What the Obamaphile Press Omitted From Its Endorsements

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The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Jonathan Chait treat some of the most important issues in America as if they don't matter at all. 

al-awlaki kid full.png
This is Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, one of the American citizens the Obama Administration killed in a secret, extrajudicial drone strike. He was 16 when he died.

Eight years ago, as George W. Bush sought reelection, his flaws were evident to much of America, but movement-conservative publications wouldn't confront them until years later as his second term came to an end. Some conservative journalists were blind to his shortcomings. Others thought it best to look past his failures until he was safely returned to power, lest Senator John Kerry be elected. I've spoken to numerous Tea Partiers who swear that they weren't attuned to many of the objectionable things happening in Washington, D.C., until the end of Bush's tenure, when conservative information elites finally began to speak frankly to the rank and file.

President Obama's most prominent journalistic supporters are behaving that way today. They refuse to offer an unabridged account of the last four years. What they leave out it telling. It is fine that they favor reelecting Obama, but only by omitting so much can they do so "enthusiastically." And like National Review circa 2004, we'll one day look back on today's endorsements from publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and writers like Jonathan Chait, and conclude that their silence on certain important subjects ill-served the country.  

Let us take them in turn.

The New Yorker's endorsement of Barack Obama suggests that it's a constant struggle to see not only what's in front of one's nose, but also what's been published in the pages of one's magazine. President Obama "has renewed the honor of the office he holds," the editors assert, adding that he possesses "a first-rate political temperament and a deep sense of fairness and integrity." They go on to posit that "a two-term Obama Administration will leave an enduringly positive imprint on political life," for Obama's America "progresses, however falteringly, toward social justice, tolerance, and equality," even as it "represents the future that this country deserves."

Extravagant praise, is it not?

The editorial is the latest example of journalists who cannot help but be familiar with Obama's most serious failings almost totally neglecting to mention or assimilate them when retelling the story of his first term. The New Yorker has dedicated tens of thousands of words to Obama's broken promises, executive-power excesses, and transgressions against civil liberties. Those powerful, vital stories survive in the magazine's archive. How do they inform the 3,700-word editorial? "Perhaps inevitably, the President has disappointed some of his most ardent supporters," it states. "Part of their disappointment is a reflection of the fantastical expectations that attached to him. Some, quite reasonably, are disappointed in his policy failures (on Guantánamo, climate change, and gun control); others question the morality of the persistent use of predator drones."

That's it. A single parenthetical! And a clause noting that some people "question" the morality of drones. Is the morality of a tactic that has killed hundreds of innocents insufficiently consequential for the editors to bother judging it themselves? What of the blowback that's been warned against in their pages? Were they unpersuaded by their own coverage? There isn't anything wrong with The New Yorker endorsing Obama, or warning its readers away from Romney. To do so in this abridged fashion is an affront to New Yorker writers who have shown through painstaking work that these issues matter -- that they demand far more than a passing acknowledgement that there is controversy!

This article on whistleblowers matters. So does this item on state secrets, this item titled "Kill or Capture," this item on Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and this item on Libya and the War Powers Resolution. What makes all these stories important enough to cover, often in great detail, always with significant concern, but renders them totally unworthy of mention at report card time?

Presidential behavior is shaped by what they're graded on.     

Alas, the New York Times endorsement is even worse. The newspaper has produced more than its share of pieces detailing the excesses of the Obama Administration, especially its secret kill list and the practice of presuming that any dead male of military age it kills is a "militant."

But its editorial, "Barack Obama for Reelection," lacks even a parenthetical about the aforementioned issues. The editors do note that Obama "has not been as aggressive as we would have liked in addressing the housing crisis." What does it say that the newspaper's editorial board finds that alleged shortcoming more worthy of mention than spying on millions of innocents without warrants, protecting Bush-era torturers from prosecution, and signing indefinite detention into law? "We have criticized individual policy choices that Mr. Obama has made over the last four years, and have been impatient with his unwillingness to throw himself into the political fight," the editors write, declining to mention which policy choices. And that that's the totality of the newspaper's criticism! 

