One of the most frustrating things about Obama’s presidency, for me, has been to listen to him articulate my earnestly-held beliefs about government in beautiful and eloquent ways. Time and again he nails it in his speeches. In September 2009, before a Joint Session of Congress, the President said:
our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited.
And here he is at George Washington University:
each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us…and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments.
The First Principles that Obama has articulated in both these quotes are my First Principles. They are principles that I support, am willing to argue in favor of, and when necessary, fight for.
Yet time and again, Obama seems to capitulate on public policy matters which are pursuant to the very First Principles he so eloquently and beautifully articulates in his speeches. Whether its his refusal to keep the Public Option in the healthcare bill, or his acquiescence to Bush-era War on Terror policies, or his waivers to Lobbyists working in his administration, he consistently sells out his best intentions, and undermines the First Principles he campaigned on that so many of us supported, and still support.
My vote for Obama had nothing to do with “Hope and Change” in any abstract sense; it was about stopping the worst abuses of the Bush administration, and shifting our public policy away from the failed economic and foreign policy of the last decade; and on to something better.
Admittedly, Obama has done some amazing things, particularly in the arena of Gay Rights: DADT is gone. DOMA is on the rocks. I dare to say that advocates for gay rights no longer have any principled grounds to be as furious with this president as they once were: say what you will, but he got the job done on DADT. And now he’s getting it done on DOMA; precariously so, but done nonetheless.
And he is certainly the target of MUCH unfair criticism: the flippant and infuriating diatribes of the Right against this man are border-line insane: whether it’s Intellectually Dishonest accusations of Socialism, outright offensive comparisons to Stalin AND/OR Hitler (because Communists and Fascists were huge fans of each other historically); the simultaneous accusations that he is both a member of a Radical Christian pastor’s church and secretly a Muslim; The outrageous cult of Birtherism that even Ann Coulter has repudiated (or if you prefer, refudiated); or perhaps even the insinuation that bowing to foreign heads of state is a symbol of weakness rather than a sign of respect for a foreign culture (because we need LESS modesty in our foreign policy, right??); the man has not caught a break from this nonsense since day one, which says a lot more about his critics’ inability to articulate legitimate criticisms of his policies (and there are many) rather than his policies themselves.
But nonetheless, there have been key moments in Obama’s presidency where he has turned his back on the very principles he fought for; whether its breaking his promise of open government, or his inhumane perpetuation of the detainment of known innocent terror suspects, this President has betrayed many of the First Principles that he so vividly articulates on a regular basis, and which he campaigned on in 2008.
I know that pragmatism and politics often get in the way of First Principles: and anyone whose read my defenses of Simpson-Bowles knows I am no stranger to defending the politically possible over that which is politically desirable. But there must be a limit: there must be a point at which politicians who want to honestly act on their electoral mandate must put pragmatism away, and stand against fundamental encroachments on the very Principles one seeks to advance and advocate for. When pragmatism begins to resemble capitulation, the result is not a beneficial compromise: it is failure. And for that reason, I lament the President’s failure to match his actions to his rhetoric, even as I find myself vigorously agreeing with it.