How Important Are Civil Liberties to Obama Supporters?

Andrew Sullivan's belief that they're very important and his glowing assessment of the president are at odds with one another.

obama full sitting reuters.jpg

My erstwhile boss Andrew Sullivan has published my favorite intern advertisement ever. "We're looking for extremely hardworking self-starters," he writes. "We also prefer individuals who can challenge me and my assumptions... and shape the Dish with his or her own personal passions." Actively demanding intern subordinates who challenge the boss' assumptions is a commitment to epistemic openness equaled by few writers in any medium. And thinking back on my days at The Daily Dish, I can attest that those aren't just pretty words. Though Sullivan has been a huge Obama supporter from the start, he encouraged me to find him examples of the president's shortcomings on civil liberties, and never shied away from teeing off on a story I teed up because it made Obama look inconsistent or mendacious or immoral.

Earlier this week, I took issue with the way Sullivan covers the president. He was characteristically willing to link, excerpt and engage my argument, which I appreciate. The importance of the subject and my sense that he's missing my point make it necessary to go one more round. Given his eloquence and capacity for effecting change there's no one I'd rather persuade to put an even higher priority on protecting civil liberties and restraining executive power.

So here goes.

As I wrote in my original post, "Sullivan is one of the few Obama boosters with the reflexive humility to regularly criticize him on narrow issues and to air dissents from others who criticize him," but I wish he gushed a bit less about the man, because the significant promises that he's broken, the issues on which Sullivan and I agree that he's dead wrong, and the priority that journalists ought to put on holding leaders accountable make Obama unworthy of exalted praise.

There's a distinction between saying a politician is the best option among the available choices and that he is a satisfactory leader. To me, anyone who properly values civil liberties can't say the latter about Obama.

If under the status quo, writers like Sullivan constantly emphasize how lucky the country is to have Obama, how virtuous a person he is, and how much he deserves reelection, I wrote, what incentive will the president have "to fully investigate his predecessors for torture; to hold his Department of Justice accountable for Fast and Furious; to get Congressional approval before going to war; to repeal the Patriot Act rather than renewing it sans reform; to stop spying on Americans without warrants; to abandon his list of American citizens to extra-judicially kill; to reclassify marijuana under the controlled substances act; to end his war on whistleblowers; to stop invoking the state secrets privilege." This line in particular bears repeating:

It isn't enough to mention these shortcomings in individual posts, only to forget them or relegate them to "to be sure" asides whenever the narrative retellings of his term are being crafted.  

Sullivan titles his response "Pressuring the President," and begins with the phrase, "Conor Friedersdorf claims that I'm not doing it very much." But that isn't actually the claim in my complaint, nor is my argument answered by the balance of Sullivan's post -- a long, link-rich account of all the times Sullivan has harshly criticized Obama on all of the issues that I mentioned. To state it explicitly one more time, Sullivan does write individual posts that criticize the president in terms every bit as strong as I or any other civil liberties loving opponent could ask.

But like other Obama boosters who I've criticized on these very same grounds, the harsh critiques always seem to be forgotten or minimized when it's time to offer an overall assessment. It's as if Obama took a driving test that Sullivan was judging, where he performed quite capably on a great many tasks, but also ran over a three innocent pedestrians, unapologetically broke a major law, and erased data in dashboard GPS system that tied the car's former owner to a few homicides; and although the test administrator complained at each transgression, his ultimate report pronounced America lucky to have so skilled a driver on the streets.

Let's go through the examples Sullivan cites of his Obama criticism. (All the links are provided in his post - I'm trusting that he excerpted himself accurately.) It's true, and to Sullivan's great credit, that he's described the president's refusal to investigate Bush-era torture as "against the law." The result of Obama's failure, he continued, is that a cancer is still poisoning our legal system. He went on to describe Obama's behavior as "betrayal ... a travesty, a disgrace, an abomination." It puts Obama in breach of the Geneva Conventions, he said. "The perverse truth is that, in some ways, the Obama administration is in greater violation of Geneva than even the Bush-Cheney administration." He later added that "torturers across the world - far, far worse than Bush or Cheney - are now smiling." Sullivan also wrote this of Obama (emphasis added):

He is therefore a clear and knowing accessory to war crimes, and should at some point face prosecution as well, if the Geneva Conventions mean anything any more.

On Libya, Sullivan indeed wrote that Obama's behavior was "a form of madness" and "recklessness on a Bush-Cheney level... What difference is there between Bush and Obama? In some ways, Bush was more respectful of the Congress, waiting for a vote of support before launching us like an angry bird into the desert."

On medical marijuana:

What Obama is doing is causing sickness and death. It seems to me that the Obama generation who helped elect this president need to go to war against this betrayal. Every time you are sent a fundraising email or in any way contacted by the Obama election campaign, tell them to call you back when they call this war off."

