President Obama Has Earned Our Disapproval

On the eve of the midterm elections, 42 percent of Americans endorse his performance—and that's alarmingly high given his administration's ethical and legal lapses.

Immediately after President Obama was elected in 2009, promising to fundamentally change the way business is done in Washington, D.C., to usher in an era of unprecedented transparency, to protect whistleblowers, and to fight the War on Terror without compromising core U.S. values, 67 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing. Today his job approval rating is just 42 percent. His unpopularity is expected to cost his fellow Democrats in the midterm elections.

Ross Douthat spends his Sunday column trying to understand this unpopularity. Is Obama blamed for Republican intransigence? Are voters finally losing patience with a weak economy that can no longer be blamed on George W. Bush? Is it the fact that Obamacare has created many losers along with its winners? Is it "a results-based verdict on what seems like poor execution" in foreign policy?

All of these are plausible factors. And there is, of course, no single answer. Different people disapprove of Obama's performance for different reasons. Here are mine:

  1. After denouncing his predecessor's warrantless wiretapping, Obama presided over the construction of a surveillance state more expansive than any democracy has ever known. What he hid includes documented violations of the Fourth Amendment. And the so-called reforms he urged to satiate the public are a cynical farce.
  2. The Obama administration hasn't merely violated the law in its failure to prosecute what the president and attorney general acknowledge to be illegal torture. It has also suppressed a still-unreleased Senate report about that torture and done nothing to prevent the next president from restarting "enhanced interrogation."
  3. The Obama administration continues to wage the most costly, ruinous war in the modern era: the War on Drugs. Obama did not try and fail to end the drug war. He didn't even try.
  4. When the Obama administration kills innocent people in a drone strike, it does not acknowledge its mistake, apologize, or compensate the family, nor does it articulate how it will prevent such tragedies in the future. Instead, the president just keeps quiet. He suppresses the number of innocents killed, preventing anyone outside the executive branch from judging the effectiveness or morality of drone policy. He invokes the state-secrets doctrine to keep the courts from judging whether he is violating the Constitution. And he hides even his own team's legal reasoning.
  5. Obama took two actions that set extremely dangerous precedents: He established a secret kill list, put the name of an American citizen on that list, and ordered his execution by drone strike without charges or trial or any due process. And he waged a war of choice in Libya without permission from Congress.
  6. Under Obama, the national-security state is out of control. Set aside his policies, whatever you think about them. This is a president who let his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lie in sworn testimony to Congress without consequences. His CIA director, John Brennan, presided over surveillance of Senate Intelligence Committee operations, also without consequence.
  7. Compared to his predecessors, Obama has been extremely aggressive in his persecution of whistleblowers and journalists who've worked with whistleblowers.

Notice two attributes that these indictments share. They're not campaign promises Obama made and upheld—on the contrary, they're all in tension with how he presented himself. Nor are these policy areas where Congress thwarted the White House. In every case, Obama could have pursued a much-improved course on his own. Blaming the transgressions on his opposition won't work here.

Among Democrats, who vary in their assessments of Obama, there is still broad agreement that he's better, warts and all, than Bush was, and better than John McCain or Mitt Romney would've been. Fair enough. This isn't an indictment of Obama voters.

Nor is Obama without accomplishments.

But here's what I find alarming: Confronted with a president who 1) spied on every American; 2) covered up torture; 3) continued a War on Drugs ruinous to minorities and whole foreign nations; 4) killed hundreds of innocents in drone strikes; 5) waged war illegally and killed an American citizen without due process (while suppressing the legal reasoning used to do so); 6) let high-ranking national-security officials break the law with impunity; and 7) persecuted whistleblowers—confronted with all of those transgressions, more than four in 10 Americans still approve of the job Obama is doing. And most of them are loyal Democrats. Partisanship and tribalism are overriding the moral compass of too many liberals, who ought to be furious with Obama. National-security policies he unilaterally pursued will be harming the U.S., its moral standing, and its most vulnerable citizens for years if not decades to come, especially since Democrats are poised to make civil illibertarian Hillary Clinton their party's next leader.

To see it all with open eyes is to disapprove.