I haven’t blogged for over a week, and I apologize. My parents were visiting, and I just thought I’d give myself a little vacation. But I’m back now, energized, I hope, for more commentary about Mormonism, politics, culture, and baseball. Eclectic ‘R Us.
As I said, my parents were in town, and as often happens, my father and I got into it a little about politics. I should point out that I admire my father immensely, like him and enjoy his company, all that. But as he’s gotten older, he’s become increasingly Tea Party-ish in his political views, which, of course, I’m really really not. Meanwhile, NBC News aired their big Brian Williams interview with Edward Snowden, and it got me thinking about President Obama. And I also had a chat with my son recently, in which he asked how those of us who are genuinely progressive can possibly continue to support his President, whose actions on civil liberties are so disappointing, and so essentially indefensible.
My Dad, of course, thinks this President is the worst President of his lifetime. He thinks that for lots of reasons, some of them valid, most of them not. What I suspect is that there’s a link between the fact that he despises this President and how much he watches, and likes, Fox News. But I don’t want to blame Fox for everything. My Dad’s 81, but he’s a thoughtful and intelligent guy; he’s perfectly able to dismiss some of Fox News’ worst excesses.
But still. My Dad thinks that President Obama has been an incompetent, lawless and feckless President. He thinks Obamacare is a disaster, and will lead to the worst excesses of socialized medicine. Dad knows quite a bit about Norwegian health care, for example. He was serving a mission in Norway when he had a heart attack, and was told that a simple EKG would take months, but that they would put him on a waiting list for it. Instead, he got permission to return home early, and received life-saving medical treatment immediately here, in America. My Dad also thinks that this President’s foreign policy has made America weaker, has damaged our standing in the world, and that Putin is playing him for a chump. And President Obama’s handling of the economy has been a disaster. Worst of all, of course, is the federal deficit and debt, which Obama’s federal spending spree have driven completely out of control.
And there you go. And not all that is wrong. Most of it is, of course, but there’s just enough truth to it to make it plausible.
And meanwhile, I think the Snowden interview showed how far this President has gone in violating American civil liberties, how he has continued the dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric of the War on Terror we remember from the Bush years, how the use of attack drones have been operationally effective, but strategically a disaster. I voted for President Obama–voted for him twice, and I do not regret either vote. But I have my own disappointments with this President. So I want to defend him. I want to defend the policies of a President who I agree with on enough issues to feel good about supporting. But I’m still uneasy with many aspects of his Presidency.
What’s needed in this conversation is nuance, an agreed upon set of facts, and a presumption of good will. Not so easy to come by when talking to a Tea Party supporter. And that’s particularly true when the Tea Party supporter in question is someone you love.
We have to remember that no President (or politician) has the freedom to do anything s/he wants to. Presidents have to operate within the constraints of their time and place.
To give an example, I rather admire the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Moderate Republican, sensible man, built the interstate highway system, enjoyed a humming economy through most of his Presidency–there’s a lot to like there. But one of the great blots on his Presidency was the ascendance of Senator Joe McCarthy, and that shameful episode in American history known as McCarthyism. President Eisenhower thought McCarthy was a drunken buffoon–despised the man and most of what he stood for. And when McCarthy was waving sheets of paper with names, he said, of State Department officials who were Communists, Eisenhower knew perfectly well that it was all a lot of nonsense, that it was just a typical McCarthy stunt. But he couldn’t really ever say so. Anti-Communist hysteria had such a firm hold on our country that taking on McCarthy directly would have been political suicide. Plus, you know, we were in an existential struggle with the forces of the Soviet Union–it’s not like there wasn’t a genuine ideological battle to worry about, however preposterously we may have overreacted to it.
By the same token, President Obama can not afford to be painted as soft on terrorism. And let’s face it, the first responsibility of any President has to be to keep the country safe. That means that almost any President is likely to value security over civil liberties, if a choice has to be made. I think the Snowden revelations have been really devastating and powerful and important, and personally, I consider Snowden a patriot and a hero. But I also understand why this President feels he has to call Snowden a traitor, why the NSA still has essentially carte blanche to read our tweets and emails, why data mining continues, why these egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment continue unabated and why Obama continues to defend them.
By the same token, while I despise drone warfare, I understand why it’s so appealing to a President. If we have intelligence about a possible terrorist attack, I understand the appeal of being able to do something about it. And a drone is surgical (comparatively), and if an unmanned drone is shot down, the President doesn’t have to make a tough phone call to grieving parents.
It’s also a disaster. The only way to defeat terrorism as a tactic is to win the hearts and minds of people who are on the fence regarding religious extremism. Nothing is going to drive them into the hands of terrorist organizations faster than having these deadly flying things killing their fellow countrymen.
So what positives can we bring to a conversation about Obama? Well, first of all, Obamacare works. It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better than the status quo, and it will help even more people get health care going forward. When America and Europe were both clobbered by the world-wide financial crisis, President Obama (mostly) stood up against those arguing for economic austerity, which is why our economy recovered better than the economies of almost any other country. What was needed was stimulus, and if the Obama stimulus was too small and somewhat misdirected, it did happen and it did work. He saved the US economy at a moment when that economy seemed very much at risk.
Ignore the Fox News talking points: Benghazi, IRS-gate, the supposed ‘illegalities’ of the administration delaying a few pieces of the complex Obamacare puzzle. Obama has faced a Congress dominated by ideological extremists and unwilling (even uninterested in) doing anything at all to help the American people. He’s stood up to them when needed, and gotten a lot of much needed legislation passed.
He’s not a great President. He’s been a very good President, top third among all Presidents ever. Give him credit where credit is due. And feel free to point out his shortcomings. Friends tell friends the truth, too.