How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency

September 27, 2010 by · 142 Comments 

Note: the follow-up is here.

This post was originally written about the frightening case of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a heinous individual who now faces a judge, jury and executioner in President Barack Obama. The body of the post remains the same, but I wanted to add further context in light of yet another slap at the left by the Obama team, in this case, VP Biden telling the base to “stop whining,” as well as news that Rahm Emanuel is leaving the White House.

When Robert Gibbs attacked the professional left he didn’t specify anyone by name, but the assumption was that it was cable personalities, disaffected interest groups, bloggers and online commenters.

With each passing day, I’m beginning to realize that the crux of the problem for Obama is a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, among them Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher*.

Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren’t complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.

The essence of their critique is that the White House lacks a moral compass. The instances where Obama displays a flash of moral authority – the mosque speech comes to mind – these bloggers cheer him with the same fervor as his most ardent fans.

Some will dismiss them as minor players in the wider national discourse, but two things make them a thorn in the administration’s side:

a) they have a disproportionately large influence on the political debate, with numerous readers and followers — among them major media figures

b) they develop the frames and narratives that other progressive Obama critics adopt and disseminate

I’ve argued for some time that the story of Barack Obama’s presidency is the story of how the left turned on him. And it eats him up. You know it from Robert Gibbs, you know it from Rahm Emanuel, you know it from Joe Biden and you know it from Obama himself.

The constant refrain that liberals don’t appreciate the administration’s accomplishments betrays deep frustration. It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.

As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff (many of whom I’ve worked with in past campaigns) are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire adult life. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.

Case in point: the extraordinarily disturbing case of Anwar al-Aulaqi:

The Obama administration urged a federal judge early Saturday to dismiss a lawsuit over its targeting of a U.S. citizen for killing overseas, saying that the case would reveal state secrets. The U.S.-born citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, is a cleric now believed to be in Yemen. Federal authorities allege that he is leading a branch of al-Qaeda there. Government lawyers called the state-secrets argument a last resort to toss out the case, and it seems likely to revive a debate over the reach of a president’s powers in the global war against al-Qaeda.

Aulaqi is an odious and dangerous character and should be brought to justice for any crimes he committed. Still, the alarm on the left over this astonishing presidential overreach is entirely justifiable.

Greenwald:

At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record.  In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims.  That’s not surprising:  both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality.  But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.

Digby:

The Obama administration’s overnight assertion that presidential assassination orders of American citizens should be treated as a state secret, and thus not reviewable by any court anywhere, the most shocking assertion of unfettered presidential power we’ve seen since John Yoo argued that presidents have the right to order torture as long as they don’t cause pain equivalent to organ failure. … Back when everyone naively thought that electing a Democrat would end these obscene royalist decrees, it was argued by a few of us that once given, these powers are rarely given back. But I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic constitutional scholar would actually double down on the dictatorial powers. I confess, I’m fairly gobsmacked.

Armstrong:

With this, “Obama uses this secrecy and immunity weapon not to shield Bush lawlessness from judicial review, but his own.” Its neo-con unadulterated. And yet, they continue to be marveled in the WH flak shop why self-respecting progressives have thrown them to the dogs. At this point in time I’ve concluded that in 2004, when Kerry lost to Bush in 2004, it was all over but for the shouting. There is no doubt in my mind that Bush is going to go down in history as having set the military agenda abroad and within for a generation. Obama is like a middle-late inning relief-specialist pitcher. He’s brought out to gun down the lefty, then sent back to the pen.

Wheeler:

This is not a court filing. It’s a “choose your own adventure novel” for the judge:

  1. Is AQAP part of al Qaeda? (if yes, then go to dead al-Awlaki)
  2. Is AQAP an “organized associated force of al Qaeda”? (if yes, then go to dead al-Awlaki)
  3. Do Presidents get to self-authorize going to war (if yes, then go to dead al-Awlakil; if no, go to “alternatives to the AUMF”)
  4. What do you think of the “inherent right to self defense”? (if yes, then go to dead al-Awlaki)
  5. To abide by the Constitution and other laws, the President can’t be bound by “generalized standards.” The End. (go to dead al-Awlaki)

And mind you, we’ve set off on this “choose your own adventure in tyranny novel” even before we’ve gotten to the government’s invocation of state secrets. Just in case you had any doubts about their claim to unlimited power…

Political observers are mystified over the demise of hope, with everything from the economy to health care posited as the reason, but as I’ve argued time and again, it’s the moral authority, stupid:

Pundits put forth myriad reasons to explain the GOP wave (jobs and the economy topping the list), but they invariably overlook the biggest one: that Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies … Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.

It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.

From gay rights to executive power to war to the environment, the left increasingly believes the Obama White House lacks the moral courage to undo Bush’s radicalism. If anything, the Aulaqi case is an indication Obama will go further than Bush to “prove” his strength.

When the Obama administration appeared to collude with BP to bury the Gulf spill, squandering a historic opportunity to reverse the anti-green tide, it was a moment of truth for environmentalists. Now, it is dawning on some Americans that Bush wasn’t an aberration and that a Democratic administration will also treat fundamental rights as a mere nuisance. It truly is a new (un)reality:

Let’s face it, these are dark days for the left. As we barrel toward the November elections and an almost certain triumph for the GOP, we are losing the national debate and making giant strides backward on key issues. It’s the new (un)reality:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

While Democrats obsess over Christine O’Donnell’s witchcraft and John Boehner’s tan, and while Palin and Beck spew trite soundbites about defending the Constitution, the White House is getting away with a chilling, precedent-setting Constitutional breach.