This isn't just indefensible -- it's hypocritical. Here's what the Times wrote in its 2008 Obama endorsement:

Under Mr. Bush ... the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the justice system and the separation of powers have come under relentless attack. Mr. Bush chose to exploit the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the moment in which he looked like the president of a unified nation, to try to place himself above the law. Mr. Bush has arrogated the power to imprison men without charges and browbeat Congress into granting an unfettered authority to spy on Americans. He has created untold numbers of "black" programs, including secret prisons and outsourced torture. The president has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of secret orders. We fear it will take years of forensic research to discover how many basic rights have been violated.

It is perfectly consistent to write that paragraph and to judge that Obama is preferable to Romney. What grates is the act of disappearing these issues now that it's a Democrat violating basic rights, so much so that the editorial concludes, "we enthusiastically endorse President Barack Obama for a second term." It seems the Times can only muster moral outrage at election time for Republicans.

That brings us to Jonathan Chait.

Having argued with him before, I know he is familiar with the civil-libertarian critique against Obama. He once wrote that he hasn't weighed in on it because he simply isn't interested in every subject. The inadequacy of that dodge is highlighted by a line in his new piece, "Barack Obama Is a Great President."

Writes Chait:

For anybody who voted for Obama in 2008 and had even the vaguest sense of his platform, the notion that he has fallen short of some plausible performance threshold seems to me unfathomable. 

Does Chait think that his own lack of interest in civil liberties and executive power somehow rendered the promises Obama made on those subjects no more? He is apparently operating in the Hova school of punditry: "He who does not feel me is not real to me / Therefore he doesn't exist / So poof ... vamoose son of a bitch." I'm sure I can help him to fathom why people with a "sense of his platform" might think Obama fell short. Perhaps they were focused on the part of his platform that he laid forth in Charlie Savage's Boston Globe questionnaire on presidential power.

Can the president launch a war without congressional authority? "The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," Obama said. "History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action." (emphasis added) He fell short of that waging war legally "performance threshold" in Libya.

Indefinite detention?

"I reject the Bush Administration's claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants," Obama said.

He has now signed indefinite detention into law.

Executive privilege?

"My view is that executive privilege generally depends on the involvement of the President and the White House," he said, but his Department of Justice has invoked it far more broadly than that.

As Obama went on to say:

The detention of American citizens, without access to counsel, fair procedure, or pursuant to judicial authorization, as enemy combatants is unconstitutional. Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional. The violation of international treaties that have been ratified by the Senate, specifically the Geneva Conventions, was illegal (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea. The creation of military commissions, without congressional authorization, was unlawful (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.

I believe the Administration's use of executive authority to over-classify information is a bad idea. We need to restore the balance between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in our democracy -- which is why I have called for a National Declassification Center.

And Chait cannot fathom why anyone with the vaguest sense of his platform might be disappointed? It would be easier to take his supposed incomprehension seriously if numerous people, myself included, hadn't explained it to him on many occasions. The fact is that he willfully ignores a whole category of promises Obama has broken because he is personally interested in other policy areas. His interests are his own business. But they don't justify his omissions when he is characterizing the president's overall record and the negative reactions to it.

After reading Chait's column, fellow Obamaphile Andrew Sullivan writes, "I couldn't agree more. I have no idea what standard people are using to declare Obama's first term a failure." Really, Andrew? You have no idea what standard I'm using? No idea what standard Glenn Greenwald is using? No idea what standard the ACLU's executive director was using when he proclaimed himself "disgusted" by Obama? Says Kevin Drum, "I wonder just how many of the people who are disappointed in Obama are liberals who took the campaign oratory seriously vs. moderates who are simply worn down by the long economic downturn and hesitant to give Obama another four years." Yes, why would anyone be disappointed but for buying into soaring rhetoric or tiring of the recession? It isn't as if anything else worth mentioning has gone wrong.

One wonders how long it will take for these issues to be treated as though they're important again if Romney is elected, and starts adding names to the kill list, spying on Americans without warrants, persecuting whistleblowers, and waging undeclared wars of choice without Congressional permission. Come 2016, as Romney runs for reelection, will those subjects coincidentally appear in New Yorker and New York Times endorsement editorials? The double-standard would be much preferable to the alternative, wherein liberals who fell silent about these things under Obama behave consistently and help make them permanent. Then as a future president abuses his unchecked powers in ways even worse than we've yet seen, it can be explained to his victims that their suffering was necessary, because to consistently give civil liberties the attention they deserve would've risked Obamacare and another Republican on the Supreme Court. From their jail cells, where they'll sit without charges or trial, I'm sure they'll understand.

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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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