Chait Whitewashes Obama’s Record

Chait Whitewashes Obama’s Record December 1, 2011

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.

Hear, hear.

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  • Whitewashing is the right word. The biggest worry I have about the Democratic party’s future is that it’s filling up with people who don’t care that Obama’s continuing the breakdown of our government’s balance of power. I simply can’t vote for a party that ignores such a critical issue. I voted Democrat in 2008 precisely because I was afraid the Republicans would do the sort of things Obama ended up doing. Now I’m going to have to vote against both Republicans and Democrats in 2012, which, for practical purposes, is largely indistinguishable from not having a vote at all.

    Even if I was stupid and naive enough to think a Democratic president could responsibly wield such power (Obama hasn’t been), what happens when the Republicans get another turn in the now-bigger chair?

  • Michael Heath

    I think we’ve encountered behavior by the Administration that extremely well-informed, principled, educated people can point to and justifiably castigate the president. Ed’s criticisms of the president serve well as an illustrative example of this set.

    However I also think that liberals/progressives in general would be ecstatic with this president if it weren’t for the incredible level of monolithic obstruction executed by the Republicans in Congress joined by conservative Senators* in the Democratic caucus to obstruct what I think were the most important issues the current and past Congress addressed. I don’t think liberals sufficiently appreciate how close this country was to getting what I thought was a very pragmatic set of initiatives passed that liberals want to see passed. If for a very few individuals, a mere handful of Senators in each party, had acted moderately rather than conservatively, I think liberals would be celebrating this administration with a few outliers like those Ed correctly raises.

    Ed’s concerns about the rule of law are legit, especially if we found this power employed by someone with far less integrity than the current president; which is a compelling motivation that we should always support principle and process. For example, I’ve long been a proponent that President Ford’s principled pardon of Richard Nixon was one of the biggest unforced errors any U.S. president made in the 20th century because it encouraged presidents to act above and beyond the reach of the law. I see a thread from Ford’s pardon to the Bush Administration lying about Iraq in their build-up to war and administrating the use of torture.

    I still think President Ford was a great and vastly under-appreciated president, but this was a whopper of a mistake. A mistake which is ignored just like Ed’s criticisms are by those with access to interview the President, his top officials, and Congressional committee leaders with power on these matters. Now imagine what liberals who argue from a tribal manner would do with having a rhetorical weapon like the prison camps FDR set-up for Japanese-Americans. We’d never hear the end of how evil conservative President X was because of such, but because FDR was a liberal and this didn’t result in on-going pogroms, it’s brought up as a criticism within the framework of FDR’s success rather than a rant “proving” the evil of FDR or overlooking all that FDR also accomplished like we see many here do when the distort Ronald Reagan’s record.

    We constantly see ideologues on both sides seek-out rhetorical weapons to leverage an incredibly distorted view of presidents not from their own tribe while never using that same standard on members of their own. In fact all presidents and leaders would fail such a test.

    In our current case I think our judgments regarding President Obama greatly under-calculate the unprecedented context we find ourselves in because of conservative actions at the state level over the past couple of decades, along with the unprecedented** obstructionism we currently encounter from conservative members of Congress from both parties. One party has virtually no non-conservatives left and even those mostly support obstructionism in spite of a president wiht the courage to tackle our biggest problems and settle for center-left to center-right conclusions. To me the story of 2008 and beyond is the story of a once model country dealing with the impact and arguably catastrophic harm precisely because of the rise of conservative dominance as a reaction to its past successes. A context where I see this president putting pragmatic positions forward on our very biggest issues, issues past leaders avoided, that would largely have us turning to a far better path.

    No, the story to me is this is perhaps the greatest president whose met such fierce resistance**. Though he was unfortunately a president like FDR and all other presidents who was eager to effectively unconstitutionally expand the power of the executive to carry-out an arguably respectable agenda.

    *Democratic Senators like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln (who still lost), and Mark Pryor along with Joe Lieberman, an independent who enjoys seniority and committee assignments via the Democratic caucus in spite of repeatedly selling them down the river on some of their most important agenda items, like the public option during the Obamacare debate.

    ** I purposefully exclude comparisons to the Civil War period.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #2

    Mr. Michael Heath, in his excellent commentary which we have come to expect from him, failed to note one other important difference between the president and his Rethuglican predecessors. Compare his Supreme Court nominations with Dubya’s. Does anyone in his right mind consider that Kagan and Sotomayor are greatly superior to the likes of Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas? Not to mention the failed nominations of Bork and Carswell. For those like Mr. Bronze Dog who want to fire President Obama for what we all agree are his major failings, we should consider the type of appointments that would ensue from a President Romney or, the flying spaghetti monster preserve us, a President Gingrich, when the time to replace, say, Justice Ginsburg comes up, a very likely occurrence in the 2013 – 2017 time frame.

  • slc1

    Re slc1 @ #3

    Second sentence should read: Does anyone in his right mind consider that Kagan and Sotomayor are not greatly superior to the likes of Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas?

  • I just read Chait’s entire piece, and I think his main thesis is correct. Note that pointing out this thing or that thing that you don’t like about Obama is beside the point. Chait himself notes things he doesn’t like. But in reality, this is the nature of all presidents. You will never find one that doesn’t disappoint you by compromising. His point is that liberals are unreasonably eager to dislike their own presidents, a pathos that has been going on since FDR, and that you do not find a similar tendency to form circular firing squads on the right.

  • I won’t attempt to speak for liberals in general, only for myself. I don’t think I’ve been particularly hard on Democratic presidents. I liked JFK and Clinton OK. Though my opinion of them went down years later after I learned more about them, that is irrelevant to Chait’s point. I didn’t much like LBJ, but I think I had good reason for that.

