The Left’s Odd Abandoment of Obama: Glenn Greenwald


By Joe Campbell
December 16th, 2009

Whatever Charles Krauthammer or Rush Limbaugh may tell you, there is no evidence that Obama is secretly an extreme leftist. On the contrary, he both ran and has governed as a liberal. The various forces on from the left to the center-left rallied around him in 2008 though – seeing hope in his ascendancy. But like all presidents, Obama while campaigning in poetry now faces the challenge of governing in prose.

Yet what is remarkable is how fashionable it has become for respectable voices on the left to hyperventilate and rant against Obama, most often by equating him with George W. Bush. European leftists, unused to America’s slow-moving political system can be forgiven for not appreciating the scope of what Obama is attempting to do, and for the difficulties in doing it. But among mainstream American intellectuals to the left of center, this is harder to understand.*

Reacting to this anti-Obama sentiment on the left, which most often seems to embrace an hysterical tone more appropriate to spurned lovers than political supporters, Andrew Sullivan (who himself recently announced that he could no longer countenance being on the right-wing because what he sees as their odd rejection of Obama’s core conservatism) began to publish emails from readers purporting to “leave the left” because of this demonization of Obama. (In fairness, let me admit that this meme bothered me too: Andrew Sullivan decided to leave the right after every dissenting voice has already been purged. To leave the left over the rants of some of its prominent members is to overreact.)

Glenn Greenwald responded by doing what he does best: He distorted the opposition beyond recognition in order to make his case that they are wrong. He accused these critics of a veneration of Obama similar to the veneration of Bush and Palin among some on the right:

According to these defenders, it’s just wrong — morally, ethically and psychologically — to criticize the President. Thus, in lieu of any substantive engagement of these critiques are a slew of moronic Broderian cliches…Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. [my emphasis]

As always, Greenwald has an interesting point – and there is some subset of people who do take the view he is refuting. But it’s far from clear the commentors on Sullivan’s blog do. (Go ahead and read them.) More importantly, Greenwald’s reaction follows exact same emotional logic he is criticizing: Just as these readers of Andrew Sullivan’s blog have created a politically stereotyped parody of the Left based primarily on what bothers them, and react viscerally, emotionally to it, so Greenwald creates his own politically stereotyped parody of Obama defenders, which he then viscerally, emotionally reacts to.

Another good example of this came earlier this week, as Greenwald responded to his bête noire, Joe Klein:

Klein explained:

[S]ome of the best arguments about why this war is necessary must go unspoken by the President.

So there are deeply compelling reasons to escalate in Afghanistan.  But they’re secret.

Greenwald then goes on a rant about wars justified only by “secret reasons.” Being a fairly intelligent guy, Greenwald clearly knows the difference between things a President cannot say and “secrets” – but he elides this, even contradicts this common-sensical reading, because what his opponent is actually saying does not fit into the political stereotype that Greenwald wants to kick in the groin.

Let me step back again in fairness to Greenwald – who, let me emphasize, I often admire. The way I see it, there are two Glenn Greenwalds. One who will take a step back and observe that Obama is far better than the alternatives and who is able to fairly ascertain that Obama is not guilty of hypocrisy in escalating in Afghanistan and that he should not be blamed for failing to keep those promises he clearly has tried to keep like closing Guantanamo, and who fairly criticizes Obama for a range of issues ranging from Bagram to state secrets.

And then there is the Glenn Greenwald who likes to rant and throw tantrums. The second Greenwald paints the world in vivid colors that bear some resemblance to the more muted colors that my eyes see. The second Greenwald goes on, blithely ignorant of his own more reflective judgments, self-confident and self-satisfied, secure in the knowledge that he himself, merely a critic and holding no formal powers, is above reproach. This second Greenwald is still a useful addition to the political conversation, but in a marginal way.

At his best, Greenwald could be a polemicist, arguing against the conventional wisdom; but he lacks the audaciousness positioning that is the mark of a true polemicist. Too often, Greenwald becomes one of the many voices in our political chorus – a ranter, a talking head.

I would argue the one core principle that allows Greenwald to so often lapse into ranting is his view that: “Political leaders deserve support only to the extent that their actions, on a case-by-case basis, merit that support…” Thus it’s not quite fair to tar Greenwald as someone who abandoned Obama – as he never claimed to embrace Obama. Instead he rationally analyzed and decided to support certain discrete positions Obama took. This is the rationale. But it ignores the second Greenwald certainly who expresses a visceral, emotional distaste for Obama that seems at odds with this rational “case-by-case” analysis of Obama’s actions.

* To be clear, and to preempt attempts to write me off as a victim of Obamania, deluded by hope, I have seriously criticized Obama about Bagram (here and here), on the mere technocratic approach to serious issues (here and here), on his approach to state secrets, and I would endorse several other criticisms of the administration – specifically on their seeming reluctance to embrace what I see as clear principles in regulating the financial industry, on transparency issues, and regarding national security. But I do – at the same time appreciate that Obama is moving in the right direction on these issues – though not on the first two.

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