Liberals Need to Start Holding Obama Responsible for His Policies

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An interview with novelist Paul Auster shows how the left is incapable of attributing any blame for policies they dislike to the president.

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A spot-on Election 2012 parody recently published at Reason begins as follows: "The past several weeks have made one thing crystal-clear: Our country faces unmitigated disaster if the Other Side wins." I though of it upon reading a Salon interview with novelist Paul Auster, whose foray into political commentary sums up what frustrates me about a certain kind of liberal. His remarks presume extraordinary bad faith on the part of right-wing Republicans while ascribing the best intentions to President Obama. The GOP-bashing makes Auster seem unserious. Really? Comparing the opposition to jihadists? Tom Friedman could craft a better metaphor.

But a second mistake bothers me more, for Auster seems to care about the rule of law and human rights. He's tangled with a lot of powerful people in proactive attempts to defend civil liberties. His devotion to Obama therefore exacts a high opportunity cost.

What follows is the relevant excerpt from his interview. The boldfaced questions are posed by David Daley, Salon's executive editor. Below them are the novelist's answers. My commentary follows.

There's another passage I wanted to ask about. You write of having "manifold grievances against the evils and stupidities of modern American life," and of the "ascendancy of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senseless wars, the barbarism of legalized torture and extraordinary rendition." That is the sound of someone who must have complicated thoughts about President Obama.

They are complicated.

That you understand completely the magnitude of the problems he inherited, and the intransigence of the opposition he deals with ...

I know all this.

But also thought there were things he would do, or never do --

Like not close Guantanamo Bay.

And drone strikes that he's personally overseeing.

Listen, when I voted for him, I knew I was voting for a moderate. His politics are not my politics, but he's a hell of a lot closer to me than any of the others, so I'm vehemently behind him. I desperately want him to win. Has he disappointed me? Of course he's disappointed me. Do I think he's rather inept politically? Yes. I think he could've out-maneuvered those right-wingers. But he had this knighted notion that he could somehow bring everyone together, and he didn't know that he was dealing with insane people. I think of the right-wing Republicans as jihadists; they're as crazy as those people. They want to destroy the country that we want to save. And you know they're not doing it with machine guns and bombs, but they're doing it by electing insane people to enact insane legislation that is going to do as much damage to us as bombs would in the long run. So that's my position. I'm for Obama, I wish he were different, but I know that, under the circumstances, he can't be different. Anybody farther to the left would never have a chance of winning.

So I'm respectful of Obama, but I think he's a strange double-person, warm and cold, compassionate and indifferent, tough and soft, all at the same time. And I don't really understand who he is.

What I most want Auster and liberal who think like him to explain is why they think Obama "can't be different ... under the circumstances," and their unsupported assertion that if he moved farther to the left he "would never have a chance of winning." I can see why that would be comforting to a liberal who "desperately" wants a guy as illiberal as Obama to be reelected.

But the facts suggest none of it is true.

Barack Obama did win in 2008 running on a platform more liberal than the one he has pursued in the interim. Perhaps he couldn't move any farther left on immigration or health care and stay viable. But on national security, executive power, and civil-liberties issues, he campaigned and won handily repudiating Bush-era policies, only to govern to the "right" of the Bush Administration.

There wasn't a political imperative to do so. And I'm tired of that truth being obscured.

If liberals are going express horror at the GOP agenda as they enthusiastically support Obama's reelection, it's time for them to own his policies and stop trying to blame them on George W. Bush, or intransigent Republicans, or the financial crisis, or corporate campaign donations, or the desire to compromise, or an electorate that wasn't ready for the allegedly "knighted" Obama.

Barack Obama wasn't pressured to be executioner-in-chief. He asserted himself as arbiter of which human beings to kill without trial, at times far from any battlefield, sometimes without even knowing their identities. He decided to limit congressional oversight and totally exclude the judiciary.

House Speaker John Boehner didn't define militants as all men of military age that American drones kill. The Obama Administration did that.

Voters didn't clamor for an unprecedented war on whistleblowers. The Obama Administration decided to wage it.

An intransigent Congress didn't force the Obama Administration to make frequent use of the state-secrets privilege, or to keep Bradley Manning in solitary confinement, or to keep secret the legal memo that outlines the theory behind his extrajudicial assassination of American citizens.

No one made Obama violate the War Powers Resolution in Libya.

The president wouldn't suffer politically if he ordered the CIA to stop firing on rescuers who rush to the scene of drone strikes, or instructed the NSA to stop spying on the communications of American citizens suspected of no wrongdoing, or stopped turning military equipment over to police.

The American public wasn't clamoring for the naked body scans and genital pat-downs at the airport.

If liberals like Auster think that President Obama is preferable to Mitt Romney, even given all his flaws, they've got a plausible argument. But when liberals who describe the right's transgressions against civil liberties during the Bush era as horrific -- a label that is absolutely justified -- and nevertheless describe Obama as man with "knighted" notions, think his major problem is political ineptness, talk of respect for him, and desperately want him to win, I can't understand it.

Is his manner so agreeable that his actions count for nothing?

If Mitt Romney is elected, I foresee a liberal establishment that suddenly rediscovers the problems with executive power, the alarming precedents being set in the War on Terrorism, and the legal arguments against various national security policies. Whereas if Obama wins a second term, I fully expect many liberals to keep on presuming that he is a well-intentioned man who must be doing the best he can on these issues (given Republican intransigence and political constraints).

It took conservatives until several years into George W. Bush's second term to see that their champion wasn't in fact doing as well as could be expected given the circumstances. Liberals have a chance to confront the excesses of the man they've empowered sooner. The facts are right there.

Seeing them is uncomfortable but vital.

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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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