Dissents Of The Day

In response my Newsweek cover-story, a reader writes:

I work in Washington as a regulatory attorney (I served in the government in 2009-2010 on a Recovery Act program), and I can attest that even on more obscure Very_gradual_change_we_can_believe_in_poster-p228383015915480890vsu7_500issues, the Obama administration has consistently been characterized by timidity in the face of any corporate opposition.  A desire to avoid confrontation and to not shake things up pervades the administration.

There is a view, one I think you share, that by seeking consensus, avoiding partisan rhetoric, and consistently moving to the middle of the policy spectrum even before attempting to engage Republicans, Obama has delivered on his promise to be above the partisan fray of politics as usual.  In my view, he has only served to put a spotlight on how broken the system truly is, and, in doing so, has sown still deeper cynicism in the public about the ineffectiveness of the government to address real problems.

Obama was not elected to make noble gestures towards non-partisanship; he was elected to change how politics and the government work in Washington.

Instead, he let the Republicans and the corporate lobbyists call the tune.  He passed health care reform by buying off the drug companies, the insurance companies, and the doctors.  His approach to banking regulation was similar.  He didn't change the system; he just played the game.  Nothing has happened on issues like climate change or immigration, nor does it appear that anything ever will.  The health care reform bill was vastly better than nothing, but appears to fall far short of what is needed to address our long term systemic problems (and even that was accomplished only after the longest and most painful legislative process imaginable).  The banking reform is not likely to prevent the next collapse.  We are no closer to resolving the long-term problems with debt and the federal budget than we were the day Obama took office.

The question of what Obama could or should have done is a difficult one and I don't pretend to have all the answers.  To start, he could have publicly acknowledged what the Republicans openly stated: that he would find no willing partners across the aisle.  He could have told the public that one of the two major political parties was baldly and intentionally attempting to cripple the federal government during a time of national crisis and asked the public to penalize that behavior instead of pretending at all times that he was dealing with a reasonable and sincere opposition party. 

He could have worked with Democratic congressional leaders to develop a legislative strategy designed to maximize the impact of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress rather than squandering most of that time in a futile attempt to gain bipartisan support for watered-down bills.  He could have proposed aggressive legislation actually aimed at changing the political system through campaign finance reform and lobbying reform and passed it through a Congress under complete Democratic control. 

He could have instructed his appointees and the federal agencies to use the quite substantial legal authority delegated to them by Congress to adopt policies that advance the interests of the American people and to let the corporate lobbyists know that they aren't running the show any more.  He could have leveraged his support network to increase civic awareness and participation and to build support for fundamental (perhaps even constitutional) political reforms. 

I frankly don't know what would fix the dysfunction of Washington at this point.  But I am quite certain of one thing that will not fix Washington: doing nothing.  And that is what Obama has done.  We won't know what might work until we at least try something.

If he had started out his term as a fierce partisan of the left, he would have betrayed a core campaign promise: to try and move us toward a less fractured and polarized national debate. I agree he failed, but I also believe the GOP is almost entirely at fault. The point of my piece is that Obama cannot force the GOP to change; but he can demonstrate their unreason and in the long game, defeat them. But revealing their extremism and intransigence is important. It's the preliminary to beating them. Another writes:

I read the Newsweek cover story, and I'm sure you're going to get quite a large volume of comments due to the article's virtual "come and get me" stance.  But I thought I should give it a try as I might be able to add to a possible discussion.

In your defenses of Obama against his liberal critics, you seem to take it for granted that liberals at large don't have any issues they won't (or shouldn't) consider sacrificing for the sake of pragmatism.  I'm with you all the way that Obama has done a truly inspiring job propping up the economy until it can stand on its own again.  He constantly surprises, and just today his decision to kill SOPA fills me and my coworkers with hope.  

But it's not enough to repair the damage he's done.  I have the freedom to use the internet as it is now, but I have lost my guarantee under the constitution to equal protection under the law. My life is non-negotiable.  I will not trade my constitutional rights away so that the real good work of Obama's administration can begin in his second term.  There are some lines not to be crossed that aren't arbitrary or tribal.  They're actually the only ones that matter.  Denying habeas corpus rights, secret evidence, and asserting the right to kill Americans by his say alone are disqualifying issues for me, and I'm sure many others.

It constantly amazes me how you believe Obama deserves anyone's support for those actions.  If the economy were to vastly improve in the next four years, would it be worth it to lose our 4th Amendment rights?   It isn't to me.  And I hope it isn't for you, either.


The word "drone" is not mentioned once in your piece.  As a centerpiece of the "Obama Doctrine" on fighting international terrorism, any piece defending the president should defend that policy, or at least explain why its failures/excesses are not prime real estate for liberal grief. 

Likewise, simply washing away concerns over Obama's illiberal policy regarding civil liberties because he strictly forbids torture needs further explaining.  How does one compare indefinite detention with torture?  Is preventing the torture of one worth the indefinite detention of a hundred?  Surely there is an answer to this, and yours may very well be the correct one.  But this is a calculus that needs to be worked through explicitly.

And if preventing the cancer of United States sponsored torture is of paramount importance, shouldn't prosecuting those who authorized and performed take priority as well?  Wouldn't sending that kind of clear message be the most effective, long-term means of preventing such acts in the future?  Even if Obama wins another term, eventually there will be another president, either Democrat or Republican, who publically endorses or at the very least would privately authorize torture.  By allowing precedent from the Bush administration to stand, Obama is waving aside the one long-term tool he has for constraining torture's future practice: establishing and supporting legal punishment for those who would repeat the war crimes of their predecessors.

One more:

I enjoyed your Newsweek article and a reader's response on being stuck in the middle between Fox-ers and lefties whine it comes to Obama. But I must say you do not properly capture the left's critique. For the right, you offer "facts" to challenge their incorrect claims. For the left, you offer … not facts, but a simple argument: Obama is not as left as you wish so get over it. This is a far different matter. People on the left can and should complain about Obama, but that does not make us delusional or ignorant or even naive; it just makes us shit out of luck. Obama is a centrist, he is not a leftist, that was obvious to me back in 2007. Obama never claimed to be a leftist, true, but I can still want one for our country. That does not make me delusional; it just makes me powerless.

(The above poster is available to purchase here)