Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Let’s Light Candles, not Torches, for Obama

The Huffington Post recently ran a photograph of the merged faces of Presidents Obama and Bush with the caption “George W. Obama.” That’s pretty strong stuff for a supposedly liberal publication. Considering the recent news reports about government surveillance, is it fair to say that Obama has become as bad as Bush?

Reasonable people can debate whether surveillance helps keep us safe or is a needless intrusion, but anybody who thinks Obama invented surveillance has a very short memory. Bush’s surveillance was widely reported in 2006 and dates back even further. And anyone who claims Obama is as bad as Bush or the Republican Party is ignoring many basic facts.

The Obama administration’s surveillance is primarily “data mining” to discover possible crime or terrorism. Michael Hayden, Bush’s director of the National Security Agency, has noted that Obama is “more transparent” about surveillance than Bush was. 

Also, despite media distortions, there is no evidence that the Obama administration has engaged in far more invasive wiretapping. Bush definitely wiretapped, and did so with, at best, questionable legal authority.

In other aspects of foreign policy and national security, Obama has proven to be far more effective and in line with liberal American values than Bush was.

Obama didn’t allow the worst terrorist attack in American history--Bush did. Obama didn’t start two “Bush Doctrine” pre-emptive wars for bad reasons--Bush did. Obama didn’t mismanage those wars--Bush did. Obama ended one war and is winding down the other. Obama got Osama bin Laden--Bush couldn’t. Obama saved lives and helped oust a dictator in Libya while avoiding the full-scale war that Bush probably would have started. Obama didn’t start wars with Iran or North Korea, among other places. Bush (or McCain or Romney) probably would have.

Bush and Congressional Republicans created the Patriot Act in 2001 and spearheaded its renewal in 2006 and 2011. Obama didn’t dream it up and mainly signed the renewal in 2011 because Republicans (along with too many go-along Democrats) would have overridden a veto for the sake of looking tough on terrorism.

Obama immediately banned torture and ordered the closing of the Guantanamo prison (which is being blocked by Congress). Bush, by contrast, approved torture and founded Guantanamo, sending hundreds of detainees there. Obama hasn’t sent anyone new to Guantanamo and has been extraditing prisoners there back to their home countries.

Obama has increased the use of drone strikes begun by Bush, and those strikes are definitely not perfect. But Obama is moving the program from the CIA to the Defense Department for better oversight. Most important, targeted and limited drone strikes are far less destructive and costly than Bush’s full-out wars.

Obama didn’t cut taxes during wartime, which Bush did. Bush had terrible “Neocon” foreign policy advisors (Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney) while Obama seeks sensible counsel (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry). Bush persecuted military members under Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell. Obama oversaw the DADT repeal.

My fellow liberals may call me an “Obamabot,” but that’s OK. Along with being factually wrong, equating Bush and Obama is bad politics for liberals. This view feeds the false-equivalency argument that all politicians are bad, causing many Americans, especially independents and liberals, to disengage from politics and stop voting. 

When turnout is low, Republicans almost always do better. Too many independents and liberals skipped the 2010 “Tea Party” elections, and the 2014 midterms could have the same sad outcome. Criticizing Obama from the left hurts all Democrats at the ballot box. Nothing improves with Republicans controlling Congress--or, worse yet, with a Republican president in 2016.

Of course, we liberals want Obama to move leftward. But “George W. Obama” attacks are ineffective and counterproductive. We’re still learning the basics about the surveillance program. As more facts emerge, the differences between Obama and Bush will become clearer, just as emerging facts about the fake IRS scandal show that Obama is nobody’s Nixon. Moving forward, we’re better off tempering our criticism, focusing on facts over exaggerations, and voicing our objections in reasoned tones rather than snarled attacks.

Elected leaders don’t pay much attention to mobs carrying pitchforks and torches, but they welcome friends with candles to light the way.


Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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