Two steps behind

by John Q on June 29, 2009

Over the last week or two, there has been a lot of discussion of the idea of Obama leading from “two steps behind”, initially in relation to the Iran protests1, and then as a general description of his operating style. There’s an obvious link to the famous quote attributed to FDR, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

But, how should Obama’s supporters respond to this, particularly on civil liberties issues such as detention withour trial where Obama is not only two steps behind but often appears to be going in the opposite direction? Suppose that Obama really wants to deliver on his campaign rhetoric about openness and due process, but is facing powerful resistance from within permanent power centres such as the CIA. Hence, it might be supposed, Obama has to put up a show of resistance, and needs his supporters to make enough noise to compel him to fulfil his promises

How, if at all does such a situation differ from one in which Obama is a natural centrist wants to backslide on promises made to secure his base in the election year, but can be held to his promises by sufficiently vociferous pressure?

In particular, from the viewpoint of Obama’s supporters, does the kind of pressure that will produce the right outcomes differ depending on Obama’s motivation, or is it better (as Glenn Greenwald has argued) to focus on actions and disregard motivation?

I don’t have a well-developed view on this, but my intuitive reaction is that it’s best to treat Obama’s rhetoric, both during the campaign and subsequently, as sincere, and press him to live up to it. By contrast, with Bush, his occasional hypocritical references to freedom and democracy only heightened the offensiveness of his actions. Whether this distinction is sustainable remains to be seen.

1 That is, he was careful to let the protestors take the lead, rather than jumping in with a denunciation of the regime



Phil 06.29.09 at 11:51 am

I don’t think Bush had any motivation – what you saw was what you got.

Generally I’m much, much more comfortable with holding our leaders’ feet to the fire than trying to appeal to their liberal/radical/thoughtful/etc side – they wouldn’t have got where they are without being able to override anything liberal/radical/thoughtful/etc when necessity calls (and necessity calls an awful lot in politics).

On the other hand, it is worth distinguishing between the individual and the programme. In Obama’s case, you could argue that the intelligent liberalism he was coming out with during and immediately after the election adds up to a body of ideas which he’s committed to, and from within which he can be criticised. But the criticism still needs to be made.


anon 06.29.09 at 12:04 pm

a lot of this centrist talk really baffles me. Clinton’s centrism was most frustrating when it came to poverty policy (yes, Clinton centrism was troubling for liberals on a bunch of other fronts, but welfare reform did more to destroy the social safety net than almost anything reagan did). With respect to poverty policy, Obama has initiated the biggest reversal in national priorities since Carter (and since Johnson, in terms of success). It’s been quiet. So his rhetoric seems to suggest he’s being a cautious centrist. But he’s not. If you actually work regularly with the working poor in America, you can see the difference changes in unemployment insurance, cobra, and food stamps coverage have made (and the impact that the expanded earned income tax credit will probably make).


qb 06.29.09 at 12:12 pm

From the perspective of six months ago, it’s kind of sad that we even have to be asking questions like these.


DrPangloss 06.29.09 at 12:29 pm

The blaming of the electorate – least the part needed maybe to get a majority – for not forcing politicians to live up to their promises, after they are elected, strikes me as a variation on that old chestnut of blaming the victim for an outcome. That said, every source I can find on the web for the, now becoming famous, FDR quote doesn’t , I think, link it to any specific election promises but to some vague general ideas of reform coming from Sidney Hillman, oh horror a Socialist, or Asa Philip Randolph. In the latter’s case, according to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Obama used it in August 2007 or there abouts to warn potential financial supporters that he couldn’t be trusted. I’m not aware of him providing the same, “vote for me at your own risk”, warning to the great general electorate either during the primaries or the battle with McCain.


Jonny R 06.29.09 at 12:42 pm

Essentially, qb is right, but my fuller reply was…

I think a response to the Obama administrations actions largely depends on one’s own conception of what is acceptable under the definition of ‘political expediency’.