That’s why some commenters  on the left are beginning to say things like this:

Obama’s extraordinary claim he has the power to order the assassination of any American, anytime, and anywhere puts him on a par with King George III, Ivan the Terrible, and other tyrants throughout history that held the power of life and death over their subjects.

Obama has set himself above the Constitution, as an American Barrack The Terrible, with the power to detain us indefinitely, torture us, and assassinate us at his will. Obama is not like Bush, he is far worse: he is a tyrant and a threat to the American people.

Hyperbolic, yes. Over the top, yes. One comment on a blog, yes. But, combined with other similar remarks, as sure a sign as any of the rage brewing under the surface — and not just among rightwing haters.

UPDATE: I want to emphasize a point I’ve made in previous posts that it’s the merging of left-right opinion that is so damaging to Obama. In other words, Obama could sustain relentless attacks from the right, it’s what everyone expects, but when the left joins in, the bottom drops out. That’s why opinion-shapers in the liberal blogosphere exert inordinate influence over Obama’s fortunes. And from the growing alarm at the White House, it’s clear they know it. Here’s how I expressed it last January:

Nothing should have been a bigger red flag to the new administration than the growing complaints by established progressive bloggers that Democrats were veering off track on the stimulus, the health care bill, civil liberties, gay rights, and more. But scoffing at the netroots is second nature in many quarters of the political establishment, even though they laid the groundwork for Obama’s victory. The single biggest reason Obama’s hope bubble burst is because of the unintended convergence of left and right opinion-making. The cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion. Stalwarts of the left, dedicated to principles not personalities, hammered the administration; couple that with the partisan criticisms from conservatives and libertarians, and the net effect was to alter conventional wisdom and undercut Obama’s image and message

UPDATE II: President Obama’s new Rolling Stone interview reveals more about his mindset – and his presidency – than just about any interview I can recall. First, it’s remarkably telling that he delivers a series of prudent, deliberate and dispassionate answers on some of the most contentious issues of our time and then marches back into the room after the interview is over to do this:

[Signaled by his aides, the president brings the interview to a close and leaves the Oval Office. A moment later, however, he returns to the office and says that he has one more thing to add. He speaks with intensity and passion, repeatedly stabbing the air with his finger.]

One closing remark that I want to make: It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election. There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises. But right now, we’ve got a choice between a Republican Party that has moved to the right of George Bush and is looking to lock in the same policies that got us into these disasters in the first place, versus an administration that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward.

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. … We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard — that’s what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we’ve got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren’t serious in the first place. If you’re serious, now’s exactly the time that people have to step up.

Again, this seems to confirm my suspicion that a few determined opinion-shapers on the left are getting under his skin. It caps off a week of heavy artillery aimed directly at progressives. And unfortunately,  it will only make things worse for Democrats.

Beyond that moment of frustration, Obama’s answers reveal a man who seems sure of his decisions, confident he is doing the best he can do and convinced that the course he is charting is correct. Of course, most people feel that way about themselves. Actions and results will determine if he’s right. Let’s hope he is.

*Jane, who has been a friend for years, has become an increasingly controversial figure and I won’t use the comment section of this post to litigate the claims for or against her. Every progressive blogger who criticizes Obama faces a backlash from his supporters, and Jane has become the lightning rod for those attacks. [Updated 9.28]

Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?

September 25, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

In a post titled Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance, I argued that the single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

I posited health insurance reform as an example:

If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

I posted three clips to illustrate my point:

I said we should eschew value judgments and assume good faith:

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

I cautioned that lack of knowledge and information was not partisan:

Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but about the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.

Finally, I explained why I believe the Constitution can’t be reduced to facile soundbites:

Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.

It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.

This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.

Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.

Ron Chernow:

The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.

But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.

The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.

Lexington:

Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to America’s problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics.

… Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a “first principles” project “to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity”. A Heritage book and video (“We Still Hold These Truths”) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders’ imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.

Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.

It’s encouraging when citizens take pride in our founding documents and in the noble principles that undergird our democracy, but it’s dangerous to adopt passionate, often dogmatic, political views based on something you don’t understand, to lay claim to a shared Constitution you’ve barely read, to falsely attribute values to our founders then demonize political opponents for undermining those values, or to insist that your reading (or lack of reading) of the Constitution is definitive and inviolable.

As a Democrat and a progressive, I don’t want to discourage my fellow citizens from basing their views on a shared set of ideals and a common history — that’s what makes us all Americans. But I certainly don’t think we can have an honest debate if those shared ideals and principles are distorted, misconstrued or hoarded by one side.

UPDATE: If the Tea Party is so interested in defending the Constitution, let them start here:

At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record.  In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration last late night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims.  That’s not surprising:  both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality.  But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”:  in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate its legality.

More from Digby:

The Obama administration’s overnight assertion that presidential assassination orders of American citizens should be treated as a state secret, and thus not reviewable by any court anywhere, the most shocking assertion of unfettered presidential power we’ve seen since John Yoo argued that presidents have the right to order torture as long as they don’t cause pain equivalent to organ failure. As Greenwald says, when Cheney worshiping neocon headcase David Rivkin thinks you’ve gone too far with the executive power, there’s not much more to say… Back when everyone naively thought that electing a Democrat would end these obscene royalist decrees, it was argued by a few of us that once given, these powers are rarely given back. But I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic constitutional scholar would actually double down on the dictatorial powers. I confess, I’m fairly gobsmacked.