Barack Obama's Lost Principles
Editor’s Note: Many on the American Left feel betrayed by President Barack Obama’s endless compromising with Republicans and Washington insiders. Others say they never believed his rhetoric about “change,” that they spotted him correctly as just another political opportunist.
Yet, whether Obama was sincere or not, it is beyond question that he quickly adapted to his role as president by behaving as if fighting for principles was a disqualification for the job, an issue that Lawrence Davidson addresses in this guest essay:
When President Obama ran for the presidency, his rhetoric was distinctly progressive. He is a very good orator and a superior debater and so we can be forgiven for taking the rhetoric seriously.
He also often acted like a progressive up to that point. If he talks like a progressive, and acts like one, shouldn’t he be one? Here are some relevant biographical facts.
1. Barack Obama worked, albeit mostly in an administrative position, as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side during the years 1985-1988. He was apparently dedicated and successful in this effort.
2. He spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor (1992-2004) at the University of Chicago School of Law. His grounding in constitutional law is thorough.
3. As a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to improve "transparency and accountability in federal spending" (2008).
4. And, one of his early actions as president was to streamline procedures for the Freedom of Information Act thus making it easier to utilize (2009).
However, soon thereafter President Barack Obama started to pursue anti-progressive policies. Indeed, this turnaround has been quite startling.
It has made many people angry and has destroyed at least that part of his political base that lies on the left. Here is a short list of the president’s recent positions and actions:
1. He has absolutely rejected holding accountable any member of the Bush administration (or its private contractors) for actions which were in violation of both domestic and international law. Among these actions were instigating war on false pretenses and pursuing policies of torture and illegal detention.
2. He has allowed (perhaps instructed) his Justice Department to promote and defend positions which sharply undercut the First Amendment of the Constitution. Specifically, the position, now upheld by the Supreme Court, that speech "coordinated" with groups designated terrorist by the U.S. Government is a felony. It is important to note that the designation of a group as "terrorist" is notoriously influenced by political pressure.
3. He has allowed the U.S. Army to hold Pvt. Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked information to WikiLeaks, at the Quantico, Virginia, brig under conditions that come very close to cruel and unusual punishment.
4. He has allowed the harassment of Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, because he made public (but did not steal) embarrassing U.S. documents. This can be seen as the equivalent of government stalking.
5. He now has allowed (perhaps instructed) his Justice Department to prepare a conspiracy case against Manning and Assange for allegedly conspiring to obtain government secrets. This is an action that could seriously curtail the process of investigative reporting in the U.S.
How are we to account for such a remarkable about-face by a man who is trained as a constitutional lawyer and who was a progressive until soon after entering the Oval Office?
I imagine the definitive answer to this question will have to wait for the opening of the Obama presidential library and the biographies that are even now germinating in minds of scores of historians. In the meantime here are some observations that may help our understanding.
First of all, time and position can certainly change a person. It is one thing to be a constitutional law professor and another to be a professional politician.
Constitutional lawyers often have consistent principles, be they conservative or liberal. It is harder, rarer, for a politician to act consistently on principle.
In his relatively brief pre-presidential political career Obama did maintain his progressive orientation. But then, suddenly as president, he ceased to do so. In order for this change to have happened so quickly and so radically one is led to the assumption that the man’s principles were always associational and not fundamental.
That is, Barack Obama has probably always adapted his behavior to the environment he finds himself in and the crowd he associates with. It is when he became president that both his environment and crowd apparently changed. He simply followed suit.
Second, presidents always seem to lose touch with the reality that lay outside the nation’s capital. Obama is not unusual here. Once you hit the Oval Office, make your grand plans and pick your advisors, "groupthink" becomes a mainstay of your worldview.
Obama’s world no longer has any direct feed in from constituencies that might sustain behavior based on Constitutional principles. He is now in an environment that is essentially "value-less" and dominated by a deal-making culture.
Third, apropos of that culture, Obama appears to be constantly searching for political consensus. Under the circumstances, he cannot define his own principled political positions. He apparently feels forced to make constant changes according to the demands of special interests with which he believes he must compromise.
Thus, the Constitution ceases to be a guide and instead becomes something that one sacrifices for the sake of political agreements. If going after the criminals of the last administration means alienating conservatives with whom he seeks consensus, he lets the criminals go.
The law becomes a secondary factor. If treating Manning and Assange according to the rules of law means alienating powerful Washington bureaucracies, he ignores their mistreatment. Again, too bad for the law.
If cutting ties with the apartheid state of Israel means challenging the Zionist lobby, he ignores the escalating crimes of our "ally." Justice and humanness also become secondary factors.
If championing the First Amendment means having to fight accusations of being "soft on terrorism," then free speech be damned. This is not political wisdom at work. This is political expediency. Nor has it provided him with a winning formula. Obama may well be a one-term president.
And, as is usual, along with political expediency comes hypocrisy. In October, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Conversations With Myself, was released in the U.S. It has a forward by President Obama. In it he praised Mandela as a man whose "sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress."
That sacrifice inspired a young Barack Obama to become a political activist "coordinating" his rhetoric with that of Mandela in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. But, of course, Mandela and the organization he led, the African National Congress, was at that time a U.S.-designated "terrorist organization."
Fortunately for Mr. Obama, his rhetorical support for Mandela was then protected by the First Amendment. That protection is what present Barack Obama’s Justice Department has erased. The FBI is now raiding homes and issuing subpoenas for people in Chicago and elsewhere who can fairly be described as acting just like Barack Obama in the early 1980s.
This president has lost his way. And we have, at least for the foreseeable future, lost important aspects of our constitutional rights.
What does this tell us? Those who seek success in politics are rarely fundamentally principled people. They are folks whose principles are associational and that lets them move freely in a world where opportunism is thought to be survival trait.
And, it would seem, it is in the modern democratic milieu that this way of politics has been brought to a fine art.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.
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