Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Even when I agree with Glenn Greenwald, I find myself disagreeing with him. Today, in response to this Matt Yglesias post, which argues that progressives have to acknowledge the unfortunate popularity of terrorism policies that infringe on civil liberties, Greenwald argues that this is just pro-Obama excuse-making -- why can't the president use his bully pulpit to try to alter public opinion?

Presidents have numerous tools for influencing public opinion, and Obama has used none for the purpose of fortifying support for the new Terrorism policies he vowed during the campaign to pursue. He's actually done the opposite: by advocating for the continuation of so many Bush/Cheney policies, he's weakened opposition to that approach. In that regard, Matt has it backward: Obama isn't following public opinion on these questions; public opinion is following Obama.

I'm with Greenwald up to the end of that. He's absolutely right that Obama could be trying to make a persuasive case for reversing Bush-era civil liberties assaults; he's absolutely right that Obama could have far better policies. But he's wrong when he says that public opinion is following Obama. It isn't. It's following the loudest voices, namely the Republicans.

Here's Greenwald's view of how this works:

When a party occupies the Oval Office, its position is determined almost exclusively by the President and his administration. Here, Republicans have been vehement in their demand for the continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies. Because the Obama White House has largely been unwilling to engage that debate, and has often affirmatively endorsed the Republicans' central claims, there has been no real "debate" on these issues.

Actually, Republicans haven't "been vehement in their demand for the continuation of Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies" -- they now want more than Bush/Cheney terrorism policies. They've actively upped the ante, insisting that Obama withhold Miranda warnings (which were fine under Bush) and demanding that Gitmo remain open (even though Bush ultimately said it should it be closed, as did candidate McCain in 2008). And there has been a debate on these issues -- it's between the GOP and a straw-man version of Obama, one who doesn't take terrorism seriously and is treasonously endangering the nation. Moreover, Republicans have used every Islamicist attack, failed or otherwise, to divide the country in a way Democrats never did in the Bush years.

To Greenwald, all blame for the public's failure to embrace pro-civil liberties policies falls on Obama, or at least it has since Inauguration Day:

By embracing as his own many of the very policies he vowed to uproot, Obama has gutted the core of public opposition to those policies. Is it really a surprise, then, that public opinion on these questions has worsened under Obama [as but one example, compare the CNN poll on whether Guantanamo should be closed: before Obama's inauguration, a majority wanted the camp to be closed (51-47%); now, a year into Obama's presidency and yet another year removed from the 9/11 attacks, a large majority (60-39%) wants it to remain open]?

Clearly, to Greenwald, that's all Obama's fault -- Republicans' incessant invocation of Fort Hood and the underwear wannabomber and the Times Square wannabomber (as well as the notion of unspeakable peril if Gitmo prisoners are tried in U.S. courts or housed in U.S. supermaxes) has nothing whatsoever to do with the shift.

So, yeah, Greenwald's right when he says that Obama has been a real disappointment on these issues. But Republicans have been a disgrace. And Greenwald lets them off scot-free.

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