In 2008, during the aftershocks of the housing market and financial collapse and the fall of Lehman Brothers, and amidst the increasingly frightening din of anti-Obama sentiment that was coming to define the presidential campaign between him and rival John McCain, it was nevertheless difficult to not feel a swell of excitement. Barack Obama was going to be president.
A black man in a country scarred deep by its history of slavery was about to become the Commander-in-Chief. A man with a Muslim name was going to take the top job while two wars in Muslim nations were being fought. It was a victory for tolerance and hope and, after the dark days of the Bush administration, very much a victory for change.
Obama campaigned on changing the course of American actions at home and abroad: on the war on drugs, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the way Americans had responded to terrorism by constructing a national security state that at once quashed individual liberties and sacrificed privacy on the altar of defense. Perhaps his record should have given us all pause, as conservative blogger Daniel Larison argued at the time, but his record was shallow and our desire for change was deep.
And so we happily cheered on his victory, and expected – even in the depths of a recession – that he would stick to his most basic promises to better uphold Americans’ civil liberties, to better represent a vision of peace in the world than his predecessor. The naive folks at the Nobel Prize even gave him the Nobel Peace Prize – just for showing up.
But Obama broke his promises, one by one, and no matter how much his supporters on the left defend his record on foreign policy – he killed bin Laden, toppled the Libyan regime, and assassinated American-born Anwar al-Awlaki – or his record on domestic policy – the passage of healthcare and financial reform especially – Obama’s broken promises on civil liberties and the war on drugs remain a glaring bruise on his presidency.
Yet liberals continued to defend the president, and gloss over his actions. Conor Friedersdorf writes that this “is how centrist liberals make themselves complicit in the indefensible.”
“These are the sorts of treatments,” Conor writes, “that permit well-educated Obama supporters to evade certain uncomfortable truths, like the fact that the president to whom they’ll give campaign contributions and votes violated the War Powers Resolution when he invaded Libya; that in doing so he undermined the Office of Legal Counsel, weakening a prudential restraint on executive power; that from the outset he misled Congress and the public about the likely duration of the conflict; that the humanitarian impulse alleged to prompt the intervention somehow evaporated when destitute refugees from that war were drowning in the Mediterranean.”
I will admit, the duopoly that frames our political choices in the American system lends itself to this sort of rationalization of the bad actions of our leaders. When faced with the choice of Barack Obama or Rick Perry at the ballot box, it’s hard to blame liberals who want to sweep Obama’s worse decisions under the rug, even if those actions have, as Conor puts it, “lent to Bush/Cheney policies the veneer of bipartisan consensus.” After all, it’s easy to see Obama as the lesser of two evils or, to borrow another cliche, to pick the devil you know.
Of course, there are candidates on the right who would be better on issues of peace and civil liberties than Obama or Perry: Ron Paul and Gary Johnson especially, and possibly even Jon Huntsman. But they represent such a radical departure from many liberal values surrounding healthcare and taxes and economic equality, that again it’s hard to blame liberals for not rallying enthusiastically behind them.
For many people, things like access to healthcare or public education affect them far more than the abstraction of war or domestic surveillance (and for many these truly are abstractions, right up until they’re groped by a TSA agent at the airport.)
But if the president is unacceptable on issues of war and peace and privacy and liberty, and the Republicans are never going to pick one of their more dovish, libertarian candidates in the GOP primary, then what’s to be done? Politics really does become, always, a question of lesser evils, known devils, and other bad choices.