Why Do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?

Article by Conor  Friedersdorf.


Jonathan Chait is the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened

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When I pleaded with liberals to stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they didn’t even merit a mention, the quintessential example of the troubling phenomenon hadn’t yet been published. Now it has. In New York, one of America’s premier magazines, Jonathan Chait, a sharp, experienced political writer, has penned a 5,000 word essay purporting to defend the president’s first term. It is aimed at liberal critics who, in Chait’s telling, naively expected too much.

Tellingly, as Chait writes for affluent urban liberals who railed against the Bush Administration’s excesses in the War on Terrorism, he neither desires nor feels compelled to grapple with President Obama’s approach to foreign policy, national security, or homeland security. The closest he comes in a piece overwhelmingly focused on domestic policy and political maneuvering is the breezy assertion that Obama “has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes — expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime.”

Isn’t that something?

Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution, the president’s own professed standards for what he can do without Congressional permission, and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

In Chait’s telling, expanded drone strikes in Pakistan are a clear success. Why even grapple with Jane Mayer’s meticulously researched article on the risks of an drone war run by the CIA, Glenn Greenwald’s polemics on the innocent civilians being killed, or Jeff Goldberg and Marc Ambinder’sreporting on the Pakistani generals who are moving lightly guarded nuclear weapons around the country in civilian trucks as a direct consequence of the cathartic bin Laden raid.

Chait mentions the Iraq withdrawal, but doesn’t point out that Obama sought to violate his campaign promise, and would’ve kept American troops in the country beyond 2011 had the Iraqis allowed it; that as it is, he’ll leave behind a huge State Department presence with a private security army; and that he’s expanding America’s presence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf to make up for the troops no longer in Iraq. Is any of that possibly relevant to a liberal’s assessment?

Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process, or even consistent, transparent standards.

Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken, the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided, or his broken promise to lay off medical marijuana in states where dispensing it is legal.

Why is all this ignored?

Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism. It’s akin to conservatism’s unforgivable myopia and apologia during the Bush Administration. Are liberals really more discontented with Obama’s failure to reverse the Bush tax cuts than the citizen death warrants he is signing? Is his ham-handed handling of the debt-ceiling really more worthy of mention than the illegal war he waged? Is his willingness to sign deficit reduction that cuts entitlement spending more objectionable than the fact that he outsourced drone strikes to a CIA that often didn’t even know the names of the people it was killing?

These are the priorities of a perverted liberalism.

Chait’s essay suggests an ideological movement that finds the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights indispensable, but only when a Republican is in the White House. One that objects to radically expanded executive power, except when the president seems progressive.

I want to be reassured that liberalism is better than that.

When I last wrote on this subject, I criticized David Remnick for what he left out of a short piece on Obama and the War in Libya; I ought to have added that during his tenure as editor of The New Yorker, and thanks in large part to his priorities, the magazine has paid and published Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersh, David Grann, and other indispensable authors whose work on civil liberties is vital. The same can be said for the editors at The New York Times, who support work like that done byCharlie Savage. Outside of Reason and the Cato Institute, it’s almost all left-leaning outlets that have stood up for civil liberties during the War on Terrorism.

I’d like to give Chait his due in the same piece where I skewer his latest. I’ve long appreciated his talent and intellectual honesty. And I’m sure he both appreciates the work of the writers I’ve praised and has smart things to say about many if not all of the subjects he ignored in his piece.

But it won’t do for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened; as if it’s reasonable for an informed liberal to vote for him in Election 2012 as happily as in 2008. Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns, or peripheral disappointments to lament in the course of leaving them to Charlie Savage and Jane Mayer.

They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.

As have we all.

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