Friday, July 03, 2009

President Obama: Betrayal or Failure?
Part Two

Part one is here.

As I said in my last post, it matters whether the occasions on which Obama is disappointing many of his supporters are happening because we are being betrayed (he was fooling us for electoral purposes) or he is failing to be able to do what he would prefer (delivering what we want is not within the power of the President). Betrayal actually is the easier lapse to remedy: political pressure can bring around an opportunistic politician. But if we are seeing failure, if our elected leader cannot get the system to do what he actually would prefer to do, citizen engagement requires deeper and more complex pressure on whatever parts of the system stand in his way.

In my previous post I mused about the parts of the President's program in which he is acting as if Congress were a co-equal, competent branch of government. Just saying that points out how novel an approach this is -- and raises up the realization that he, and we, are hobbled by this course. Still, it is Constitutional behavior.

When it comes to wielding executive power, President Obama doesn't seem to be so cautious in his adherence to legal norms. People who read this blog know the list: since taking office, Obama's administration has sought to use legal privilege to conceal pictures and reports that would prove torture and abuse of prisoners, made legal filings to shut down discovery of past abuses, and flat out refused to share information about how the executive branch works. He's not only covering up for Dick Cheney for goodness sakes -- despite some pretty words, he plans on continuing indefinite detention of prisoners who have not been tried by any plausible court, will still make renditions of people to third countries where torture is practiced, and plans to hold captives in Afghanistan without judicial process.

I think it is fair to believe that that Candidate Obama promised a regime more respectful of law, due process and human rights than he has so far given us, so there's a huge element of betrayal as we look again at an executive acting not very differently from George W.

But there's a lot of failure in this as well; it is reasonable to assume that Obama is getting strong and effective push back from the spooks and the military who were tasked to do the dirty work and don't want it uncovered or repudiated. And they have the power to get a lot of what they want, regardless of the latest President.

But it is also clear that the people of the United States remain terrorized, willing to piss in their pants at the thought that some confused Yemeni accused of something might be locked up in a near-by prison. The majority of our fellow citizens are quite simply mad with irrational fear -- we can't expect to get decent behavior from politicians while there's a majority that actively wants to throw away human rights concepts rather than take any risk. They believe torture -- or at least being "tough" -- protects them. They easily dehumanize foreigners, especially dark ones and Muslim ones.

Those of us who want to end the U.S. torture regime -- not to speak of our warrior empire -- have a job to do that involves winning over our fellow citizens. We are not going to get an executive that resists the multiple pressures from all sides to use imperial power lawlessly until a very strong citizen constituency demands this. This can be won. French citizens in the 1960s finally came to understand that the colonial torture and murder regime in Algeria was destroying France itself. We need to work, patiently but hopefully, to make available the same lesson to our people. Then we might be able to get a President who can make change we believe in.

Oddly, at the same time we justly complain of betrayal, we have to work to create the conditions in which the better aspects of Obama's promise can succeed.


amazon grace said...

This is consistently one of my favorite blogs, and I thank you for this excellent analysis of the Obama Administration's record so far. You probably follow polls more than I do, but I find myself wondering if most folks are merely distracted rather than supporting "anti-terrorist" policies that repress civil liberties. Out here in Oklahoma, I have two coworkers who are literally struggling to put food on the table. I don't hear anyone at work discuss politics much, and I wonder if they just don't have time or energy to pay attention.

janinsanfran said...

Grace -- I think you are exactly right: most people only attend to politics sporadically. They have better things they have to do. And when they do engage with it, they engage in order to get someone in who will enable them to stop having to attend to politics for awhile.

At a very deep level, that's what a lot of us want out of a President: someone who will take the burden of keeping the country going off our overburdened shoulders. But it doesn't quite work that way. Democracy withers when it becomes a spectator sport.

People Power Granny said...

You are so right in just about everything you say! I examine the Obama Administration post inauguration with the Obama of the campaign, and the two are about 180 degrees apart. You can check it out at You can also vote in my poll about what you think Obama is doing best. I know he has a tough job, but he must go in the direction he said he would.

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