Sunday, September 7, 2014

Evaluating President Obama on tough decisions

A critique we Obamabots often get thrown at us is that we never disagree with the President. The assumption that usually follows is that we revere the man over his positions. I've thought long and hard about that one because it is rare that I outright disagree with something President Obama has done. But the reason for that goes MUCH deeper than the idea that I am a "blind supporter."

In the past both POTUS and FLOTUS have pointed out that problems with simple (unambiguous) solutions rarely reach the president's desk. If there is an obvious answer, it is handled long before it gets to him. Therefore, anyone in that office spends their time on complex issues that don't lend themselves to simple right/wrong options.

Given that, I am reminded of what Professor Obama taught his law students.
But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.
Once President Obama has made a decision, all of those "unintended consequences" become the focus of the debate. On the other hand, not many people spend time identifying the unintended consequences of the options he rejected.

You can chose any number of scenarios to see how this plays out. One example would be the call he made early on in his presidency to "look forward instead of back" by not opening up a prosecutorial investigation into Bush/Cheney complicity in torture. Lots of people on the left assume that the unintended consequence is that future administrations will feel free to torture. But they rarely think about what the consequences of prosecuting an immediate predecessor would have been as the country careened towards another Great Depression and was engaged in two wars. Either way the President went, his critics would have had a field day - with some justification on both sides.

This is why its so important that we have a president who carefully listens to opposing views and then works their way through the options thoughtfully rather than simply go with his "gut" (as our previous president so often did). Doing that means taking a realistic look at what the unintended consequences are likely to be and choosing a course that limits them as much as possible. It also requires that the president is clear about a North Star so that both the action and its consequences can be weighed against an overarching imperative.

I almost never embrace the purist's tendency to simply say, "President Obama is wrong." While I can identify the unintended consequences of his choice (yes, drone strikes have killed innocent civilians), I'm also interested in what unintended consequences were avoided by the decision he made (were lives saved by killing al Qaeda leaders and/or were fewer civilians killed than if we'd sent in ground troops?) Because the latter can only be imagined rather than lived, they are less concrete. But they must still be weighed to the best of our ability.

So in the end, the reason I almost always agree with President Obama is not simply because I trust the man. Its because I share his North Star and trust his process. I recognize that we have to live in the world as it is rather than as we want it to be.


  1. It is so sad in this country we have such a lazy electorate who do little to no research and believe the "indecisive Obama" mantra. This is a man who thinks through the consequences of his action, and the pundits still waste their time with John McCain or the neo-cons who brought this mess upon us. I stand with Pres Obama, too.

  2. Nicely thought out, Nancy. Unintended consequences is something the emo crowd doesn't even appear to be capable of doing. They want their pound of flesh and flagrant use of the bully pulpit so they can get their jollies. It's sport to them. They want simple and vengeance. I'm very grateful the President doesn't give them a moment's thought.

  3. To use a term from STAR TREK, President Obama's critics engage in "two-dimensional" thinking. It's a form of tunnel vision.

    I have not been in agreement with everything President Obama has said or done, but I TRUST him because I know he will consider the consequences of his decisions. That isn't enough for his critics on the Far Right or the Far Left, but as far as I'm concerned, they can't see the forest for the trees.