Opinion

Is Obama a great president? Not so fast.

Not so fast

The Obama presidency is not even over, but the historical retrospectives are already piling up. Paul Krugman put one down in October of last year, arguing that Obama is "one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history." Jonathan Chait came through this week with an even more laudatory case, arguing that Obama will get a big sloppy kiss from history — and if he doesn't, it will be because history is full of sentimentality and myth.

One problem common to both these arguments is that they do not grapple with the really troubling parts of the president's legacy. Krugman quickly glosses over them, while Chait does not even mention them, entirely omitting the words "drone," "torture," "CIA," or "Snowden."

The two make a decent case that Obama has achieved more than is commonly appreciated. But in declining to take a real crack at Obama's worst actions — in particular, his alarming embrace, and expansion in some areas, of the Bush security state — they have not made a compelling case for his greatness.

Start with the fact that his administration has assassinated four American citizens with no due process, one of them a child with no connection to terrorism. It has provided only a heavily redacted version of the legal justification for these killings, after years of fighting to keep it classified. That's on top of thousands of non-Americans killed by drone, including hundreds of civilians. Under so-called "signature strikes," the identities of those killed are not even known.

His administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. These victims include Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, and Edward Snowden, who exposed prima facie evidence of blatant violations of U.S. law and the Constitution. Obama personally intervened to keep a troublesome Yemeni journalist imprisoned.

For the rich and powerful, however, the administration has often refused to enforce the law. It has prosecuted neither the thousands of bank employees and executives who committed systematic fraud or other crimes (save one or two), nor anyone connected to the CIA torture program. When the CIA illegally spied on its Senate overseers, he did nothing save defend them from "sanctimonious" criticism as "patriots" who had "tough jobs." The CIA and most of the rest of the security state are effectively above the law, which has made it all the more likely that torture will happen again.

The president has done next to nothing about dragnet surveillance, which continues to this day (assisted by a Republican filibuster, to be fair). Meanwhile, he has embraced Bush's use of the state secrets doctrine to dismiss whole lawsuits by simply invoking a claim of national security.

That's only part of the case against the greatness of President Obama. The upshot is that he has taken many actions that are deeply illiberal if not straight-up authoritarian. Assassinating people with zero due process; warrantless, dragnet surveillance; surveilling Congressional overseers; letting CIA goons get away with torturing innocent people; legitimizing the very idea of secret law — every one of these is a bald violation of elementary liberal principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. For liberals like Chait and Krugman, these ought to be serious blemishes on the Obama record. At the very least, they deserve close attention.

Krugman, to his credit, at least acknowledges that there are some serious issues here:

I worry about the precedent of allowing what amount to war crimes to go not just unpunished but uninvestigated... What I would say is that even if Obama is just an ordinary president on national security issues, that's a huge improvement over what came before and what we would have had if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won. [Rolling Stone]

This badly understates Obama's active complicity in perpetuating Bush-era practices. On the other hand, Chait doesn't even mention this stuff.

Henry Farrell brilliantly argued that hawkish "national security liberals," of which Chait is definitely one (though Krugman not so much), have failed to deal with how dragnet surveillance, in particular, is undermining their worldview. Such people see themselves as "the decent Left, willing to deploy American power to make the world a happier place, and fighting the good fight against the knee-jerk anti-Americans."

During the Cold War, this was an easier stance to justify. But since 9/11, "a quiet internationalization of the surveillance state," as Farrell puts it — facilitated by intelligence-swapping and jurisdiction-shopping between nations to evade legal controls — has seriously undermined liberal ideals across the globe. The extension of American power "is leading not to the international spread of liberalism, but rather to its hollowing out in the core Western democracies."

If one is to judge Obama's historical legacy, simply ignoring his flaws will not do. The real historians who were surveyed by New York, as part of the package which included Chait's piece, certainly did not. Boston University's Andrew Bacevich wrote that the lasting symbolic image of the Obama presidency will be "[t]he missile-firing drone employed as an instrument of assassination."

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