Obama, Terror Policy and Bipartisan Consensus

Obama, Terror Policy and Bipartisan Consensus February 13, 2012

A new Washington Post poll finds a significant shift in the views of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans when it comes to major anti-terror policies. On issues like drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay and the Patriot Act, Democrats are now more likely to support them now that Obama is in office, while Republicans are less likely to do so. On Gitmo:

The survey shows that 70 percent of respondents approve of Obama’s decision to keep open the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He pledged during his first week in office to close the prison within a year, but he has not done so.

Even the party base appears willing to forgive that failure.

The poll shows that 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats — and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats — support keeping Guantanamo Bay open, even though it emerged as a symbol of the post-Sept. 11 national security policies of President George W. Bush, which many liberals bitterly opposed.

But two years ago, 64% of Democrats said they supported the decision to close Gitmo. Now a significant majority supports keeping it open. And that’s actually a higher level of support than even in 2003, when the war on terror was at its peak and memories of 911 were far more fresh.

But in June 2009, more Americans favored closing the facility than keeping it open.  In 2006, only 57% of Americans supported using the Guantanamo detention center house accused terrorists.  Even in 2003, support was only at 65%.  Now, under the leadership of a President who campaigned with the promise to close the facility but reneged, support for the detention center may be at its highest level ever.

And on the Patriot Act:

The Pew Research Center released a poll last year that demonstrated a similar shift of support by Democrats on the Patriot Act. In 2006 under the Republican Bush, 25% of Democrats viewed the Act as a “necessary tool” and 53% thought it went too far. Five years later under the Democrat Obama, 35% of Democrats said the Act was necessary, while only 40% thought it went too far. Republicans, on the other hand, showed less support for the Act in 2011 than they did under Bush.

And on the use of drones, from the new poll:

Obama has also relied on armed drones far more than Bush did, and he has expanded their use beyond America’s defined war zones. The Post-ABC News poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy, which administration officials refuse to discuss, citing security concerns.

The president only recently acknowledged the existence of the drone program, which some human rights advocates say operates without a clear legal framework and in violation of the U.S. prohibition against assassination.

But fully 77 percent of liberal Democrats endorse the use of drones, meaning that Obama is unlikely to suffer any political consequences as a result of his policy in this election year.

Support for drone strikes against suspected terrorists stays high, dropping only somewhat when respondents are asked specifically about targeting American citizens living overseas, as was the case with Anwar al-

Awlaki, the Yemeni American killed in September in a drone strike in northern Yemen.

We don’t have data on the question of drones during the Bush administration — or at least, I don’t have that data — but it seems highly unlikely that liberal Democrats would have been as supportive of it when Bush was in office. As Greg Sargent put it in the Washington Post:

And get this: Depressingly, Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35. Those numbers were provided to me by the Post polling team.

It’s hard to imagine that Dems and liberals would approve of such policies in quite these numbers if they had been authored by George W. Bush.

Glenn Greenwald concludes:

The Democratic Party owes a sincere apology to George Bush, Dick Cheney and company for enthusiastically embracing many of the very Terrorism policies which caused them to hurl such vehement invective at the GOP for all those years. And progressives who support the views of the majority as expressed by this poll should never be listened to again the next time they want to pretend to oppose civilian slaughter and civil liberties assaults when perpetrated by the next Republican President (it should be noted that roughly 35% of liberals, a non-trivial amount, say they oppose these Obama policies).

One final point: I’ve often made the case that one of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that he has transformed what was once known as “right-wing shredding of the Constitution” into bipartisan consensus, and this is exactly what I mean. When one of the two major parties supports a certain policy and the other party pretends to oppose it — as happened with these radical War on Terror policies during the Bush years — then public opinion is divisive on the question, sharply split. But once the policy becomes the hallmark of both political parties, then public opinion becomes robust in support of it. That’s because people assume that if both political parties support a certain policy that it must be wise, and because policies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge. That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has, as Jack Goldsmith predicted he would back in 2009, shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving.

There are consistent voices here, of course. Greenwald is one of them. So am I, for what little that means. And advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and human rights groups have been perfectly consistent on these issues. But the Democratic leadership in Washington has been wrong and cowardly on these issues beginning about 10 AM on Sept. 11, 2001. And so have a lot of partisan Democrats. And there isn’t a chance in hell that the Republicans are going to take a stand for civil liberties on these issues. Thus, the bipartisan consensus that Greenwald identifies, which is so dangerous and corrosive to the Bill of Rights.

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  • anandine

    Yup, most people’s opinions depend on whose ox is being gored. And thus it ever shall be.

    I do believe that Dems average more intellectually honest than Reps, but that is a low bar to surpass, and not every Dem manages it.

  • valhar2000

    Absolutely shameful.

