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Rating Obama

TNR asks prominent intellectuals where they stand on the president.

Almost exactly three years ago, as the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was splitting the Democratic Party in half, we asked a group of eggheads and eminences—mostly liberals—to write short essays for the magazine announcing who they would support in the 2008 election. Now, with President Obama’s popularity suffering and many of his supporters expressing frustration with his administration, we thought it would be worthwhile to return to the same group and ask: Do they stand by their endorsements from three years ago? (Compiled by Eliza Gray)

Paul Berman is the author of The Flight of the Intellectuals.

I endorsed Hillary Clinton back in 2008, and I regret it. I had imagined that, if she won, she would fill the White House and key positions with crafty old Clintonians, and they would maneuver shrewdly enough. But look what has happened. The White House, not to mention the top slot at the State Department, has indeed been staffed by crafty Clintonians. And the results seem too crafty by half—a mix of small successes and large semi-failures.

In business matters: an opportunity bungled—a chance to steer American economic policy in a fundamentally different direction, and not just to impose some transitional emergency measures. In foreign affairs: a policy of trying not to be hated, which has meant a piping down on human rights. An abandonment of our truest friends, the liberals, in the Arab world and Iran. A failure to explain what America would ultimately like to achieve in the various theaters of the military war.

Government by wily Clintonians has turned out to be a government of blinkered “realism.” I am abashed. Two years ago, Obama seemed to me insufficiently experienced. He has had time, though. I endorse him today. Let the Obama administration begin! An administration, I mean, that knows how to lift its eyes above the lowly footpath.

I recognize that, in domestic matters, the opportunity has been lost for reforms on a grander scale than Obama has already achieved. (Still, I applaud the achievements. Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal may have been grander yet, but the existing one is good enough. Not for nothing do I endorse Barack Obama for president.) But now that people no longer mutter in their soup about George W. Bush, hasn’t the time arrived to speak up audibly about human rights? And about mad ideologies and their influence in several parts of the world? An Obama administration might even discover that a policy of democratic solidarity would, in the long run, confer practical benefits.

(Next: Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, who supported Clinton.)

Alan Dershowitz is a professor at Harvard Law School.

I continue to support President Obama with regard to most of his domestic policies, and I applaud his recent legislative successes, especially with regard to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

I worry about his foreign policy, particularly with regard to Iran. It is foolish and counterproductive to take any option off the table, and it appears that outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking for the Obama Administration, has done just that with regard to the military option. Iran certainly believes that this is the case. The Obama Administration should commit itself unequivocally to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. As President Obama has himself repeatedly said, a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer.” It would undercut President Obama’s goal of nonproliferation. It would stimulate the greatest arms race in modern history. It would end any possibility of real peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And it would dramatically increase the risks of terrorism, including nuclear terrorism, to America and its allies.

Iran must clearly receive the message that its efforts to develop nuclear weapons are futile, since the United States would do whatever it took to prevent that eventuality. I fear that if Iran does develop nuclear weapons on President Obama’s watch, history will treat him more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill, for failing to prevent the greatest threat to peace in our generation.

(Next: Author Todd Gitlin, who “teetered” between Obama and Clinton.)

Todd Gitlin is co-author of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election

Most of what has kept Obama from realizing his maximum potential would have kept Hillary Clinton from realizing hers. I refer, of course, to the Republican Party in company with very big money, availing themselves of an archaic Senate structure, anti-majoritarian rules, the Supremes’ recent plutocratic ruling in Citizens United, and so on. Would Hillary have fought more effectively against a dead-ended Afghanistan re-up, against bloated military spending, against torture, against extending the Bush tax cuts for the plutocracy, for prosecution of the irresponsibles who wrecked the global financial system? I doubt it. So I have no regrets. Health care reform (compromises and all), the repeal of DADT, Senate passage of New Start, all lift my heart.

That said, I’m surprised most of all that Obama proved so lame as narrator, explainer, and mobilizer. His tactical errors in the inside game (letting Max Baucus flirt with Charles Grassley during the summer of 09, playing footsy with Alan Simpson, and so on) pale in comparison to the strategic failures of his outside game—losing initiative to the Tea Party, letting young voters go back to sleep, and failing to explain, again and again, why unemployment is stuck around 10 percent, why the rust belt is rusting, how berserk finance capital got away with murder, and so on. Compromise was and is necessary, but intellectual surrender isn’t. My advice: explain, explain, explain. Be the professor you are. Go public. Profess.

(Next: Author Erica Jong, who voted for Obama but sympathized with Clinton.)

Erica Jong is the author of Fear of Flying.

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and I am not sorry, but I do understand better than ever how complex and difficult the job of president is.

Obama tried valiantly to cope with a great recession caused by GOP excesses. I wish he had appointed Paul Krugman as his economic adviser rather than Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, but I believe his desire to help the American people was sincere. He kept his promise to reform health care—something no other president was able to initiate in a century. He fought for the Start Treaty and publicized the need for a diminution of nukes. He attempted to shut down Bush’s misadventure in Iraq—which claimed so much treasure and so many lives, both civilian and military.

