone who (1) shares one's general political philosophy and orientation and (2) has the intellectual ability, judgment, discipline and personality to make decisions which are as good as they can be under the circumstances.... It's a truism of national politics that the issues and problems the President has to deal with are largely going to be issues not debated during the election.
 
By this measure, I fully support Obama, even if I don't like some of his actions.  It may sound naïve and childish, but I trust him... he is obviously really, really smart--perhaps one of the smartest guys on the national political scene in years.  Based on all we read, he has put together a team which is capable and works well together...  Decisions seem to be made in a thoughtful, analytic way, with an opportunity for all views to be heard.  While political considerations are inevitably taken into account, unlike the prior Administration, this Administration appears to make decisions based on policy and principle, rather than politics, as the primary concern.

As a general approach to electing presidents, that sounds perfectly thoughtful and defensible, but my assessment of this particular president is wildly different. On all sorts of issues that were debated before the election, Obama has broken unambiguous commitments. And he has also betrayed a central promise of his candidacy: that he very much understood why process matters.

If his subsequent actions have been undertaken on principle, it must be a flawed one. This is no time to enjoy Obama, as the Esquire writer asserts, or to treat him deferentially, as if he has earned our trust.

In all administrations, Congress is a necessary check, as is the Fourth Estate, as are the people. Our current Congress is failing spectacularly. It is filled with Republicans who've no idea how to govern and Democrats whose civil liberties bona fides evaporated as soon as their party came into power.

Thus a greater burden is imposed on the media and the people. To cast Obama as the living embodiment of the zeitgeist is as absurd as imagining him to be a shadow outsider who hates America. He is a normal politician, one whose behavior in office often times conflicts with the ideals that put him there. What we ought to do, insofar as it's possible, is be skeptical, vigilant and demand better.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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