An Intra-Left Debate: Is Obama the 'More Effective' of 2 Evils?

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Progressives grapple with uncomfortable, frequently ignored questions raised by the president's agenda.

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Left-leaning journalist Glen Ford, the editor of Black Agenda Report, has taken to the radio waves to proclaim Barack Obama "not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil." By virtue of being a Democrat, he argues, the president has been able to advance policies that would trigger resistance if the GOP attempted them. His deficit-reduction commission has created "a model for austerity," and he codified preventive detention in law, Ford complained. "He's expanded the theaters of war in drone wars, and he's made an unremitting assault on international law," he continued, adding that "what will go down as his biggest contribution to history is a kind of merging of the banks and the state, with $16 trillion being infused into these banks, into Wall Street ... and the line between Wall Street and the federal government virtually disappearing."

These were his opening remarks in a debate with Professor Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown sociologist. My sharp-eyed colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates drew my attention to the exchange.

Thank goodness these two men were arguing. After watching conservatives avoid the tough questions raised by the Bush Administration for years on end, a decision they eventually regretted, it's been disheartening to see so many on the left keeping quiet about President Obama's actions and their implications for liberalism and progressivism.

Hopefully this exchange is a portent of things to come. Here's Dyson defending the left: 

Of course, the fluff and the desiderata may be absolutely true, as Mr. Ford has indicated. But the reality is, is that Obama is as progressive a figure who has the chance of being elected in America. Friedrich Engels is not going to be the secretary of labor, and Marx will not be the secretary of Treasury, bottom line. Now, having said that, all of the stuff that Glen Ford has talked about is absolutely right in an ideal world where the politics of erosion can be stemmed by progressive forces that have an upsurgence, that have the possibility of getting elected.
 
But if you ain't in the game -- Miami Heat is playing the Oklahoma Thunder. It's not 'I'd prefer it be the Los Angeles Lakers.' This is the game we're talking about. And if the American left can't be involved in the actual practice of government to offer the critical and salient insights that are available -- take -- take 2000, when siding with Nader, then Al Gore, who should have been president, who would have prevented some of the stuff that we see now happening, didn't occur. The left won't take responsibility for the fact that, with the extraordinary intelligence of a Glen Ford and many other leftists notwithstanding, the reality is that he's the most progressive president, as Gary Dorrien, an American leftist who teaches at Union Theological Seminary argues, since FDR. Those are the stakes on the ground. We're talking about what he's done with earned income tax credit, when we talk about bailing out the American automobile industry, when we speak about the fact that Affordable Healthcare Act is put forth, you talk about pre-existing conditions. When you speak about, across the board, what Obama has been able to do despite the intransigence of the Republican Party, then you talk about on-the-ground practices of actually achievable political goals.

Dyson's general argument is familiar. Basically, he thinks it's a mistake to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But look at the faulty assumptions he makes on the way to that claim.

Of course Karl Marx is never going to run our economic policy. What does that possibly have to do with Obama's treatment of Wall Street? Are we to believe that only a radical Marxist would've failed to funnel trillions to the former and future firms of leading officials in the administration?

Yes, it makes sense for leftists to judge Obama's successes alongside his failures. But Dyson's attempt to evaluate the whole leaves me reeling. He seems to acknowledge the morally objectionable things that Obama does in the realm of national security -- codifying indefinite detention into law; waging secret, undeclared drone wars that routinely kill innocents; violating international law (for example, he's failed to meet his legal obligations under torture treaties duly ratified by a past Senate and signed by President Reagan).

Confronted with those issues, how does Dyson reply by praising "what he's done with earned income tax credit"? Like Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, and Ross Douthat, I'm glad that under Obama a working family with three children can receive a maximum of $5,751 rather than $5,112. Am I supposed to consider that in the same moral universe with a policy that most recently led to 13 innocent people being killed in Yemen? In order to theoretically reduce the already miniscule chance of an American citizen dying in a terrorist attack, our president wages an ongoing assassination campaign that has already killed hundreds of innocents. On the other hand, he got working class people in one of the richest countries on earth $639.

Dyson talks as if the former helps to mitigate the latter. Is that a widely held belief on the left?

The Affordable Care Act is a more substantial change in policy. Progressives understandably celebrate the new people it insures, the added protection it gives to insurance consumers, and what many on the left regard as prudent reforms likely to improve the health care system as a whole going forward. It remains the case that President Clinton (and President Nixon, for that matter) attempted major health care reform legislation. The auto-bailout? George W. Bush approved the first phase of it. When Obama pushed through the bigger part of it, Rep. Paul Ryan voted yes. Nor was it the only auto bailout in U.S. history. President Carter signed the Chrysler bailout. All of this is to say that Dyson exaggerates the degree to which Obama's domestic policy is "the most progressive since FDR," especially given the existence of LBJ.