So, as a Brit looking from outside I’d argue that his stance towards Iran is fair, given the complexities of the problem. It’s obvious that Iran deserves censure for many activities during the recent protests, but too often in the past Western intervention has often created a worse outcome. So, Obama has to be careful in how far he goes. In this case I think both intentions and actions do match.

But, on Civil Liberties and openness (both at home and overseas) I think any justification of “I can only go so far given the circumstances” doesn’t hold water. The reasons for not fully embracing promises of openness are obvious. Discussing events in holding cells in Afghanistan, or wiretapping at home, won’t get financial reform though. But it also serves a purpose of avoiding administrations feeling obliged to reveal what the Obama period did behind the scenes. Openness cuts both ways.

But, I still think he should have the courage of his convictions and therefore deserves criticism both of intentions and action in this area. I don’t see how anything is improved by not being fully open. I think the politicians defence that some things don’t need to be revealed and discussed is damaging and a self-fulfilling prophecy and Obama isn’t doing nearly enough to change that.


Jonny R 06.29.09 at 12:45 pm

Incidentally my greater worry with Obama is that he doesn’t have any real ideology to speak of. What is the approach that guides him? Even a strategy would do if ‘ideology’ is too loaded a word. It’s all a bit tepid to me and the parallels with JFK are not unfair in that sense.


Mike Maltz 06.29.09 at 1:02 pm

Let’s face it. Obama himself can’t pass legislation; he needs the votes of half (plus 1) the House members and 51 (sometimes) or 60 senators to do so, many of whom listen more closely to their contributors than to their constituents. So my response to the question John posed in the second paragraph is to contribute to Larry Lessig’s effort, (the hyphen is important!), and publicize the relationship between the money they receive and the policies they endorse.


Ben Alpers 06.29.09 at 2:25 pm

On most of these issues, it’s not a question of Obama’s inability to get Congress to do the right thing.

Take the torture photographs, for example.

Obama could have released them without any help from Congress. But he refused. Then he backed congressional efforts, led by Sens. Lieberman and Graham, to write a special exception to FOIA that would have prevented courts from ordering their release. The House, for the moment, has done the right thing and resisted the president.

I think arguments over Obama’s motivations are largely irrelevant to the necessary task of opposing the continuing cover-up of the last eight years and the push to consolidate the extraordinary executive powers claimed by Bush. Although one can cherry pick statements from Obama’s campaign that indicate a thoroughgoing commitment to roll back the policies of the last administration in these areas, his actual positions on these issues were always a mixed bag. For example, he voted for FISA “reform” last summer.

Whatever his motivations, Obama is clearly on the wrong path on issues of openness and executive authority; the proposed executive order on preventive detentions is particularly frightening (and represents another example in which he doesn’t need congressional assent) .

I’m glad to see fewer and fewer “11th-dimensional chess” excuses being made for Obama’s actions in these areas. It’s time to simply oppose them in every way that we possibly can.


Tim Wilkinson 06.29.09 at 2:49 pm

Non-exhaustive list of factors affecting Obama’s decisions on policy

What Obama (secretly) wants to do
What he can get legislative authority for
What he can get cooperation with (from within government)
What he can do without alienating powerful interests (within govt)

Public pressure might affect any of these – but the last one – parenthesis included – which is what I take the first alternative in the OP to be concerned with, is perhaps most interesting.

The reasons for not alienating e.g. the CIA would presumably be to help with securing future cooperation, or at least not to close that avenue off by a showdown, as well as to avoid any actual retaliation. And it seems the envisaged role of public pressure peculiar to this case seems to be providing ‘cover’ for Obama to do, apparently reluctantly, what he (presumably) wants to do all along. So such pressure should resemble as closely as possible (at least from the viewpoint of the CIA et al) the hostile pressure described in alternative 2.


Kevin Goodman 06.29.09 at 3:17 pm

How is Obama two steps behind on civil liberties? I’m filling the ambiguity with the notion that he was cautious in his statements with Iran. Nearly nothing Obama ‘could have’ said would have made a positive impact in Iran but he could easily make a negative consequences with the wrong actions. But regardless, its good he’s two steps behind because that indicates he would rather be right than be merely a part of the sensation.


