'Lucy' Obama and His 'Charlie Brown' Progressives

Over and over, the president tricks interest groups into thinking he's an ally, only to yank away the thing they desire.

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Charles Schultz / Reuters / The Atlantic

Check out Chuck Todd, NBC's chief White House correspondent, openly speculating that President Obama is going to embrace same-sex marriage because he needs money from gay people. "Gay money in this election has replaced Wall Street money," he reported. NBC's David Gregory agreed. For some reason, neither man seemed to think this theory reflects poorly on the president.

Then the conventional wisdom shifted. Observers were basing their guesses on the fact that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Vice President Joe Biden had both made statements in support of same-sex marriage. The same-sex-marriage supporters who praised these developments were as quickly dismayed when the White House walked back Biden's statements, insisting that like Obama, Biden's views on the subject were still "evolving," a euphemism that seems to mean they'll favor either marriage equality for gays or discrimination against them depending on their moment-to-moment judgments about what's best for them politically.

Sounds like Mitt Romney's position!

Observing all this, Romney 2012 booster Jennifer Rubin aptly noted, "This is becoming the proverbial Lucy and the football. One wonders how often pro-gay-marriage activists, like poor Charlie Brown, are going to fall for this stuff." But Lucy just had one Charlie Brown. Obama has a whole roster of would-be kickers, and a habit of teeing up the ball only to callously pull it away.

Don't progressives see this?

  • Obama tricked the cannabis community into thinking his Justice Department would go easy on medical marijuana in states where it is legal, broke his promise, then misled voters about his options.
  • Obama tricked anti-war voters into thinking that he wouldn't order American troops into battle unless there was an imminent threat to America or a declaration of war from Congress, then went to war in Libya, violating the War Powers Resolution, even though neither condition was met.
  • Obama tricked transparency advocates into thinking he'd celebrate whistleblowers and set new standards in open government. He has prosecuted whistleblowers as aggressively as any president in history, and presided over a dramatic escalation in what the federal government does in secret.
  • Obama tricked executive-power critics into thinking he would roll back the excesses of the Bush Administration. He has transformed those excesses into matters of bipartisan consensus, and gone farther in some respects, as when an American citizen was killed extra-judicially on his order. 
  • Obama tricked immigration-reform advocates into thinking he was a fellow traveler, then upset them with Secure Communities, record-breaking deportation levels, and a failure to improve immigration detention.
  • Obama tricked Iraq War opponents into thinking that he would exit the country by the withdrawal date that George W. Bush negotiated. The Iraqi government wouldn't let him keep troops in the country beyond that date, although he tried to break his promise. Now the Obama Administration pays a small army of private-security contractors to protect America's presence in that country.
  • Obama tricked critics of indefinite detention into thinking that he abhorred the practice, only to sign a bill that institutionalized it. 
  • Obama tricked critics of signing statements into thinking he wouldn't issue them. But he's done so on many occasions.
  • Obama tricked critics of the state-secrets privilege into thinking he'd reverse Bush-era uses of the tactic. Instead he's continued it.

This isn't an exhaustive list, but these examples are sufficient to draw a conclusion: Progressives shouldn't trust what Obama says, or what they think he believes. They should judge his actions. It's the only way to distinguish between promises he aims to keep and things he's said to mislead small constituencies into thinking he'll do more for them than is justified by reality.

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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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