On the detainee bill, Sullivan did indeed pronounce Obama's support "...another sign that his campaign pledge to be vigilant about civil liberties in the war on terror was a lie. And something else much more damaging will be done: Obama will sign a bill that enshrines in law the previously merely alleged executive power of indefinite detention without trial of terror suspects."

Sullivan concludes:

On even small and obscure issues such as Fast and Furious? Critical posts here, here and here. The list goes on. At the same time, I try to see the whole picture - and explain why I think this president has achieved far more than his critics on the right and left believe. Politics is not just about purism, or demonstrating one's own independence; it's about prudential judgment. I made my case here.

I would simply ask: which other blog or commentator has the same balance of harsh criticism on specifics and serious praise for the long-term achievements of this president?

No other commentator. That is partly because Sullivan is more committed than the vast majority of pundits to the importance of those issues. Seriously. His blog is indispensable for folks who care about these issues. But there is another reason that no other blog or commentator has had the same mix of harsh criticism and serious praise: the mix makes no sense.

Look at how Sullivan talks about Obama in summary mode, when he's assessing his overall legacy and long-term achievements. "His reelection remains, in my view, as essential for this country's future as his original election in 2008," he writes, adding a bit later, "By hanging back a little, by 'leading from behind' in Libya and elsewhere, Obama has made other countries actively seek America's help and re-appreciate our role." We then hear about Obama's various accomplishments - many of them legitimately impressive - and what's wrong with his critics (who do get stuff wrong). "Obama was not elected, despite liberal fantasies, to be a left-wing crusader. He was elected as a pragmatic, unifying reformist who would be more responsible than Bush..." Sullivan writes. "This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama's strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game."

This passage shows the subordinate, "to be sure" approach Sullivan employs to frame Obama's failures:

Yes, Obama has waged a war based on a reading of executive power that many civil libertarians, including myself, oppose. And he has signed into law the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial (even as he pledged never to invoke this tyrannical power himself). But he has done the most important thing of all: excising the cancer of torture from military detention and military justice. If he is not reelected, that cancer may well return. Indeed, many on the right appear eager for it to return.

Perhaps most instructive is the essay's last paragraph:

If I sound biased, that's because I am. Biased toward the actual record, not the spin; biased toward a president who has conducted himself with grace and calm under incredible pressure, who has had to manage crises not seen since the Second World War and the Depression, and who as yet has not had a single significant scandal to his name.

That may be the core of our disagreement. I think extrajudicial killings, violating the War Powers Resolution, waging war without Congressional approval, violating the Geneva Conventions, whitewashing torture, warring on whistleblowers, and other actions are significant scandals. I do not think it sufficient to acknowledge them in a half paragraph, throw in a conjunction, and proceed as if you've adequately grappled in your essay with their significance.

In daily blogging, Sullivan often seems to agree, but then something happens. What? Maybe he can explain. I understand why he praises Obama for various achievements, and why he prefers Obama to Romney. I don't begrudge Sullivan arguing for Obama's reelection versus Romney.

But how can you think Obama is an accessory to war crimes who should be prosecuted for his illegal behavior... and that he hasn't yet had a scandal to his name? How can you think that he willfully lied in his campaign pledges on civil liberties... and that he is a man of praiseworthy integrity, which was "reaffirmed" by his changing stand on gay marriage? How can you think his drug policy is so bad that it causes sickness and death - so bad that his supporters ought to stop cooperating with his fundraising appeals - and that he deserves to be running for a "triumphant" reelection?

How can you explicitly articulate all the ways Obama has been as bad or even worse than the Bush Administration, which you regard as criminal and catastrophic, and regularly end Obama posts with "know hope"? Some of these apparent contradictions would make sense coming from a commentator who thought that civil liberties aren't particularly important; that drug policy is an afterthought; that executive power excesses don't really pose a huge threat to our system of government; that torture is best forgotten; but Sullivan most emphatically doesn't subscribe to any of those characterizations. He knows full well that those failures imperil the American project.

And then every time he writes an essay on Obama's triumphs he glosses over them as if they're small failings. In the next Obama essay, why not lead with the failures on civil liberties, drugs, executive power, war, whistleblowers, spying, and more? Why not give them prominence that accords with the importance The Dish ascribes to them? And relegate achievements like being more sane than many in the GOP and killing bin Laden and the auto industry bailout to the "to be sure" paragraph?

It is uncomfortable to fully confront the reality that the candidate whose reelection you support favors a lot of immoral policies; that he has broken a lot of laws; that he has helped to cover up torture; that he has helped to make potentially catastrophic policies like indefinite detention part of the bipartisan consensus; that he lied to his supporters on various issues; that he is the lesser of two evils. But that is the inescapable conclusion of posts that Sullivan himself has written. Given that fact, the appropriate tone to take while writing in favor of Obama's reelection is uncomfortable, grudging support, not soaring praise and admonitions to more fully appreciate his transcendent character. You can think that civil liberties are extremely important, or that Obama is a praiseworthy man of honor who deserves our respect, esteem and gratitude, but not both.