But even if we granted that Obama is the most progressive domestic-policy president since FDR, Dyson is demonstrably wrong when he replies to Ford's critique by saying, in effect, no one better could get elected on the issues you mention. On national security and civil liberties, candidate Obama was better, running far to President Obama's left, and he got elected!

He ran against indefinite detention, and got elected. He proclaimed torture a crime, and got elected.

Giving no indication that he'd use the CIA to wage a classified drone war in a half dozen countries, he got elected. There are, in addition, all manner of objectionable things he's done that are not even politically salient, from his war on whistleblowers to his invocations of the state secrets privilege to various arguments his DOJ has made to expand executive power. Any president could do better than Obama on those issues without running afoul of the electorate.

Does Glen Ford, who thinks that Obama is "the more effective evil," believe that Mitt Romney would be a better president? "No, I'm not saying that," he replied when asked the question. "I'm saying that with Romney in the White House, even Dr. Dyson and others, many others, would join in the resistance to austerity, the resistance to war. Apparently, they cannot muster the energy to do that under a Democratic president, under the first black president. It's their behavior that does in fact facilitate these austerity assaults and these war -- this warmongering, because they don't resist it, and they accept it as something that is a fait accompli, that is an inevitability."

To me, this critique is persuasive (aside from the fact that I don't share Ford's dark view of deficit reduction, but that's a matter for a different post).

If Dyson concludes that Obama is the best viable candidate in the 2012 election, and supports his reelection, I have no objection. But I do not think a good progressive or a good liberal (or a good conservative, for that matter) can be silent about his national security record.     

Indulge a slightly roundabout explanation.

Jonathan Chait is a very smart writer who consistently counters the notion that the left should be disappointed in Obama. I once complained that he kept failing to mention Obama's record on civil liberties and executive power. In fact, I complained a few times, and once, in an aside, Chait replied, explaining that he doesn't write about Obama's civil-liberties policies because "I don't have opinions on everything!" I can't very well demand that everyone share my interest in the subject. But if you're going to write about the left's overall opinion of Obama -- or like Dyson, if you're going to write about how good a progressive Obama is overall -- you can't get around having an opinion about civil liberties, executive power, and foreign policy. In this context, a dearth of "interest" necessarily translates into treating a subject as if it's unimportant. That's the nature of trafficking in broad evaluations of presidents.

Lots of progressives (with notable exceptions) are still treating these important issues like they're not even worthy of mention. I met a lot of them at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

By celebrating Obama's domestic record, table-pounding about his killing of Osama bin Laden, and ignoring huge aspects of his tenure, look what's forgotten: the innocents killed by his policies abroad, the American citizens who were extrajudicially assassinated, the reckless precedent for secret killing, the warrantless spying, the ethnic profiling, the drone war, the violation of the War Powers Resolution, the war on whistleblowers, and the war on drugs, for starters.

It seems to me that the relative silence is in part a signal that the left cares about these things less than other subjects about which it is never silent, from card-check to subsidized contraception. The left supported Obama when he opposed gay marriage, but it was never silent about gay rights. Why this silence on the aforementioned subjects if not that most leftists care about them less? You can imagine all sorts of things that couldn't be dropped from the Democratic platform without opening up a major intra-party rift. Civil liberties weren't one of them.

The left touts its commitment to the most weak and powerless among us. I wonder how its members would respond to this fanciful hypothetical. Imagine that progressives and liberals could either keep silent about drones and save Obamacare; or else speak up about the dead Pakistani and Yemeni children, and see health care repealed? What would a good progressive do? For "pragmatic" thinkers like Dyson, I suppose the answer turns on the perceived political utility of speaking up. Yet I can't imagine the same standard would be applied in a counter-factual where health care for impoverished Yemenis could be preserved by staying quiet about the president's habit of killing innocents in New York, Phoenix, and Grand Rapids. 

Put another way, human beings aren't very good at standing up for the weak and powerless in specific instances. Our judgment fails us, and we come up with all sorts of plausible sounding excuses for ignoring their plight. Recognizing that unfortunate tendency, previous generations of Americans established norms and safeguards to be followed in all circumstances, so that the weak and vulnerable wouldn't be at the mercy of specific judgment calls. The Bill of Rights, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the Geneva Conventions: When Obama violates these laws and norms, he transgresses against the weak and powerless, rendering himself a failure by the left's own terms. Insofar as leftists don't object, they are complicit in his failure. 

That's my take, anyway. For the entirety of Ford vs. Dyson and their different conclusions, just click play:

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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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