The Question That Makes Most Obama Supporters Nervous and Evasive

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The president has institutionalized indefinite detention, kill lists, and undeclared war. Has he acted recklessly? Or can GOP politicians be trusted with those powers?

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President Obama signed into law a bill that permits indefinite detention. Administration officials are institutionalizing extrajudicial kill lists at his direction. His decision to wage war in Libya without congressional approval was justified by government lawyers in legal documents his successors will inherit. Many of his supporters argue that he's wielded these powers appropriately.

Freddie de Boer has a question for them (italics are de Boer's; bold is mine):

I'm told that the reason we must support Obama, seemingly beyond any limits and against any concerns, is because the Republicans are so much worse. Worse they are -- but they will take power someday. They will; that's the cyclicality of American politics. I don't know if that will be in 2013 or 2017 or when. But it will come. And they will have been handed the keys to a program that kills people, including American citizens, literally without any external review or restraint whatsoever. I'm told that Obama-supporting progressives hate and fear Republicans more than anyone else. If that's so, how can they possibly support such a reckless expansion of powers that will inevitably end up in Republican hands? Why are the willing to entrust this program in the hands of people they call insane and evil?

Look what usually happens when Obama supporters are asked to confront it!

Glenn Greenwald clarifies the general principle. "A primary reason for opposing the acquisition of abusive powers and civil liberties erosions is that they virtually always become permanent," he explains, "vested not only in current leaders one may love and trust but also future officials who seem more menacing and less benign." I understand that Obama supporters think more highly of the president than I do. What never ceases to amaze me is their apparent shortsightedness. Almost without exception, they insist that Mitt Romney will obviously abuse civil liberties and wage war far more readily than Obama. This very man may be president in three months. Yet vanishingly few are urging the president to limit executive power before it's too late.

Vanishingly few will do so even if he's a lame duck.

Why?

When I hear Republicans talk about how Obama is a Kenyan anti-colonialist, or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy, and those very same people are perfectly sanguine about his secret kill list, I start to get the impression that they don't actually fear him as much as they pretend. Sarah Palin complains about Obama's Medicare treatment review board, calling it a "death panel." But Obama runs a literal death panel that literally killed American citizens and she's cool with it.

I get the same feeling about some Obama supporters.

It's urgent to defeat Romney and Ryan, because they're malign, bellicose bullies who have no regard for anyone but the rich. What's that? Obama has created an institutionalized kill list they'll inherit if they win? No, he hasn't acted with shocking recklessness. He's acting responsibly. Would you prefer that he invade those countries or carpet bomb them and kill even more civilians? Besides, you're only able to write about these issues because you're white and privileged

The evasiveness is understandable.

If Romney can be trusted with these extreme powers, he must not be a malign, bellicose bully. And if he can't be trusted with them, it was awfully reckless for Obama to set the precedents he has, especially in the run-up to an election that everyone expected to be close all along.

Obama supporters aren't eager to confront either possibility.

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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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