Glen Tomkins 06.29.09 at 3:26 pm

Public governance

Once a country gets used to “letting George do it” when it comes to formulating and implementing public policy, having the chief executive decide things behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to go back to the messy process of having the people’s representatives deciding public policy in public. Even if it were easy, the one person who categorically cannot make the change back to public governance is the executive. Our legislature will resume its rightful, and ireplaceable, function of running the government, only if and when it takes that back from our president

For one thing, people come to assume that the illusion of competence and efficiency of process, and manageability of outcome, that can be slapped over decisions arrived at secretly, but which is impossible if the decisions actually have to be unpacked in public, is real. People always resist the realization that they have been fools, quite apart from the greater inherent ease of letting George do it, as opposed to doing government ourselves. Going back on the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era in particular would involve all of the people who voted to endorse them, and the public that supported them, admitting that they were duped by the cirisis mentality of the time.

Even worse, even more destructive of the ability to go back to doing things right, is the moral dimension. We haven’t lost our republic to the Julius Caesar model, the frank handover of power to an elected dictator or permanent king, but rather to the Augustan plan, whereby the dictator pretends not to be a king, but that the Senate still supposedly has the power it enjoyed in the Republic. Congress is still formally in charge and responsible, even if in practice it defers to the president. On this question of civil liberties, while the last administration may have pushed all of the abuses, well, administrations have to push everyting that happens in govt, but the crimes were all ratified, if often only after-the-fact, by legislation. If torturing prisoners is wrong, if indefinite detention is wrong, then the Congress is full of wrong-doers, and almost nothing but wrong-doers. And since what Congress did was done in public, the majority of voters are criminals too, or would be if we were to admit that torture and indefinite detention were criminal acts. Guess which horn of that dilemma will be followed by majority opinion in this country.

It seems to me that to blame this morass on any president, current or former, is to partake of the original error of abandoning public governance for presidential rule, and even worse, the original sin of pretending that our form of governance is other than what it actually has devolved into. The only logically consistent thing that President Obama could do to address the civil liberties crimes of the past eight years, were he to consider them to be such and take that other horn of the dilemma, would be to declare the Congresscritters who voted to approve them to all be enemy combatants, and toss them into some sovereignty black hole like Guantanamo to rot. While that would be a just outcome, I don’t see how it helps us get back to a desirable civil liberties regime, and it still doesn’t punish the electorate adequately. Oh, well maybe the consequences of such a coup would be the punishment for the rest of us.

We’re not going to get back a decent civil liberties regime except as part of getting our republic back. And we’re only going to get our republic back if the Congress takes it back. And Congress will only take back power if forced to by the current system failing so irrefutably that the failure can no longer be denied. Realitically, such acknowledgement of failure is not going to come from abuses of civil liberties, however extreme, unless it starts being ordinary Americans who are abused in great numbers. Apparently it will take even harder shocks to the economy for the lesson to take, but I would think that another Depression is the most likely factor to prompt real change.


novakant 06.29.09 at 3:27 pm

How is Obama two steps behind on civil liberties?

erm: indefinite detention without charge, for instance


b9n10t 06.29.09 at 3:32 pm

For the public that supports Obama’s transparency platform, the best political move is to publically ignore Obama’s supposed intentions and denounce his inaction.

A coupla’ thoughts:

1) Two can play this game: Just as Obama can publically ignore his campaign promises but may be strategizing to acheive them, the left wing of his supporters can play the same game (that is, privately sympathize with his supposed intentions).

2) Can a politician have it both ways? If you elect Obama the person, then he is to be judged by his principles. If you elect Obama the programme, then the programme is to be judged as fulfilled or not. Obviously, we want to say, in either case, yes but politics requires calculation and compromise and this effects how we judge his principles and his programme. However, Obama certainly knew political realities when he made his campaign promises.

