A Qualified Defense of Obama

Andrew Sullivan's defense of Obama is incomplete but compelling.

Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover piece is one of the best defenses of the Obama presidency I’ve read, echoing many of my own beliefs about the president. On healthcare, I think the Affordable Care Act was the wrong policy at the right time – the best step we could have taken with the political system we have and almost certainly a step in the right direction. Our nation’s healthcare status quo is a disaster, and the poorly termed “Obamacare” pushes the needle in the right direction – though there are miles to go before we sleep.

Indeed, on domestic policy I agree almost entirely with Sullivan. The president did all he could do given the disposition of congress, the economic straights we found ourselves floundering in, and the reality of politics in America. Perhaps he wasn’t forceful enough in his condemnation of the Republican obstructionism. Perhaps he’s playing a long game as Sullivan suggests. Certainly he has surprised us all before. And certainly his political calculations are based on a very different set of information than we have available.

Like Conor Friedersdorf and Ryan Bonneville and others, my quibble with Sullivan’s piece comes when the discussion revolves from domestic to foreign policy. Both Conor and Ryan pointed out that Andrew was far too quick to gloss over Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record. I agree.

On assassination of US citizens, the NDAA, the war on drugs, and a handful of other issues, Obama has been a huge disappointment. I understand that the politics of foreign policy and the drug war are complex and difficult to fathom. And I do, on some level, forgive Obama’s decisions here. He works within the constraints of the American political scene. He can’t appear weak on defense. If anything will sink his chance at reelection, a weakness at defense will.

Andrew’s response to civil libertarians was not dismissive, but incomplete:

In wartime, I believe the government has a right to find and kill those who are waging war against us, if it is impossible to capture them. I don’t think wartime decisions like that need be completely transparent – or can be, if we are to succeed. And I think Obama has succeeded remarkably quickly in this new kind of war. He has all but wiped out al Qaeda by drone attacks and the Afghanistan surge. And his success makes these repugnant wartime excesses things that, in a second term, he could ratchet back. Even Bush racheted back in his second term.

But my primary issue has always been torture – the cancer it introduces into our legal, moral and civilizational bloodstream. That has gone. More will, if Obama continues to win this war and gains strength against the authoritarian pro-torture GOP by being re-elected.

Lesser of two evils in this respect? Yes.

Well…yes and no. The end of torture is undeniably a good thing, and something that would be once again revoked by a Romney or a Gingrich or a Santorum, all three of whom have vowed to waterboard if given the chance. When it comes to the question of lesser of two evils, Obama is almost certainly a lesser evil than any of these three. And on domestic policy he is far preferable to Ron Paul, the only Republican who would be more liberal on matters of civil liberty and war.

I also understand that in writing a defense of the president, Sullivan was less interested in attacking him at length on these abuses of power. To Sullivan, the defense of Obama is more important than offering up an extended critique of the president. Sullivan – and I’m with him on this – is worried about a return of Republicans to the White House. The prospects of a Romney or a Gingrich presidency are truly frightening. Everything we dislike about Obama would almost certainly be worse under a GOP administration. The lesser of two evils, in a democracy ruled over by a political duopoly, does indeed matter.

But these things do matter. What else can I say? The fact that Obama has deported so many undocumented workers, has essentially ramped up the war on drugs and laughed off its opponents, and started (and, admittedly finished) a war in Libya – these are deeply troubling. They reveal an illiberal strain in the Democratic party that is worrisome to civil libertarians like myself. I’m left feeling more hopeless than ever about the future of our free-ish society.

There is almost no way I could possibly vote GOP in this election. Ron Paul is a good man, I think, and an honorable one. He would attempt, at least, to do good, liberal things like end the wars and the war on drugs. But his history with the newsletters and his more radical domestic policies also matter to me. He doesn’t represent my vision for America either.

I’m left wondering how to change this country for the better. People say politics is all about the local. Focus on your congress person. Focus on the politics that are closer to home. Maybe this is true. But a president can make a big difference, as the Bush years have more than adequately illustrated. Maybe that’s Obama’s greatest strength. For all his flaws, for all his continuation of bad Bush-era policies, he’s managed to be a competent leader and administrator. Republicans long ago decided that the business of governing was beneath them. Bush was the culmination of years of anti-government attitudes. The appeal of Huntsman, I suspect, was that he seemed at least competent.

Well so is Obama. Surveying the GOP field this primary season, perhaps that is enough.

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.