Liberals Need to Start Holding Obama Responsible for His Policies

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.

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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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