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Liberals Should Not Criticize Obama? The Historical Record Says They Should

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In my first two Huffington Post pieces, I criticized President Barack Obama, particularly for his national security policies which have embraced much of Bush's war on terrorism. The criticisms continued, even though the second post was even harsher on the Republican Party, leaving no doubt about where I stand politically.

Obama supporters say we should hold our tongues and not give ammunition to the Republicans, at least not publicly. When I told one old friend that as a historian I had an obligation to examine Obama's full record, she replied that I should keep the criticisms for my history books and not put it out publicly.

The idea that liberals should not criticize Democratic Party presidents has a long and, frankly, dishonorable tradition. Let's look at the historical record.

We only have to look at the events of the last few months. President Obama finally endorsed same sex marriage this spring, and he then suspended deportations of people under the age of 30 who came to this country as children without documentation. He has been greatly applauded among supporters for both decisions. It is obvious to everyone, however, that he took these positions in response to sustained pressure, by the LGBT community in the first case and the Latino community in the second. Both groups overwhelmingly support him for reelection. So it seems that public criticisms from friends does work -- pressure from liberals is an important and often necessary strategy for progress on the rights of Americans.

The longer historical record contains many examples where liberals failed to raise their voices, with disastrous consequences.

In World War I, virtually the entire liberal community -- including many prominent reformers and pacifists -- enthusiastically endorsed the war effort and refused to criticize President Woodrow Wilson for suppressing of dissent at home. The exception was a very small band of free speech advocates who challenged Wilson's policies and went on to found the ACLU in 1920.

During World War II, liberals again chose to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the war effort. They looked the other way and refused to condemn the tragic evacuation and internment of 117,000 Japanese Americans. As in the previous World War, only a small band of committed civil libertarians opposed this grotesque violation of Americans' rights.

In the Cold War, most liberals supported President Harry Truman's 1947 Federal Loyalty Program, which assaulted freedom of speech and association through guilt-by-association national policy. In the view of many historians, Truman's program laid the groundwork for the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy in 1950.

History has rendered its judgment on all three of these episodes. They rank as the three worst violations of civil liberties in the twentieth century. Today, we honor the victims of these repressive acts and condemn the perpetrators.

We should reflect on how American history might have been very different -- and more honorable -- had more people spoken out, early and forcefully, against the decisions the three Democratic presidents made. Criticism from liberals would have been particularly important, for the simple reason that they would have come from each president's supporters.

Hold our tongues if we think Obama is off-course? The historical record tell us to speak out -- forcefully.