Why Do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?

Jonathan Chait is the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened

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When I pleaded with liberals to stop ignoring President Obama's failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they didn't even merit a mention, the quintessential example of the troubling phenomenon hadn't yet been published. Now it has. In New York, one of America's premier magazines, Jonathan Chait, a sharp, experienced political writer, has penned a 5,000 word essay purporting to defend the president's first term. It is aimed at liberal critics who, in Chait's telling, naively expected too much.

Tellingly, as Chait writes for affluent urban liberals who railed against the Bush Administration's excesses in the War on Terrorism, he neither desires nor feels compelled to grapple with President Obama's approach to foreign policy, national security, or homeland security. The closest he comes in a piece overwhelmingly focused on domestic policy and political maneuvering is the breezy assertion that Obama "has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes -- expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime."

Isn't that something?

Apparently it isn't even worthy of mention that Obama's actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution, the president's own professed standards for what he can do without Congressional permission, and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

In Chait's telling, expanded drone strikes in Pakistan are a clear success. Why even grapple with Jane Mayer's meticulously researched article on the risks of an drone war run by the CIA, Glenn Greenwald's polemics on the innocent civilians being killed, or Jeff Goldberg and Marc Ambinder's reporting on the Pakistani generals who are moving lightly guarded nuclear weapons around the country in civilian trucks as a direct consequence of the cathartic bin Laden raid.

Chait mentions the Iraq withdrawal, but doesn't point out that Obama sought to violate his campaign promise, and would've kept American troops in the country beyond 2011 had the Iraqis allowed it; that as it is, he'll leave behind a huge State Department presence with a private security army; and that he's expanding America's presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf to make up for the troops no longer in Iraq. Is any of that possibly relevant to a liberal's assessment?

Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn't even allude to Obama's practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process, or even consistent, transparent standards.

Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama's escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken, the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided, or his broken promise to lay off medical marijuana in states where dispensing it is legal.

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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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