While I was on vacation, Jonathan Chait, usually a solid thinker and writer, wrote a really annoying article in New York magazine about why so many liberals are disappointed with President Obama’s performance in office. It’s a massive, 5,000 word screed that pretty much completely misses the point. His argument is essentially that liberals are just demanding people who can’t ever be happy with anyone. “Liberals are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied,” he argues.
There are any number of arguments about things Obama did wrong. Some of them are completely misplaced, like blaming Obama for compromises that senators forced him to make. Many of them demand Obama do something he can’t do, like Maddow’s urging the administration to pass an energy bill through a special process called budget reconciliation—a great-sounding idea except for the fact that it’s against the rules of the Senate. Others castigate Obama for doing something he did not actually do at all (i.e., Drew Westen’s attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay assailing Obama for signing a budget deal with cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid that were not actually in the budget in question).
I spend a lot of time rebutting these arguments, and their proponents spend a lot of time calling me an Obama apologist.
Some of the complaints are right, and despite being an Obama apologist, I’ve made quite a few of them myself. (The debt-ceiling hostage negotiations drove me to distraction.) But I don’t think any of the complaints—right, wrong, or otherwise—really explain why liberals are so depressed.
Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
So, what if we compare Obama with a real alternative? Not to Republicans—that’s too easy—but to Democratic presidents as they lived and breathed?
No, that’s the wrong standard. Let’s compare Obama’s actions with his stated principles and his own. That is all that really matters. Is there some unfair criticism of Obama from the left? Of course there is. And he’s right that there are some things the president simply can’t do on his own, situations where an intransigent Congress can prevent him from doing what he may otherwise want to do. Closing Guantanamo Bay is a good example. Congress explicitly forbid the use of any funds to do so and that really has tied Obama’s hands on that issue.
Chait spends the entire article looking at past Demoratic presidents and recounting the ways that liberals also expressed disappointment in them — and no time at all on the actual expressed reasons for disappointment. It’s as if he simply doesn’t care whether any of the criticisms are legitimate or not; all he seems to care about is finding grist for his bad armchair psychological evaluation of his fellow liberals and their alleged inability to be satisfied. But what if those criticisms are correct?
He doesn’t even mention the many ways in which Obama has betrayed important principles and his own repeated statements of those principles, and not in areas where a recalcitrant Congress has thwarted his plans but in areas where he alone has control of both policy and outcomes. How many examples would you like me to list? Transparency, the rule of law, pursuit of whistleblowers, data mining and the 4th amendment in general, complying with out legal and treaty obligations on torture.
But the main one for me, as it has always been, is the abuse of the State Secrets Privilege. After repeatedly claiming that he supports only a very narrow version of the privilege — used as a challenge to specific requests for documents — and criticizing the Bush administration for its use of the broadest possible version of the SSP, Obama hasn’t just been as bad as Bush he’s been worse. His administration has tried — and so far succeeded — in killing every single legal challenge against the government for its illegal and unconstitutional actions in alleged pursuit of the war on terror.
This is not merely an academic exercise. This is the end of the rule of law in this country and the absolute destruction of the concepts of checks and balances and the separation of powers. For all practical purposes, the Constitutional limits on the executive branch no longer exist; the president can do anything he wants in the name of fighting terrorism and deny anyone the opportunity to assert their rights in court. It is absolutely an impeachable offense, in my view.
Chait is being called an apologist because he is acting like one, glossing over and covering up betrayals of immense importance in order to call those who disagree with him petulant children who never get enough toys. I agree with Conor Friedersdorf when he writes:
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’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.