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The Providence Journal

Some Liberals on to Obama's Betrayal of Liberalism

President Barack Obama speaks about the American Jobs Act, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School in Columbus, Ohio.

President Barack Obama speaks about the American Jobs Act, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011, at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As a self-proclaimed independent journalist normally content to attack politicians from outside the establishment, I’ve found it very lonely criticizing Barack Obama these past three years. Before then it was easy to be at odds with power, since the Bush nightmare rallied all sorts of disparate foes of the administration.

But with Obama’s arrival in the White House, ordinarily skeptical liberals thought they had found their redeemer, a genuine reformer with leftist instincts who, even better, was the son of a black African father and a liberal white mother. It didn’t matter what Obama’s actual record was — how (or if) he voted in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate, who his political sponsors or donors were, or what sort of people he expressed admiration for in “The Audacity of Hope.” Because he said he opposed the invasion of Iraq, wanted to reduce corruption in Washington, would close Guantánamo, would rein in Wall Street’s recklessness and would “renegotiate” the North American Free Trade Agreement, Obama was a dream come true.

So when I began challenging the assumptions about Obama’s progressive potential, months before the 2008 election, people who had once joined me in raucous denunciations of Bush started looking at me funny, their voices turning testy, their faces tense. I recall a prominent academic I know recoiling from me and placing a protective hand on his wife when I contradicted his excited chatter about an Obama presidency. Another time a prominent left-wing editor went so far as to defend Obama’s sponsor, the thuggish and reactionary former mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, by lamely insisting, “He’s better than his father.”

Now, as the “first black president” almost daily moves further to the right, I’m still usually alone, but I am beginning to feel a tiny pulse on the liberal end of the spectrum. It began in June with Obama’s fake withdrawal from Afghanistan and from an unlikely source. If Obama worship was once epidemic in the U.S., it was virulent in Britain and France. But here was an Englishwoman, Jemima Khan, better known for her glamorous looks and ex-husband than her political writing, finally calling out Obama on his outrageous doubletalk.

“Alhamdullilah!” (Arabic for “Praise to God”), she wrote in Britain’s Independent newspaper. “President Obama is finally withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Except he’s not — only those he deployed in the ‘surge’ of 2009; 68,000 will remain, double the number sent by his predecessor, George Bush.” Khan knows something about Middle Eastern and Islamic politics, having lived for years in Pakistan with Imran Kahn, an opposition politician and former cricket star. And she got to the heart of the matter about America’s mad, counterproductive occupation of Afghanistan. Noting that U.S. drone bombs had killed roughly one al-Qaida leader for every 10 Pakistani civilians, she wrote, “There comes a point when you have to ask: What is more dangerous, terrorism or counter-terrorism? The irony of the ‘war on terror’ is that the U.S. can win it only when it stops fighting it.”

Now, she lamented, many Pakistanis hate America at the same time that the war’s supposed objective — says Obama, “to defeat al-Qaida” — has been shredded. As the astute Khan pointed out, “more safe havens exist and terrorists operate now outside of Afghanistan, from Peshawar to Sanaa.”


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Granted this was only one column in one Western paper. But Obama soon angered a broader audience. His concessions to the Tea Party during the debt-ceiling fight at last roused economist and columnist Paul Krugman to near-fury in The New York Times. Calling the deal “a disaster” for the economy, he slammed Obama for “folding” in the face of “blackmail.” Krugman said: “He surrendered last December, extending the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a pattern here.”

Even the deeply conflicted Nation magazine began to remark on Obama’s increasingly spurious liberal credentials, though not quite with its full-throated institutional voice. In a signed “comment,” the estimable William Greider argued that “people who adhere to the core Democratic values Obama has abandoned need a strategy for stronger resistance,” which “would not mean running away from Obama but running at him — challenging his leadership of the party, mobilizing dissident voices and voters, pushing congressional Democrats to embrace a progressive agenda in competition with Obama’s.”

Perhaps Greider had heard the apparently impromptu statement of Rep. John Conyers (D.-Mich.) at a press conference on July 27 during the debt-ceiling battle: “I say we have to educate the American people at the same time as we educate the president of the United States. Because the Republicans, Speaker [John] Boehner [and] Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor, did not call for Social Security cuts in the budget deal. The president of the United States called for that. And my response to him is to mass thousands of people in front of the White House to protest this.” And Conyers hadn’t yet heard the president’s Sept. 8 “jobs” speech in which he called for “modest adjustments to health-care programs like Medicare and Medicaid.” We can just imagine how modest.

Things died down a little in August after the “compromise” to lift the debt ceiling. But Obama just won’t stop insulting liberals; indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any concession to the right that his chief of staff, Chicago’s first brother William Daley, can’t persuade him to make. On Sept. 2, Obama stuck it to the liberals once again when he said he was backing off from a stricter air-pollution standard, supposedly to save jobs. Environmentalists were predictably upset and expressed their feelings of betrayal. The journalist and activist Bill McKibben called the decision “flabbergasting,” adding, “somehow we need to get back the president we thought we elected in 2008.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I see a pattern here.

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for the New York Times, United Press International, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Under his stewardship, Harper's has received eighteen National Magazine Awards, the industry's highest recognition. He is also the author of the acclaimed books "The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible" (2012), "The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy" (2001), and "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War" (2004). He lives in New York City.

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