He chose to make certain campaign promises with a reckless lack of concern for political realities; if he was merely pandering, then pandering must come with a political price. “We are the ones” and all that.


Kevin Goodman 06.29.09 at 4:01 pm

@ novakant

Thnx – that is a point to note


Tim Wilkinson 06.29.09 at 4:01 pm

Kein Goodman @10- I don’t think the talking-about-Iran business was meant to be included in the civil liberties point. Though I share your bafflement about whatever it is that’s is being said about Obama and Iran, which latter is in any case not necessarily quite as the default consensus would seem to have it*.

(*Off-topic examples suggesting the not-exactly-outlandish possibility of outside interference in Iran: a piece by the excellent Andrew Cockburn, and a mildly interesting report from a somewhat (I suspect not entirely deservedly) disreputable source who’s in any case AFAICT reliable enough factually, once obvious ranting and conclusion-jumping is factored out: Israel Shamir’s comments on Twitter. Also somewhat relevant, in its premise alone, the recent post That’s no Way to Steal an Election)


Tim Wilkinson 06.29.09 at 4:03 pm

Sorry, Kevin; missed out your ‘v’.


The Raven 06.29.09 at 4:27 pm

What Glen Tompkins says.

But also, it strikes me that in areas where the Senate conservatives aren’t likely to react, Obama has been quite progressive. Consider executive appointments at the lower ranks, and Obama’s science policy. One thing the Obama presidency highlights is the power and dominance of the Senate conservatives. The W. Bush administration was indeed an imperial presidency. But, with Obama in the White House, it’s clear that the Senate conservatives and W. Bush were covering for each other, so that responsibility could not be place. I am actually more hopeful of Obama than I was before the election. But if we are going to have a progressive government, we need to achieve a progressive, or at least moderate, Senate, and so far we do not have that.


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.29.09 at 5:44 pm

What is this “public pressure” and how is it applied these days?
In that FDR quote, he’s probably talking about a general strike that would paralyze a half of the country or something. That’s public pressure. Some guy writing something in his blog? No pressure whatsoever.


Sebastian 06.29.09 at 5:53 pm

“How, if at all does such a situation differ from one in which Obama is a natural centrist wants to backslide on promises made to secure his base in the election year, but can be held to his promises by sufficiently vociferous pressure?”

This is sort of what I have been wondering. On gay issues for example (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or DOMA or the Travel Ban) I want to trust him, but I wonder how long I have to wait before I can fairly start to worry.


Keith 06.29.09 at 8:34 pm

Obama is doing what all politicians do: trading favors. He keeps quiet on wiretapping and DADT right now, so he can get the beloved consensus to get behind his health care reform. Then once that’s through, he can revisit the other topics that he’s pushed to the back burner. That these other topics are human rights violations, knots in constitutional ethics and cherished topics of single-issue voters is the frustrating part.

While I’m optimistic that these matters will be addressed in the other3.5 years of his first term, I’m pessimistic as to their outcomes because, as we constantly need to remind ourselves, Obama is a politician and he is lieing to us.

Sure, it’s a sweeter, higher grade lie than the cut rate schwag lies we got peddled for the last 8 years, but still lies.


omega Centauri 06.29.09 at 8:35 pm

I think people tend to be a little simplistic about the release of torture photos issue. At least in that case, he is trying to manage a measured pace withdrawal from Iraq, and the risk of the security situation over there is real. Then the president of said country goes into serious panic mode over the planned release, and Obama agrees to stop the release in order to preserve the security situation for Maliki. So at least in this case, I think he has chosen the lessor of evils.

For the other issues I’m not so sure. But, I do think that his general view of where he’d like the country to go isn’t too different from my own. And if I were in his place I would be doing continuous political calculations over how to eventually achieve as much as possible of my agenda. So I am not disheartened, I still think he will accomplish as much as he thinks he can. Its just that I think he is playing the deliberate general -carefully choosing which battles should be fought when,and on which ground they should be fought, and during the most favorable weather conditions.