  • Michael Heath

    Glenn Greenwald:

    The Democratic Party owes a sincere apology to George Bush, Dick Cheney and company for enthusiastically embracing many of the very Terrorism policies which caused them to hurl such vehement invective at the GOP for all those years.

    This doesn’t follow. I would argue this only if the Democrats are OK with Gitmo and if voters perceive the Obama Administration is also administrating torture to a degree similar to Bush. Instead the perception is that the Obama Administration doesn’t systemically torture like the Bush Administration did. Therefore this doesn’t compute for me. The uproar by liberals beyond the most well-informed civil libertarians was Bush’s use of torture, which is no longer perceived to be an issue.

    Prior to getting to Greenwald’s comments the obvious question I had was whether this survey asked why Democrats who now support Gitmo and changed their position made flipped. I assume one reason would be the perception that the Obama Administration doesn’t systemically torture like the Bush Administration did or to a lesser extent, perceived there was some semblance of due process in place (if though there effectively is not). I would not assume that Democrats changed their position merely because their party was now in charge. I’m sure some did, but I certainly wouldn’t assume this is the predominant cause and that it’s fine to merely infer it. I also wouldn’t blindly assume that the motivations for a change in the Democrats’ support is equivalent to that of Republicans without first parsing questions that delve into motivation.

    I purposefully ignored the Patriot Act responses for two reasons:

    1) My perception is that the general public is almost perfectly ignorant regarding its contents.

    2) That opposition on this by the general public was at best tepid, a mere talking point.

    I have little doubt Democratic opposition during the Bush years was based on tribalism. I just don’t think the heat on this issue was ever hot enough with the general public or general voter to make an interesting conclusion about partisan politics beyond the fact that biases and tribalism exists to some extent in all of us. Gitmo on the other hand did get people riled up which is why I treat that more seriously in judging Democrats.

  • This general picture plays a big part in why I’m feeling politically helpless.

    I think it’s fair to say that some people might have been okay with Gitmo under Obama because they think he’s better on torture. I’m definitely not one of them, though. Even if the torture did stop, there’s still the indefinite detentions without trial.

    I hadn’t been paying close attention to the drone issue, but that’s something I’ll be mulling over, now.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Who knew? Leadership really does make a difference. Forty years ago, it was more likely to be Republicans who supported higher taxes and balanced budgets. The change wasn’t driven by the grass roots, but now it’s so much a part of right-wing orthodoxy that nobody can get nominated to the POG without bowing to the “taxes ever lower” dogma.

    And the same goes for Democrats. Maybe we should have put up more of a fuss ten years ago before jettisoning the Bill of Rights became a bipartisan consensus.

  • johnh

    Grrrr. Decisions made based on party affiliation as opposed to actual policy/effect drive me nuts. I am and always have been opposed to our operation of Guantanamo and the PATRIOT ACT, and remain in favor of drone assassination-strikes (WHOM we’re assassinating is another matter, but if we can take out targets directing combat operations against the USA using unmanned drones instead of 10-year+ engagements with thousands of ground troops, I’m all for it), though not on US soil (due process and all that, in an environment where we can provisionally count on law enforcement operations to apprehend criminals, including ‘terrorists’). A lot of this love of Obama really comes down to party identity, it seems.

  • beergoggles

    I do wonder how much of this is people becoming accustomed to the status quo. Even after adjusting for party hardliners who support whatever their side does, this survey seems to indicate that Obama has a higher degree of support in permajailing suspects among non-party affiliates.

  • Tribalism in its most basic form. Really not that surprising.

  • drizzt

    If I was American I’d vote for Obama, like you will I hope. Is he a fascist when it comes to the DHS, some civil liberties etc ? Yes he is, and I’ve hated seeing him opening and giving his ass to the GOP dicks in Congress and in the House, but on the other hand, he’s advanced gay and women’s rights more than many presidents. I believe his 2nd term, if he gets it, will be when he shows his true colors : pro gay-marriage, pro women’s-rights, and perhaps pro-liberalization of drugs, and he’ll stop being a WTB-Cold War president.

  • drizzt

    Edit : if it wasn’t obvious, I approve of such a 2nd term.

    N.B. : WTB Edit button.

  • jasonmiller


    God I hope you’re joking. You can’t be that naive. Obama has escalated Bush policies, and you can bet it will only happen 10 fold during the next term. In fact, it will take a corrupt Democratic president, like Obama, to really put a dent in and hurt SS and Medicare. But what do you care, you aren’t from America.

    The guy is completely corrupt, as much as anybody on the right. This whole “If he get’s a 2nd term he’ll show his true colors” BS is non-sense. He’s already shown his true colors, and they’re ugly.

  • jasonmiller

    PS, there are MANY republicans who’ve moved to the left of Obama on gay rights issues (Cheney, Snowe, Collins and more). You’ve got the bar set extremely low if you think Obama has the most progressive positions on those issues. And you’d be wrong.