Paul Krugman's Indefensible Defense of Barack Obama

Readers of Rolling Stone magazine have long known what to expect from the biweekly's acidulous commentaries: anarchist screeds from the rather unbalanced Matt Taibbi; thinly researched and often specious investigative pieces from Tim Dickinson;  alarmist jeremiads from environmentalist hound dog Jeff Goodell and apoplectic harangues against Republicans, Tea Party groups, and anyone else who espouses a right of center cause. 

Now comes an article by Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, which is proudly announced as a defense of Barack Obama. Not content with actually defending Obama's record, Krugman, in the body of his article, goes a step further to announce: "Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history."

Hmm. Pretty bold stuff. After all, this would have Barack Obama one day sipping martinis and chomping cigars with some of the greatest icons of American history. 

But can Barack Obama truly be spoken of in the same breath as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln?

Perhaps someone, some day, will find it so, but that is not an analysis you could take away from the words actually written by Krugman. What you would discover instead is that Barack Obama is a middling president who did the best he could with the cards he was played; that he was buffeted by an uncooperative Congress but that he passed revolutionary health care reform legislation anyway -- a remarkable success which will leave a lasting imprint on the nation. Then, after a cursory examination of the President's record on financial reform, the economy, the environment, national security, and social change he concludes, almost with a sigh, that "the extent of his partial success ranges from the pretty good to the not-so-bad to the ugly." In other words, although the president might have received an overall "C" on his report card, it was really not as bad a presidency as it could have been and he must at least get points for trying. Not exactly the exalted encomium we had been expecting but, hey, this is Paul Krugman -- and when this modern-day Oracle declares you mediocre perhaps it actually means you are destined for greatness. 

No one should mistake Krugman for an objective observer -- although he has indeed been highly critical of the president in the past, mostly for not being radical enough!  But that doesn't excuse or explain the crassness of this particular contribution or give anyone confidence that the president is destined to be remembered as the savior of his people.

For now, let’s bare the truth on this truly execrable piece of writing: that it is so amatuerishly written that it could have been cobbled together by a high-school student with only a rudimentary understanding of the economics, environmental policy and the social dynamics of a highly complex nation; that its very self-impressed author fails entirely to address foreign relations, where Obama's meandering policies have resulted in disaster upon disaster; that he significantly sidesteps the rise of Islamic terrorism in places where the president only 24 months  before had declared it snuffed out; that he refuses to engage in any discussion of  the mounting scandals -- the Benghazi sacrifice of an ambassador; the IRS debacle, wherein one of the most important public institutions in the country was thoroughly corrupted by politics; or the Fast and Furious campaign, which placed American firearms in the hands of terrorists and gangsters. Also absent from the pen of our Nobel laureate is any commentary on the enormous expansion of executive power which has torn a deep unconstitutional gash in the fabric of  government. Nothing, too, on the administration's failure  to address our collapsed border and the threat this poses to millions of citizens in our southern states. Or on our ballooning national debt -- four times the size it stood under George W. Bush; or on immigration, race relations and out-of-control tortious litigation -- which have all taken a turn for the worse during the past six years. And finally, no word on Obama's grandest promise of them all -- that he was going to become a consensus president, bridging differences between left and right, black and white, rich and poor, and that he would exercise his well-honed skills in the arts of persuasion.

These are all missing because Krugman reveals himself to be quite uninterested in any of them. For the author, "high office shouldn't be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the country for the better."

Ah, there it is: The raw, thumping heart of liberal orthodoxy. The idea of changing the country, of converting it into something different, something purer and something approximating that great utopian vision of armchair socialists over the centuries, drips through Krugman's analysis, making it abundantly clear why he avoids uncomfortable topics. For Krugman, an economically equitable society, drained of all prejudice and bigotry, where man pays obeisance to Nature and where its abundant resources are distributed equally amongst the world's citizens, should apparently be the goal of our presidents. Open borders, multilateralism, military retrenchment, the punishment of successful entrepreneurs, pan-sexuality,  the coddling of tyrants and campaigns to end the expansion of land use or the excavation of fossil fuels -- are all elements that might fit snugly into such a vision. 

One wonders how the three presidents with whom our current chief executive will one day (in Krugman's estimation) share the same pantheon might have reacted to the mandate to "change the country." Washington, after all, fought to establish it, Jefferson worked to consolidate it, and Lincoln struggled to save it -- all worthy enough endeavors for any president. Changing the country, one would think, requires a level of consensus building coupled with a consistent articulation of a shared vision -- skills that even our finest presidents have experienced some difficulty in mastering. Abraham Lincoln, after all, did not begin his presidency with the idea of outlawing slavery. He deflected the issue, fearful of its incendiary potential -- and was only led to it by the realization that his nation could not survive without that institution's eradication. His genius as a leader was to tap into the vein of righteousness within the citizenry and to pump that rich resource for all its corpuscular abundance into the heated campaign which produced the Emancipation Proclamation.

Barack Obama, in contrast, has never cast himself as a president who cares all that much about what the citizenry, at its very bedrock, either thinks or feels. He is actually one of the most insular presidents in living memory, whose policies and decisions have been largely driven by superficial poll numbers and a creaking, weathered leftist ideology rather than an instinctive grip on the nation's pulse. Images of the president's aloofness are so plentiful as to be embarrassing: the presidential motorcade, speeding through the arterial roads of our major cities, delivering the Commander-in-Chief to yet another fundraising event; the photographed fist bump with golfing buddies  just moments after delivering a particularly somber response to the beheading of an American journalist; the constant hobnobbing with the glitterati who gush over his every pronouncement;  and of course the maintenance of a very deliberate distance from  the members of Congress, whom he seems to regard with a singular contempt. The best that might be said of his feel for the American people is his familiarity with national sports as well as an impressive knowledge of the plot lines of such cable TV series as “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad”. The demonstration o that kind of indifference and languor puts him in league with such 1850s presidents as Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, both of whom would undoubtedly welcome him to their lonely outposts as the presidents, who like Sergeant Schultz in “Hogan's Heroes”, both knew nothing and saw nothing.

At his two inaugurations, Barack Obama took an oath of office specified in Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight of the United States Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

How different would Krugman's assessment have been had he used that oath to measure Barack Obama's presidential performance? Maybe the author will soon recognize the empty spaces he left so glaringly open on the pages of his article and submit a more nuanced view of this presidency. Unlikely, perhaps. But if and when this revised version ever sees the light of day, the last place you can expect to find it is in the glossy, celebrity filled pages of Rolling Stone Magazine.  

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and blogs at The Intermediate Zone

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