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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Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s Hypocritical Defense of Big Government

Food stamps are one of the most effective voucher programs in US history.

Newt Gingrich has doubled down on his food-stamp-king line about Obama. In last night’s debate and elsewhere the former speaker has maligned both the president and the poor people, and especially blacks, who rely on government assistance during hard economic times. David Frum writes:

It’s worth remembering that at least one quarter of the South Carolina Republican primary electorate will likely exceed age 65. These voters also depend on government: for Social Security, for Medicare, and for other benefits. Newt Gingrich understands the merits of such protections for these voters. Shouldn’t a man who wants to be president of the whole country show equal understanding of the troubles and dangers facing all those who depend on government assistance: the poor as well as the old, the black as well as the white?

Frum is a backer of presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney, but Romney has also defended the benefits of elderly Americans and framed the issue as us vs. them. Speaking to crowds of Republican voters suspicious of Romney’s own Massachusetts healthcare plan, Romney has said repeatedly that ”Obamacare takes $500 billion out of Medicare and funds Obamacare.”

Republicans talk about shrinking government but they have no intention of shrinking it for their electoral base: older, whiter, and more financially secure, the GOP base relies on programs like Medicare. Romney’s demagoguery on the massive government entitlement belies his, and the GOP’s, unseriousness about entitlement reform. Tax cuts for the rich, government programs for the elderly. But if we try to extend access to healthcare outside the bounds of the Republican electorate that’s socialism.

Gingrich’s race-baiting is reprehensible, but Romney is playing the same tune on the same piano.

Meanwhile Santorum panders to social conservatives on gay rights issues and abortion. But even the sort-of-populist Santorum thinks food stamps and unemployment are a bridge too far:

“What we should do, is have it just like welfare. Give it to the states, put a time limit. In the case of welfare, it was 40 weeks. Give flexibility to the states to operate those programs and even in unemployment, I mean, you can have as we did on welfare, have some sort of either work requirement or job training required as a condition. We’re not doing people any favors by keeping them on unemployment insurance for a long period of time.” [emphasis added]

Steve Benen is baffled:

So, in Santorum’s mind, it makes sense to require the unemployed to be employed before receiving unemployment benefits?

If you don’t have a job, you’ll be forced to get one before you’d be eligible to receive benefits that go to those without jobs?

It’s all the same act. It’s politics, sure, but it reveals a key truth: Republicans really do want big government, just a different kind of big government for a different segment of the population. Gingrich talks about ‘creating dependency’ out of one side of his mouth and defends government dependency out of the other.

The Tea Party is an illusion.

P.S. Actually, I do think we should help the unemployed find jobs instead of just giving them food stamps and unemployment benefits.

A looser monetary policy coupled with a serious fiscal policy and increased government spending (and decreased government firing) could help all these unemployed people get back to work. Maybe these Republicans are just advocating a sort of bizarre Keynesian jobs plan after all….

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