Where I most disagree with Obama is concerning the war in Afghanistan. I don’t believe the United States can continue to police the world and also create an educated, healthy population. Our war spending is bleeding us dry. We have done exactly what Dwight Eisenhower warned us against: allowed the military industrial complex to rule our country. I wish Barack Obama could lead the way in reversing this waste of life and money. Our exorbitant war machine is causing us to fall behind other nations in education, health care, and innovation. I look to Obama to be a peace rather than a war president. I also wonder whether any president is independent enough of the war machine to lead the way in making peace. 

(Next: Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, who supported Obama.)

Randall Kennedy is a Professor at Harvard Law School and the author of the forthcoming book The Persistent Color Line: On Race and the Obama Presidency.  

I continue to support Barack Obama. There is no politician available who is as electable and similarly progressive. Obama is personally appealing in many respects: intelligent, thoughtful, patient, calm, gracious, eloquent. He has not pushed as hard to the left as I had hoped that he would. He seems to appreciate too little that a political leader can sometimes win in the long run by advancing a position or an appointment that loses in the short run. President Ronald Reagan lost the battle over Robert Bork. But in waging that struggle for judicial conservatism, Reagan won a larger battle by showing fidelity to principle and loyalty to supporters. Like President Bill Clinton, President Obama has a regrettable tendency to propitiate enemies while abandoning allies.

The obstacles to a more progressive politics, however, are far larger than the shortcomings of any one person. These obstacles include a deeply flawed Constitution, the hegemony of Wall Street, widespread strains of bigotry, and defective institutions of popular education
most importantly public schools and the Fourth Estatethat play an important role in creating or perpetuating the appalling ignorance of the American electorate. Eric Alterman is correct when he argues that, given the entrenched and interlocking impediments that confront liberal reformism, a presidency capable of delivering upon a truly progressive agenda may well be impossible for now.

Under the circumstances, we are lucky to have Obama at the top.

(Next: Writer John McWhorter, who supported Obama.)

John McWhorter is the William T. Simon Fellow at Columbia University and author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

It seems only yesterday to me that the good word on Barack Obama was that he, with his cerebral ability to consider all sides of an issue and muttly heritage, was going to bring America together. That, to me, meant that what we would see from him would be compromises, which would elate no one but be much better than nothing. The “Yes, We Can” routine, implying that Obama would create a new New Deal, was something quite different and always struck me as heartening theatre, but only that.

And here we are. I am baffled as to how Hillary Clinton would have done better. She is no more charming and no warmer than Obama, and both fall at the same distance from the combination of whiteness and maleness. We’d be just where we are now, except the chatter would be about whether Clinton ‘s gender had anything to do with how disappointed people were in her.

I suppose I’d be interested in watching Obama, in the wake of the roasting he is taking of late, drawing some real lines in the sand. But, if the result is the stasis that I suspect Obama has rightly feared, then I will be equally interested in his current detractors admitting that the main problem lies with the Republicans’ know-nothing intransigence—or presenting, as they usually have not, rather incontrovertible scenarios as to precisely what lines in the sand could have led to more fruitful result.

(Next: Pulitzer prizewinning poet C.K. Williams, who supported Obama.)

C.K. Williams is a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. He teaches at Princeton.

I wrote two different TNR statements, and both were rejected by my first reader, my wife, Catherine. Too sad, she said. You can’t let them make you so sad. Then she went on, really imposing her own vision on me: You’re not sad anyway, you’re angry. So, American politics becomes in our family an epistemological question.     

In one of my statements I described the vituperative, all but overt racism towards Obama in the Republican rhetoric, and their tactics, which embody the old Southern strategy squared.   

In the other, I opined that the right has a plan, which is to turn us into them. Us into Them. They want everyone not just to believe them, but be them. That is, they want us to despise as they do those unlike us, the stranger, the poor, the afflicted, the ill. They want to be certain nothing is given for nothing to anybody but them.  

Both statements made me sad to write, thinking about them after I talked to Catherine, made me, still makes me, angry.

Sometimes I think I might just be getting too old for all this. Maybe I’ve seen too much in my long life. Too much stupidity, too many lies. Has there ever been more evident stupidity, more blatant lying?  

Still, somewhere between sadness and anger, stupidity and lies, there’s that utterly unreasonable thing humans call Hope. I like to think somewhere it’s still there. Somewhere still there.

(Next: Political Scientist Alan Wolfe, who supported Obama.)

Alan Wolfe is a political scientist at Boston College and author of The Future of Liberalism.

In the broadest sense, I’m glad we have President Obama. As a policy president, I would grade President Obama an A, and as a rhetorical president a C-, but that is the opposite of what I anticipated. I thought we desperately needed rhetoric, and by rhetoric I mean a beautifully crafted intellectual defense of liberalism, which would show why liberalism is a great political philosophy and shame the nihilist form of conservatism that has emerged in this county. I thought that he would be like Lincoln and that his speeches would be seared into our minds. I think rhetoric is important, and so I am disappointed that he hasn’t done that. But, at the same time, the amount of legislative victory he’s gotten in a pretty conservative country is astonishing; his performance in getting the recession under control is extraordinary; and his patience with Republicans who would do anything in their power to destroy him is superhuman. I think in order to get policy done, you need that patience.