The Ongoing Effort to Sanitize Obama's Image

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The president's supporters continue to ignore his civil-liberties abuses and executive-power excesses as they tell the story of his first term.



In the interview above, producer, director, and documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim becomes the latest in a long line of liberals to help sanitize President Obama's image, advancing a narrative that totally ignores his transgressions against civil liberties and expansion of executive power. Paid by the Obama campaign to produce what he calls a 17-minute documentary, but that is better termed a political commercial or piece of propaganda, Guggenheim goes so far as to aver that the biggest negative about Obama's first term is that he accomplished so many wonderful things it was difficult to fit them all into the allotted time. 

This clip ought to be immortalized alongside John Hinderaker's now famous praise of our last leader: "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. He is like a great painter... who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile."

Of course, Guggenheim was paid to produce an uncritical appreciation of Obama. The same cannot be said for the left-leaning journalists who continue to publish highly incomplete retrospectives on the man they want reelected. His accomplishments are prominently touted, whereas the reader would never know that the president has violated his own rhetoric, campaign promises, and liberal values on issues including executive power, indefinite detention, the state-secrets privilege, the transparency of his administration, and the treatment of whistleblowers.

A journalist needn't be taken with any of the Republican candidates to acknowledge that, whether or not Obama is better than the competition, he is a flawed president. But as I've documented on multiple occasions, Obama boosters continue to write and speak about the president's first term as if his civil-liberties abuses and executive-power excesses never happened. They aren't explained or dismissed. They're just totally ignored; unmentioned; disappeared from the narrative. Yet another prominent example comes from the normally excellent Washington Monthly. Editor Paul Glastris, who deserves credit for much of what is great about that magazine, goes on for thousands of words about Obama's tenure so far, and how he'll be remembered as a great or near-great president. "That's not to say that his instincts and decisions have always been right," he notes near the end of the piece, and I thought, finally, he's going to at least mention his reversals on issues at the core of his 2008 campaign. Here what he actually wrote: "I cannot, for instance, find a good reason why he should not have at least threatened to use Fourteenth Amendment powers to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling to break the hostage standoff with the GOP last year." That's his biggest complaint?

Civil liberties and executive power were not marginal issues in 2008. President Obama's criticism of the Bush Administration was righteous and withering, and on numerous occasions he explicitly promised that if he was elevated to the presidency he'd wage the War on Terror in strict accordance with American values and the rule of law. As the ACLU subsequently pointed out in the comprehensive report it issued on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks:

Ten years ago, we could not have imagined our country would engage in systematic policies of torture and targeted killing, extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretaps, military commissions and indefinite detention, political surveillance and religious discrimination. Not only were these policies completely at odds with our values, but by engaging in them, we strained relations with our allies, handed a propaganda tool to our enemies, undermined the trust of communities whose cooperation is essential in the fight against terrorism, and diverted scarce law enforcement resources. Some of these policies have been stopped. Torture and extraordinary rendition are no longer officially condoned. But most other policies -- indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and racial profiling -- remain core elements of our national security strategy today.

These policies are now part of the bipartisan consensus. Every narrative rendering of Obama's presidency where they go unmentioned helps to normalize them further. The implicit message is that indefinite detention, extrajudicial assassinations, wars without Congressional approval, and all the rest aren't actually important enough to warrant scrutiny so long as the liberal agenda on health care, economic stimulus, education, and other domestic matters are being carried out.

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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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