    As for Obama, I think he has been an absolute disaster. I won’t belabor his failings on transparency, war making, civil rights, and the other things the readers here should be well aware of.

    But in addition to those failings, he has been a disaster economically. He underestimated the global financial crisis, named the “Senator from Citibank” as his running mate, formed the core of his economic team from the very people that enabled the crisis, and forced out everyone (Volker, Bair, etc) who wasn’t sufficiently neo-liberal. Prosecutions for financial fraud have gone DOWN every year of Obama’s presidency, and every year is lower than the lowest year of Bush II, despite our being mired in a crisis that was caused in large part by financial fraud.

    His health care “reform” was a warmed-over Republican plan that institutionalized the core evil of our health care system (uncompetitive private insurers with an anti-trust exemption) while introducing an enormous expansion of private sector power over ordinary citizens (the individual mandate).

    The few good things he’s done have, I believe, had compromised motives. The repeal of DADT was good, but I suspect it was more because the wehrmacht is having a hard time attracting quality cannon fodder than because Obama cares about GLBT issues. Sotomayor may turn out to be a good justice, but I suspect Kagan is there because she’ll uphold the expansion of presidential power.

    My own armchair analysis of liberals is that some people are really only liberals because they want to feel good about themselves. Obama talks a great game and people can feel all warm and fuzzy by supporting him.

    But I look at what Obama does, not what he says, and I can only conclude that he is essentially a neo-conservative/neo-liberal who lies a lot. Frex, he had already traded away real healthcare reform in back room deals with the healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical industries when he was out pretending to support the public option. Likewise, he says a few mean things about the banks, even as he’s giving the banksters everything they ask for.

    I could go on for quite a while, but I’ll spare you the rant (or at least the rest of it). At this point I would say that about the only thing that separates Obama from Bush in terms of presidential quality is Sonia Sotomayor. It is true that Obama hasn’t launched a full-on boots-on-the-ground war of aggression (only small drone-led wars of aggression), but he’s still a war criminal, a common murderer, and a serial liar.

    Yes, I understand that the Ds are marginally better than the Rs (That’s really the only campaign strategy the Democrats have — Look! Sarah Palin!). But we don’t need TWO corporatist-imperialist parties. As long as that’s what we have, we’re going to continue the descent into corporatist imperial decay, and we’re only voting on the speed of the descent.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    How many high-level financial criminals has Obama prosecuted?

    How many major environmental criminals has Obama prosecuted?

    How many war criminals has Obama prosecuted?

  • The few good things he’s done have, I believe, had compromised motives. The repeal of DADT was good, but I suspect it was more because the wehrmacht is having a hard time attracting quality cannon fodder than because Obama cares about GLBT issues.

    I don’t mean to give you a hard time, because you’re hardly the first person I’ve seen express this kind of sentiment, even in this limited forum, but… this is exactly the problem.

    The repeal of DADT was a campaign promise of Obama’s, and he upheld that promise and pushed it through in spite of intense opposition and massive institutional inertia. It was a major victory for which he will go down in history.

    And yet… liberals must complain! There has to be something that he did wrong, whether it was his motives, his timing, or because he didn’t magically pass marriage equality at the same time.

    Something similar could be said about health care reform. It’s one thing to give the guy a hard time when he does something illiberal or breaks a campaign promise, as all politicians are wont to do, but when he scores a huge goal for Team Liberal, the least people could do is refrain from whining that he didn’t kick the ball the right way. You wonder sometimes why he even bothers.

  • Aquaria

    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.

    LBJ: Vietnam. Major-league S.O.B. Greatest president we’ve ever had for alleviating poverty.

    Carter: Well-intentioned most of the time, but had some questionable foreign policy blunders, a shaken economy and then there were those hostages…

    Clinton: Best Republican President of the 20th Century. Throughly amoral. Would sell out anybody to get a win in the moment. Not so good for the long term.

    Obama: Selling out health care reform to the insurance silmeballs. Not raising taxes on the rich during a hurting economy. State Secrets privileged with a paranoia Nixon would have laughed at. More warmaking. Murdering American citizens without a trial. Warrantless wiretapping.

    I can’t imagine why Democrats would be pissed off at these guys….

  • Aquaria

    Something similar could be said about health care reform. It’s one thing to give the guy a hard time when he does something illiberal or breaks a campaign promise, as all politicians are wont to do, but when he scores a huge goal for Team Liberal, the least people could do is refrain from whining that he didn’t kick the ball the right way. You wonder sometimes why he even bothers.

    He didn’t score a huge goal. He scored a pitiful, worse than crap goal. Now we have to hope that we can build on it, but the way programs are trashed in this nation by corporate pigs, I don’t have much hope of that.

  • Anyone considering not voting for Obama in 2012–as a way of protesting HIS bad governance–really ought to have their fucking head examined.

    A vote for anybody other than Obama is a vote for the GOP. The GOP’s raison d’etre since November, 2008 has been demolishing the president’s agenda. That they have accomplished this by voting in virtual lockstep against everything that Obama has identified as a priority is not something that needs debating. The DNC is very little different than the RNC. The difference between the two parties is that the democrats don’t have about a third of their legislators acting like they smoke crack before they come to work.

    I’ll probably live pretty much my natural life span, absent a worldwide conflagration (which I do not totally discount) and I have no heirs. But the young people (many of whom, sadly, don’t vote or, more sadly, vote for the repukes) will have to live their lives watching the increasing dimunition of opportunity as more and more of the pie is gobbled up by the 1%ers. It’s fucking sad, really.