A Plea to Liberals: Stop Marginalizing Peace and Civil Liberties


During the Bush years, fighting excessive American militarism and executive power were priorities on the left. Now they're glossed over.

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During Election 2008, Ezra Klein and I lived in the same city, Washington, D.C., where people spilled into the streets when the networks declared Barack Obama the victor. "America has forgotten," Klein wrote on November 4, 2008. "September 11 has not disappeared from our memory, of course, but we have recovered from the blow. We have forgotten how it felt to be afraid, and so, yesterday, we forgot to vote our fears. And in doing, we have elected a black president with a Muslim name. Fear again proved but a temporary detour from our history's long arc toward justice."

I am not a progressive. I don't think that the federal government is suited to managing the health-care sector from the top down, or that public employee unions should be strengthened, or that green jobs are a strategy. But in 2008, I celebrated the end of the Bush Administration and nodded along to Klein's assessment, because I witnessed what I wouldn't have thought was possible: a black Democrat rising to the presidency while unapologetically affirming that the Iraq War was a mistake; that the choice between safety from terrorists and civil liberties was a false one; that spying on Americans without a warrant was unconstitutional; that indefinite detention without charges was illegal; that it made no sense to incarcerate so many people for possessing drugs. I knew Obama would implement some domestic policies with which I disagreed, but I felt good about his victory, if only because he affirmed that an American president couldn't launch a war without Congressional permission unless we were attacked; that transparency was vital even in the executive branch; that whistleblowers were heroes.    

If President Obama wins in 2012, there won't be celebrations on the streets. Should he deliver a Second Inaugural Address, it won't be possible to walk the boulevards of Washington, D.C., in the days before and after the event and witness smiles on the faces of almost everyone. The economic climate is brutal. Obama's popularity is waning. Nate Silver, America's political data geek of record, says his odds of reelection are slightly less than even. Everywhere political observers are wrestling with the question, "Is the Obama presidency a failed one?" And in this radically different environment, Klein is again writing about the man, this time in the guise of a New York Review of Books piece about Ron Suskind's "Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President."

As yet, I haven't finished the book, nor do I have a stake in the disagreement between Suskind and Klein. For the sake of argument, let's grant Klein all of his points: that Obama should be judged by his performance rather than the personalities in his administration, that given the unemployment rate he was bound to be unpopular, that no president looks good in the midst of an economic crisis, that judging his performance requires an assessment of what was politically possible, and that the Republican Party has thwarted Obama on many fronts, for cynical reasons as often as substantive political or ideological ones.

What I object to are Klein's larger claims, the ones that go beyond the scope of Suskind's book, and its economic focus, to assess the Obama presidency as a whole. "Being a confidence man is almost in the job description of the insurgent presidential candidate. Having not been president before, you must, by definition, ask the American people for a trust you have not earned. And Obama was better at this than most," Klein writes. "He gave America hope. He made America believe he could deliver change. And, by the standards of Washington, he has probably done more than anyone could rightly have expected. Stimulus, health care reform, the end of 'don't ask, don't tell,' the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the payroll tax cut, new tobacco regulation--this is much more than your average first-term president achieves."

A caveat is then offered.

"But the president needs to do more than lead. He needs to govern. And when he has so convinced the American people of his leadership that their expectations for his term far exceed his -- or anyone's -- capacity to govern, disappointment results," Klein writes. "That's when they go looking for another confidence man--one whose promises aren't sullied by the compromises and concession made in the effort to deliver results -- and the cycle begins anew." Barack Obama, victim of his own excellence. If he loses in 2012, it's only because he got results.

* * *

The editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, is the sort of man it's easy for a journalist to envy. He got sent to Moscow in 1988. Good timing! He's won a Pulitzer Prize and has an archive of pieces any magazine writer younger than John McPhee would envy. He runs one of the most prestigious publications in the world. Yet he's impossible to dislike. The only time I saw him in person, he was being interviewed by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates at the New York Public Library, where he discussed his book on President Obama, a read that's worth your while. And in The New Yorker, where he inexplicably finds time to write, he opined recently on the president's decision to invade Libya, the president's critics, and the end game. Affirming Chris Cilliza's judgment that Obama wouldn't get an electoral bump from Qaddafy's death, Remnick observed that "there's something strange about the backseat status often given to foreign policy in Presidential campaigns. Presidents have a great deal more sway over the matters of war, peace, and diplomacy than they have over the economic weather. (Globalism and the House of Representatives make sure of that.) Even stranger is the lack of attention given to foreign affairs by the candidates themselves."

He proceeded to run through the absurd foreign policy positions taken by various GOP primary candidates, including their most dubious attacks on Obama, and concluded with a defense of the president's record: "Obama is responsible for an aggressive assault on Al Qaeda, including the killing of bin Laden, in Pakistan, and of Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Beginning with his 2009 speech in Cairo, the President has walked a deliberate, effective path on the question of Arab uprisings, encouraging forces of liberation in the region without ignoring the complexities of each country or threatening Iraq-style interventions. He has drawn down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; awakened to the miserable realities of Pakistan and Iran; and, most recently, played a crucial role, without loss of American lives, in the overthrow of the world's longest-reigning dictator. If a Republican had been responsible for the foreign-policy markers of the past three years, the Party would be commissioning statues. In Tripoli, Benghazi, and Surt, last week, Obama won words of praise; on Republican debate platforms, there was only mindless posturing." Barack Obama, foreign policy success story. If he loses in 2012, it's only because of the economy and the groundless attacks of his rivals.

* * *

Its useful to highlight these pieces by Klein and Remnick for several reasons. For all the differences in their age and careers, both are knowledgeable Obama supporters; their worldviews generally resonate with liberals and independents; they're talented enough to persuade readers that their analysis has merit, and disagreeing with them therefore means taking on strong rather than weak arguments. A common thread runs through their assessments of Obama circa 2011: both writers believe he is less popular than he would otherwise be due to economic woes that aren't his fault and partisan opponents who are intransigent and unfair.

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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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