Looking back at the 2008 Obama campaign, one might distinguish, among others, two narratives that formed the core appeal of his candicacy: one, that he promoted himself as a “post-partisan” and a “pragmatist”, rather than the type of ideology-fueled politician that at that time was residing in the White House; second, that he promoted himself as someone with a very clear point of view on issues of the rule of law and civil rights. Obama, more so than other candidates such as Hillary Clinton, was very clear about his opposition to Guantánamo Bay, torture, and infringements on civil rights that had become the hallmark of the Bush-Cheney presidency.
Yet, today, Obama has clearly failed to live up to his campaign promises in the latter regard. Guantánamo is still open, a terror suspects’ assassination program for American citizens has been set up, civilian trials for terror suspects are cancelled, habeas corpus rights are not restored, the state secrets doctrine is being invoked, etc. The Obama administration in this area is Bush-lite, in every respect. And all the more frustrating is that the President doesn’t seem to care.
So this might be interpreted as the “pragmatist” narrative having won from the “moral” narrative… As the authors below do. Although I’d say that “pragmatism”, just like “centrism”, is a quasi-neutral term meant to hide very concrete positions, just like Obama is taking. Positions of which “liberals” and “progressives” (or, people who care about the rule of law) have every right to be disappointed about.
Andy Bacevich at The New Republic, first, voices a very to the point criticism of Obama’s presidency so far:
Obama’s supporters were counting on him to bring to the White House an enlightened moral sensibility: He would govern differently not only because he was smarter than his predecessor but because he responded to a different—and truer—inner compass. Events have demolished such expectations. Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core.
And Andrew Sullivan responds very succinctly. I agree with both authors.
The case for pragmatism, especially after the ideology-drenched years of Bush and Cheney, is a powerful one. On issues like the bank bailout (wildly successful) or health insurance reform (a messy but important advance) or balancing short term demand with long term austerity, we need pragmatism. But there are some areas where that instinct can come to seem unwise.
Sending young men to risk their lives is one of them; refusing to live up to core Geneva Conventions requirements – like investigating and, if appropriate, prosecuting those guilty of war crimes is another; ditto civil rights, where pragmatic politics is never enough.