THE BLOG
06/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Left

As the Obama Administration has in recent days taken a couple of steps in the civil liberties/national security area -- opposing release of torture photos and declaring an intent to retain some form of military commissions for terror suspects (while considering a system of preventive detention), the media has had some fun with a story line about the left's "souring," as Politico put it, on President Obama. There were similar stories in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. As someone who spends a fair amount of time with a pretty broad spectrum of the so-called left, I think it's a bogus narrative, and moreover is telling about which people are perceived to speak for the left and what issues they consider important.

I should say first off that while I think the president was dealt an awful hand on Guantanamo, military commissions, the misdeeds of the prior administration and the like, I do have some serious concerns about the discontinuity in several areas between his policies in this realm and those of the Bush Administration. I wouldn't use the kind of language in condemning them that the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU have been using, both because I think that is counterproductive with an administration that has explicitly rejected its predecessor's sweeping and disturbing claims of unlimited presidential power and because, more importantly, it fails to recognize real and profound differences both in policy and tone. But I think there are genuine concerns, and the human rights and civil liberties groups should continue to do their job and hold the Administration accountable. It is not their job to worry about the political environment in which Obama is operating, in which Guantanamo has become a "wedge" issue that has cowed many of his fellow Democrats in Congress.

That said, there is something a little strange about a situation in which the president gives a thoughtful, passionate and eloquent speech on terrorism, national security and human rights, which he did on Thursday, which is extremely forceful in its reiteration of the end to torture and the closing of Guantanamo, despite the drumbeat of criticism he is getting from the right, and two things happen. First, TPM Café, to take one prominent blog of the left, reports all day a steady parade of dismay from human rights and civil liberties organizations. Second, Dick Cheney in his speech just following Obama's, and Rush Limbaugh on his radio show the same afternoon, essentially accuse the president of waving a white flag to al Qaeda. Both were categorical and withering in their attacks. They heard the same speech that, say, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights did. Go figure.

The bottom line in terms of Obama's leadership is that most people are likely to think he got it right, and is striking the right balance, in the metaphor he seems to favor. I think for various reasons he may strike the balance too heavily on the alleged security side -- the torture photos are going to come out anyway some way or another; we have a perfectly good judicial system to try suspected terrorists; long-term preventive detention violates core notions of human rights and due process -- but I think he makes a thoughtful case, in the context of principles and values that I have come to trust in him, for why he lands where he does, and what he plans to do to safeguard rights given the choices he is making. David Cole, no civil liberties slouch, said as much in a Times blog post Thursday, and Philip Gourevitch, who published a book on the Abu Ghraib photos with Errol Morris, makes a strong case for Obama's position on the torture photos in today's New York Times. But by all means let these fights go on, and I hope our civil liberties advocates win most of them and that they don't have to find themselves too often in opposition to the president.

What I object to, though, is the characterization of this important debate as an abandonment or betrayal of the left by Obama. Here's why.

In the first place, I think Obama and the people around him are operating in entirely good faith. This is not some kind of political triangulation, a Sister Souljah moment designed to show the broader public that Obama can smack down his friends -- the kind of false test the center-right is always demanding of progressive politicians. Obama has genuine real-world issues to balance, and I have no reason to believe he has not arrived at these few controversial decisions genuinely and in a typically thoughtful and engaged manner.

Second, who decided that the civil liberties of suspected terrorists -- the toughest cases for almost anyone to figure out -- are the make-or-break issue for "the left"? Here we have an Administration that is making an all-out effort to pass national health care, and is nearer to getting it, or something close to it, than we have ever been, despite being in the middle of an economic crisis. The stimulus package and the proposed budget constitute the largest shift in social welfare policy -- the strongest series of steps to protect poor and working people -- since the Great Society over forty years ago. The long-delayed children's health insurance bill was signed into law, and with the full inclusion of immigrant children, thanks to the leadership shown by the White House. Great strides have been taken in changing our idiotic Cuba policy, with barely a whimper, thanks to Obama's exquisite sense of timing, and we are moving on various fronts to talk with our adversaries and deal respectfully with parts of the world given the back of America's hand by the Bush Adminstration. The EPA and Interior Department have taken step after step to strengthen environmental standards and conservation, after years of a government which substantially dismantled regulations. I could go on and on.

