Friday, June 27, 2008

Free to Disagree
I haven't written in depth about Obama's cowardly and shameful move to support the Democratic surrender on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), in part because it depresses me and in part because I don't trust myself to get into the policy weeds on the question. But obviously it didn't thrill me. Some observers have seized upon this move, as well as the Democratic nominee's opting out of the public financing system for the fall campaign, as indications that Obama is a tougher and more cynical politician than many thought; I didn't share this view, mostly because it seemed self-evident to me that any Chicagoan in elective politics whose hobbies are poker and pick-up basketball is, on some level, a hyper-competitive and probably vicious mofo to start with. Nor does my disappointment with Obama on FISA either compel me away from supporting him (though I don't feel much like sending any money that way for awhile) or change my view that he has the potential for greatness in the presidency; Lincoln and FDR did some shady, cynical stuff too, and they were pretty good.

What does unnerve me a little is the tendency of many Democrats, even supposed progressives, to justify his moves through what seems like blind faith in Obama's goodness. Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald, who does have the technical expertise to eviscerate the FISA deal (see link above), called out his fellow liberals on this yesterday:

It isn't that difficult to keep the following two thoughts in one's head at the same time -- though it seems to be for many people:
(1) What Barack Obama is doing on Issue X is wrong, indefensible and worthy of extreme criticism;
(2) I support Barack Obama for President because he's a better choice than John McCain.
...

The real danger is that those who defend Obama the Candidate no matter what he does are likely to defend Obama the President no matter what he does, too. If we learn in 2009 that Obama has invoked his claimed Article II powers to spy on Americans outside of even the new FISA law, are we going to hear from certain factions that he was justified in doing so to protect us; how it's a good, shrewd move to show he's a centrist and keep his approval ratings high so he can do all the Good things he wants to do for us; how it's different when Obama does it because we can trust him? It certainly looks that way. Those who spent the last five years mauling Bush for "shredding the Constitution" and approving of lawbreaking -- only to then praise Obama for supporting a bill that endorses and protects all of that -- are displaying exactly the type of blind reverence that is more dangerous than any one political leader could ever be.

Bingo. Obviously, I'm an admirer of Obama. I think he's the most genuinely progressive candidate at the national level we've seen perhaps since JFK (while Johnson, McGovern and Mondale certainly were more conventionally "liberal," their lefty faith was institutionally driven, with unions and government the mandated instruments of policy; Obama seems much more inclined to use whatever tools come to hand, which is the sort of pragmatic progressivism we need today), and I believe his temperament and style of leadership fits the modern presidency to a tee.

But the guy is neither a saint nor an infallible genius. He's clearly arrogant, and at times a little squishy. And if you take his rhetoric about democracy and public participation at face value, it's going to be the responsibility of the full public to call him on it when he fails to live up to his own professed ideals and always to evaluate him by the standard of his own professed principles. Lord Acton didn't distinguish between progressives and right-wingers; hero worship of Obama is no more palatable, and no better for America, than hero worship of George W. Bush.

1 comment:

The Navigator said...

As an enthusiastic Obama supporter, I don't think he's infallible in any respect. The best evidence of his clay feet is his sell-out to Big Ethanol. His FISA stance may or may not make practical sense: sometime, the votes just aren't there and you're not going to get them, so it makes some sense to avoid needlessly antagonizing potential allies. I don't know if that's the case with FISA and Obama, but I've seen speculation to that effect and it seems plausible. Even if it were sheer pragmatism born of recognition of the odds against defeating telecomm immunity, it would still be disappointing to some degree of course - laying down markers for principle is important - but it would be more understandable. The corn ethanol sell-out, by contrast, looks like a pure sell-out.

That said, I'm definitely with you and Greenwald here - Obama can and does make mistakes, and merit criticism, and remains vastly preferable to McCain.