Timothy 06.30.09 at 1:06 am

There’s an old post ( wonkette I think) which draws attention to the practice of distingushing between a politicians “real” views and a politicians “public views” the point being that in the confused, torn, overworked and presumably malleable mind of a politician, constantly changing to correct for cognitive dissonance, constantly updating priors for less than rational reasons, there may be no “real” or “core” set of beliefs lurking under the surface to be uncovered.

On this view there are trends and pulls certainly, but not necessairly anything solid or stable. How this interacts with the practical question, what should we do to put Obama’s feet to the fire, I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth considering in debates like this.


vivian 06.30.09 at 1:13 am

Yes, what Glen Tomkins said. Include him in the paper.


JM 06.30.09 at 7:21 pm

OK, I’ll second, -erm fourth with Glen T. said. We in the US had become used to a unitary executive. Watching a president wait for something to flow through the entire sewer of American government is … weird now, and does not inspire patience.

Also, he seems to want to focus on kitchen table issues first. This, too, is a massive break from the past, where the installation of Karl Rove in several, simultaneous positions of policymaking authority metastasized the tendency to play everything according to how it would play with their base, which meant that ideological hot-button issues came first, not last. The result is that this president is more popular overall than the last, but has more problems with his base from day to day.

This is not to say that the detention and transparency issues are not real conflicts. Justice delayed, as they say ….


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.30.09 at 8:25 pm

I can see that you guys really despise excessive presidential power, but what about excessive federal power? I suspect you don’t mind that at all, do you? Only wingnuts do; Ron Paul, and other crazy people. One is too few, but 600 people deciding what’s good for 300 million (plus a big chunk of the rest of the world) is quite alright.


Cranky Observer 07.01.09 at 12:01 am

> OK, I’ll second, -erm fourth with Glen T. said. We in the US had
> become used to a unitary executive. Watching a president wait for
> something to flow through the entire sewer of American government
> is … weird now, and does not inspire patience.

And again, for the 27,127th time: if Obama and his Justice Dept were simply dutifully *defending* the quasi-dictatorial “unitary executive” precedent put in place by Cheney and Addington, I (and many like-minded people) could understand that. I still wouldn’t like it, but I could accept it in the short term as a process of “laws not men” (disregarding for the moment the fact that men named Cheney, Addington, Yoo, etc. deliberately broke the then-existing laws to create the new environment that is supposedly now our law).

But that ISN’T what is happening. Obama and his lawyers are not only dutifully defending the Cheney/Addington philosophy, they are deploying it aggressively and with relish, and in some cases seeking to *extend* it to greater heights of dictatorial power. That I cannot accept as “11-dimensional chess” or “keeping the powder dry”, because it is a flat-out repudiation of why I and many many others worked in the campaign and the promises that were made then.



Dr Zen 07.01.09 at 1:58 am

Glen Tompkins is right but almost entirely beside the point. Obama has a program whatever the state of your polity, and his program does not accord with his promises. This remains true whether you believe that his program should not be accorded the importance it is or not.


william c. flax 07.01.09 at 5:12 am

The administration had opened a format that follows real transparency and the administration doesn’t need my comment – “So, Obama administration, I come away …………………………………………………………………………………………………….. with consensus, that a solid majority want all servicemen to have due diligence and senatorial and congressional approval, and must be frankly not willing to wait or be tested;” ” In favor of the honorable President Barack Obama using his status as
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….. commander in chief war-time, the first or second – “O’grams to be a permanent here to for, You degree all enlisted men and Officers covering retroactive documentation that No person in the Arm Forces of the United States’ under the Constitution and all of its armament be hereto forth come under Commander in Chief’s order removing all sanctions or disciplinary action or proscribed rule(s) and interpretation(s) by
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….. C,I,C do repeal said action for any gay, lesbian, member of the arm forces to follow military order, by way of O’Gram to offer and reverse any order not conforming to this O’Gram. dated————————–, President and Commander in Chief, witnessed by: a,b,c,d,e, etc., etc.,……………

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