Saturday, November 3, 2012

About the "I'm not disappointed in Obama" post I was going to write

There was a time when I was going to write a post entitled "I'm not disappointed in Obama."  In that post, I would've said, essentially, "I told you so."  During the summer and fall of 2008 when he ran for election and during the time of his transition, the winter of 2008-2009, I wrote several posts warning against what I saw as the near deification of Obama or what I saw as the impulsive, potentially dangerous devotion to a mere human.  (If interested, you can see the posts click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) In the post I was going to write, I was going to say that many of my predictions turned true.

Now, saying "I told you so" is poor form, so I won't say it now, even though I have succumbed to the vanity of citing my own posts on the matter.  But if you read the posts, you'll notice that my "predictions" were general and grounded, in large measure, in cynicism.  And it is probably the case that general predictions grounded, in large measure, in cynicism usually turn true, so my own predictions were not particularly prescient or noteworthy.

The original impetus for writing the post about why "I'm not disappointed in Obama" was an attitude I had witnessed as early as spring 2010 at a labor history conference.  A large majority of the attendees were specialists in American labor history.  They may not have been intimately familiar with the minute intricacies of presidential politics or the tricks and turns of different presidential administrations (some were more "social" or "cultural" historians), yet they knew, or should have known that any president faces constraints on his actions, that "liberal" or "leftist"-friendly presidents make compromises and come up short.  (In such a crowd, you can find no shortage of people who condemn President Franklin D. Roosevelt for curbing the power of unions through legislation that to the uninitiated empowered unions dramatically.  They have a point, but my point is that it's a well-trodden road.)  Yet they were not only disappointed, but surprised, that this happened in Obama's case.  The occasion for their surprise....I don't remember exactly.  It had something to do with the health care law and some sort of compromise or pending compromise on the "cadillac plans" enjoyed by certain unions.  I don't even remember what the compromise was or even if it was actually made.  But the point is, they were indeed surprised.

The tragedy (from their point of view) of American history is that the "system" has failed to live up to its leftist potential when things could have gone otherwise, when, for example, we could've had a vibrant union movement if only THE STATE hadn't intervened on the side of THE CAPITALISTS during that one strike that, for example, THE UNION threatened the lives of THE SCABS.  (Another way of putting this is that the state used its police powers to prevent some people from killing others because the others in question had a different view on whether they owed allegiance to a union or a "working class."  Yet another way of putting this is that the notion of competing allegiances is more complicated than the narrative of "well, wi' any luck, the li'l guy might get some'ing out o' it this time exceptin' that Mister Pierpont Morgan has his way.")

Along the same lines you might hear from them, Oh, if only [name the president, governor, or mayor] hadn't sent in THE TROOPS, we'd have single-payer health care and syndicalism, with nary a whiff of oppression!  Some of them have a counter-narrative that runs thusly:  Some quasi-mythic but historically actual person, usually a governor, who was "the first person in the history of the world ever" to send in troops to protect the strikers might have helped usher in social democracy if only the people had risen up to it and voted for their economic interests.  When it comes to governors being "the only" one to send in soldiers to support strikers, I have seen this claim made of Colorado Gov. Waite Davis and Illinois Gov. John Altgeld. 

However, if it's too much to ask American historians to note what has been the dominant trend of American history that the historians in question have often repeated, or at least to note the institutional incentives and constraints on political actors, well maybe it's not too much for me to be more sympathetic to their frustration.  After all, I wanted a "robust public option" and yet settle, perhaps to a point of unreasonableness, for the gamble that is the ACA.  Things did not turn out the way I would've liked them.

But the "I'm not disappointed in Obama" post I was going to write, I would have said that we got what we could've expected from someone who seems (and in my opinion, seemed as early as 2004) to excel primarily in being good looking, giving platitudinous speeches, and benefiting from luck not of his own making.

But, but, but....I am disappointed in Obama.  And again, it's not all bad.  Some things he had little control over, and he indeed did the best he could.  The ACA is one of those, in my view.  And on some issues, like gay marriage, he eventually did the right thing.  And on others, like repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he pursued the policy change in the most respectable matter possible.  I'll also suggest that whatever the wisdom or cynicism or idealism behind his postponement authorizing the Canada/US pipeline, it was in at least some ways a gutsy move.  It became one basis among many of Romney's criticisms of Obama's energy policy.

But on some issues over which he had a lot more control he chose poorly when he didn't have to.  One example is his apparent ramping up of prosecutions against medical marijuana distributors when the states in which they are located permit them.  My problem is not only that I object to the policy, but also, I agree with Will Truman at the League, who pointed out something I hadn't really thought of but that rings true nevertheless, namely, Obama gave little guidance about his enforcement priorities ahead of time.  He promised he would defer to state laws, and then he reneged on that promise without fair warning.  Even if the president had given such warning, I admit I would disagree with his policy, albeit on less firm ground.

Another issue, which I have already discussed, is what I consider to be the unnecessary and still ongoing "we killed bin Laden" fest.  Yes, I get that "he is a man of political courage" and his approval rating may have dipped a few points for an entire two weeks if the attack he ordered had turned out fruitless.  But killing is killing and sometimes it's necessary, but it's always regrettable.  As I've said before, first, do not strut.

And then the war came.  Or rather, "the war continued."  It's winding down, except for where it's not (*cough*, Libya, *cough*), and I'll give kudos for Obama's refusal to commit himself to an attack on Iran, his refusal so far to implicate American forces in Syria, and what appears to my not-very-informed-foreign-policy-perspective to be his deft refusal to antagonize Russia needlessly.  (I'm out of my element here, but that's my sense.)

To be clear about my concerns, it's not so much that I find the drone attacks troubling, although I do, but not really because they're drones (I don't really see a moral distinction between collateral damage caused by drones over that caused by warplanes, unless one mechanism is more likely to incur more such damage than another).  It's not even so much that the president has what is effectively a "kill list."  (That does bother me, but I also think its more a continuation of practices that go back to covert-operations-with-plausible-deniability that stretch as far back to instances like overthrow of Mossadegh in the 1950s or the debacle that resulted, probably unintentionally, in the assassination of Diem in 1963.)  Nor is it even the prospect that the al-Awlaki (sp.?) was a U.S. citizen (I think due process ought due to non-citizens if it's to be due at all and while there's an extra disturbing factor when we're talking about a citizen, any problem I have has to go back to the original debate over targeted killing to begin with.)

What it is about, for me at least, is his escalation of the powers of the presidency.  In 2008, I did not expect Obama to abrogate Bush's arrogations of power.  In fact, in one of the posts I cite above, I said s much.  And he has disavowed the "enhanced interrogation techniques," such disavowal being, I suppose, a good start.  But he also signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  [click here to read James Hanley's explanation of the law and his criticisms against it, almost all of which I agree with.]

I'm not sure Obama necessarily promised anything much different.  But I am disappointed.

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