There is a category of concern among progressives that is not so much about where Obama comes out as about whether he is moving quickly or deliberately enough. Despite being behind the tide of history, no one seems to fault him on his opposition to same-sex marriage. But there are other obviously wrongheaded policies, like the ban on gays in the military, that he has not yet moved to reverse, despite declaring his intent to do so. A number of steps, including the one I mentioned above on child health insurance, have been taken to bring about a more humane approach to the treatment of immigrants, but immigration reform is still in the pipeline. He's outspokenly pro-choice, and repealed the global gag rule on his second day in office, but has not moved on promised pro-choice legislation. Same is true with respect to labor and the Employee Free Choice Act. On all these matters, time will tell. At this moment I choose to trust Obama's intentions while working to create a climate in which he will have the room -- and face the pressure, where necessary -- to do the right thing. He is doing so many other things at once, particularly on key issues of vital importance to poor people, that it is hard to fault Obama for not moving more quickly on immigration reform or a few other matters that are guaranteed red meat for the far right. To judge from the Cuba policy and a number of other issues, the president has a better sense of timing than most of his critics. (Not to mention a more genuinely democratic base of support, and a considerably more diverse cabinet and White House staff than virtually any institution in the "progressive infrastructure," but I'll leave that discussion to another day.)

Another development that seems to be causing anxiety among some progressives is the Supreme Court vacancy created by David Souter's resignation. Here no one expects the president to appoint someone hostile to civil rights and liberties, but there are a number of voices calling on him to begin to counter the forty-year rightward trend on the court by selecting someone of avowedly liberal views, someone who will be a balance to Scalia and Thomas, even if their voice may be raised for many years in dissent. I certainly think the court needs that, and over his four- or eight-year opportunity to shape the court, I hope the president makes some picks like that -- Harold Koh, for example, once he's spent some time at the State Department. But I think it's unlikely he'll do so now, guaranteeing a battle royal in the Senate when he is trying to move health care, the budget and other matters. And by temperament and instinct, Obama doesn't seem to think that way. That's fine with me. But if it ends up as Elena Kagan or a similarly non-ideological warrior, I expect some of my fellow progressives to cluck about missed opportunities.

If I have any significant zone of worry about the Obama administration, it is not so much about discontinuity in national security policies as discontinuity in financial and banking policies. Some good steps have been taken, like the credit card reform bill he just signed (despite its being saddled with appalling pro-gun provisions, since Western and Southern Democrats are no less in thrall to the NRA than Republicans), but I have a lot of disquiet about the Summers/Geithner axis and the possibility that the markets will recover, if not thrive for some time, without the necessary corrective actions to an out-of-control financial sector that these guys had as much as anyone to do with creating, without genuine accountability, and without recovery in the "real" economy. We have progressive institutions that are strong and vocal on human rights and civil liberties, and that is vitally important. But we lack as many strong institutions and voices on economic justice, or the voices that are there lack the access to media.

If what the left in America is most concerned about is poverty and inequality, Obama is shaping up as an extraordinary champion and deserves more vocal support. But that the media, looking as always for an intramural fight, focuses instead on an important but limited set of issues that have to do with identity and rights (arenas in which I have worked and written for thirty years), and can find dissatisfaction there, it is because what they see as the principal organs of the left have little to say or do about the issues of most concern to the lives of poor and working people. We have lost ground steadily in debates over the Supreme Court, and the role of judges generally in recent decades, because we have allowed those debates to be framed almost entirely in terms of issues like separation of church and state or abortion. I want a court that forcefully upholds those rights. But I also want one that is, as the president has put it to the derision of the right, "empathetic" to those who have been economically marginalized in a society all of whose key institutions have steadily sided in recent years with the rich against the poor. If we can get people to care about the Supreme Court not just because it is going to stop some Alabama judge from putting the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn, not just because it is going to force the government to treat a suspected terrorist more fairly, but also because the court has a critical role to play in fairness for working people, we will have made a genuine and important change in this country's politics.

Because I think Obama has a deep understanding of all this, despite doing some things -- and he will do more, no doubt -- that we may be bound to oppose, I have more confidence in him at this juncture than in most of his liberal critics. So this is one fairly satisfied liberal (or whatever we call ourselves these days) right now.