The Obama Critics Who Needlessly Discredit Themselves

By Conor Friedersdorf

The Wall Street Journal is the latest conservative outlet to publish claims that the president is an anti-American radical. Can't they focus on flaws in his record instead?   

barrack Obama full.jpg

President Obama has broken campaign promises on civil liberties, executive power, and the importance of process. His lapses are well documented. The ACLU is one of his critics. He's also drawn rebukes from writers like Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Adam Serwer at The American Prospect, and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. For a lot of Democrats, however, it is hard to accept that their standard bearer is normalizing Bush-era excesses that would've been unthinkable before 9/11, or that he has launched a war of choice without congressional permission. Most people don't pay close attention to these issues, and unlike Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden are discreet about the fact that they make assassination lists and spy on innocent Americans.

As Election 2012 approaches, it is particularly important that the public understands the incumbent's record. But challenging the prevailing view of Obama is made exponentially more difficult by the fact that his most prominent critics are within the conservative movement. It isn't just that publications like National Review and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page are weak on civil liberties. It's that these outlets are drawing on their long-established reputations to elevate critics of the president who discredit themselves with easily dismissed, weakly argued polemics. Subsequent focus on their arguments makes it appear that Obama's detractors are paranoid wing nuts.

Each side of the political spectrum is going to have its unhinged partisans. Perhaps Fox News and talk radio are the right's inevitable burden. But the intellectual rot has spread to long-established publications where rigorous intellectuals are being made to share space with poorly reasoned, unsubstantiated nonsense. It is too much that a writer at National Review accuses Obama of leading a leftist alliance with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; that Forbes published that faux intellectual thesis declaring Obama a Kenyan anti-colonialist; or that the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, esteemed real estate on the right, has just published Norman Podhoretz, an elder statesman, writing that Obama "is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president, and it is this rather than inexperience or incompetence or weakness or stupidity that accounts for the richly deserved failure both at home and abroad." Must Obama derangement syndrome sully every outlet on the right?

This stuff has frequently overshadowed far more rigorous, damning, persuasive criticism of Obama, which is quite easily produced. One requirement is that the critic cite actual actions taken by the president as a basis for chiding him. On Libya, for example, Obama acted in a way he deemed illegal as a candidate, overruled lawyers at the Pentagon and in the Office of Legal Counsel, and assured Americans that the conflict against Muammar Gaddafi would be resolved quickly. But it is still going on. See? A damning, reality-based critique isn't so hard to pull off.

Instead the Wall Street Journal chose to publish the Podhoretz op-ed. Its author claims to know the true interior motivations and allegedly hidden ideological goals of Obama, a man he observes through the media. What makes Podhoretz so sure that his perception of anti-Americanism is accurate, even though the vast majority of people privy to the data he's using conclude otherwise?

Here is his case:

1) Near the tail end of his campaign, Obama said, "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America," a single sentence with an ambiguous meaning to which Podhoretz attributes tremendous import.

2) Says Podhoretz, "This statement, coming on top of his association with radicals like Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, definitively revealed to all who were not willfully blinding themselves that Mr. Obama was a genuine product of the political culture that had its birth among a marginal group of leftists in the early 1960s and that by the end of the decade had spread metastatically to the universities, the mainstream media, the mainline churches, and the entertainment industry. Like their communist ancestors of the 1930s, the leftist radicals of the '60s were convinced that the United States was so rotten that only a revolution could save it."

During Election 2008, when this sort of rhetoric began, it wasn't persuasive, but at least the folks trafficking in it had the excuse that Obama was a young, inexperienced senator. Insofar as it's impossible to tell what any president might do once he gets into the White House, so it was with Obama, and surely many who voted for him never thought that he'd launch a war against Libya or push for the Iraqi government to permit U.S. troops to stay in the country after 2011.

But this isn't 2007.

Podhoretz no longer has any excuse for writing as if the best guide to what Obama will do as president is found in the most fiery sermons of Rev. Wright and the long ago domestic terrorism of Ayres. When the leftist radicals of the 1960s closed out that decade, Obama was 9 years old. Four decades have passed. And Obama has been in the White House for three years.

Ponder his record.

Were the Wall Street bailouts the act of a 1960s leftist radical? How about the corporatist health care reform bill that every mainstream Democrat embraced, and that was vociferously criticized by the far left? Or the appointments of Larry Summers, Hilary Clinton, and Tim Geithner?

Are Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor leftist radicals? How would the Weather Underground feel about the extension of the PATRIOT Act and the Bush tax cuts? Were the radical leftists in the 1960s yearning to empower the FBI and pushing the invocation of the state secrets privilege every time someone sued the government for violating their civil rights? Was Osama bin Laden killed in the name of anti-Americanism? Is Leon Panneta the anti-American's choice for secretary of Defense? And surely the CIA rank-and-file are either furious or cowering now that famed leftist David Petraeus, that eager servant of radical anti-American administrations, is taking over.

The Podhoretz thesis isn't just presented without rigor -- it is transparently absurd. Yet prominent organs of movement conservatism have been wasting their time on arguments just like it for three years now, even though they're politically suicidal and blind a subset of the right to more accurate critiques. Should anyone doubt the rhetorical opportunity cost paid by Podhoretz and those who elevated the worst work of his career, consider again this line: "He is still the same anti-American leftist he was before becoming our president, and it is this rather than inexperience or incompetence or weakness or stupidity that accounts for the richly deserved failure both at home and abroad." This is identity politics for right-wingers: Focus on who he is, not what he's done. Used against a seemingly well-intentioned man with a weak record, it's folly.

Perhaps the Rush Limbaughfication of movement conservatism must run its course before something better emerges. But it's maddening to see so many people and institutions that should know better operating with so much less thoughtfulness and rigor than they once demonstrated. Doubly so because their inflammatory, dubious paranoia is elevated as if it is the strongest critique of Obama. Due to their misconduct, all criticism of Obama is viewed with marginally more suspicion, and there is less attention paid to more rigorous accounts of the Obama administration's flaws, some of it produced for the same outlets that publish the indefensible.


Image credit: Reuters

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http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/the-obama-critics-who-needlessly-discredit-themselves/243589/