David R. Henderson  

Is David Brooks Right about Obama?

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UPDATE BELOW

I tend not to read David Brooks's columns in the New York Times because they have never impressed me. So I wouldn't have bothered commenting on his recent column were it not for the fact that someone I do generally respect, Tyler Cowen, stated that he agreed with the column. In particular, Tyler wrote:

I agree with this David Brooks column on Obama.

That caused me to read the column.

There are so many assertions in the Brooks column that taking them all on would take a long post. So I want to focus on two assertions.

Brooks writes:

The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.

Integrity? Really? In his State of the Union address, Obama attacked the Supreme Court justices sitting in front of him for their defense of free speech, when they could do or say nothing to defend themselves. That's not integrity.

But that's not the worst. Among the worst is his administration's use of the Internal Revenue Service to go after Tea Party groups. After claiming in May 2013 that any IRS targeting of political groups, if true, was outrageous and that he would hold the relevant people accountable, he has not. Lois Lerner has not been charged. That's a scandal. It's true that the scandal did not swallow years from Obama. Is the relevant criterion for a scandal whether it uses up a president's years or whether the president's employees use their discretionary power to go after political scandals? If the former, then a president can avoid a scandal by being evasive and shifting the topic, as Obama has done. That's not integrity, by the way.

Brooks writes:

Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people's eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

Notice what Brooks doesn't write about: the fact that Obama kept his pledge not to put more Muslims at Guantanamo by, instead, killing them with drones. Obama even has a kill list. I'm guessing that Brooks actually reads the New York Times. So he can't claim not to know about what New York Times reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane have written about the kill list.

Obama can look into Muslim Americans' eyes all he wants. That is nothing compared to his murderous actions in the Middle East.

HT2 Arnold Kling.

UPDATE:
I probably assumed more knowledge on the part of the reader than I should have. A long-time friend called and told me that Obama is focusing his killing on known terrorists. Not quite. Here's a quote from the New York Times article on the kill list:

It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Having one's innocence proved "posthumously" is, of course, useless.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy




COMMENTS (15 to date)
MG writes:

Your post improves on Arnold's. I would go further. I think Michael Cannon gets it exactly right. Not only does he disagree with Brook's claims, but he raises an issue Brooks seems to be completely unaware of.

http://www.cato.org/blog/how-david-brooks-created-donald-trump

Every time one of Obama's psycophants praise him as a mild mannered, pragmatic statesman, they don't just engage in hyperbole -- they rub salt in the wound of the many who see themselves at the receiving end of his actions and his words. That he has focused most of this disdain and disrespect on people we used to call "fellow Americans" (among whom he sees his most of his "real enemies") may occasionally endear him to some Libertarians, but this only adds insult to injury to those who now feel alienated.

Jack PQ writes:

David Brooks is effectively saying about Pres. Obama, "Hey, it could have been worse." That's not exactly reassuring. And we should expect more from our elected leaders.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Does David Brooks know David Brooks?

MikeDC writes:

It seems to me that whether almost any presidential action turns into a "scandal" or not depends on how the media portrays it. Simply put, the bar is a lot higher for Democrats.

And... it seems to me that there's a level of actions that falls below a scandal but are still inimical to fair and legal government. Obama seems to be really good at hitting this sweet spot. Beyond the issues David mentioned, there's also:

* The questionable passing of Obamacare despite the freaking state of Massachusetts actually electing a Republican Senator to stop it.

* More or less unilaterally waging war on several different governments (Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc).

* Basically covering up the fact that the VA is a travesty. This us underrated as the President drives our health care system more to this sort of model. It gives the sense that if outcomes aren't good, it'll just be covered up and we won't even have an ability to judge what our government is doing.

* Selective enforcement of immigration laws. Even if you're pro-immigration, you shouldn't be pro-selective enforcement. It undercuts both democracy and the idea of limited government.

Granite26 writes:

I'm not convinced that your quote, conveying a cavalier attitude towards civilian casualties in strikes, proves that he isn't focusing on known terrorists.

Damned by faint praise, and all that.

Khodge writes:

Thanks for this post. I was stunned when I read Brook's column. Had I totally misunderstood every thing that happened, politically, in the last seven years?

Jay writes:

I know its largely been politicized past the point of normal people caring, but had Benghazi occurred during a different side of the aisle's administration it would definitely have made the scandal list.

Phil writes:
Integrity? Really? In his State of the Union address, Obama attacked the Supreme Court justices sitting in front of him for their defense of free speech, when they could do or say nothing to defend themselves. That's not integrity.

I think that is a rather poor example. That episode is best described as the inter-branch feuding that the founders designed into the Constitution. When the President does not like the policies espoused by the other branches, it is fair game to raise the issue, especially in a major policy speech like the State of the Union address. To not raise the issue of campaign finance reform in such a forum would be a lack of integrity.

Jay writes:

I'm surprised Brook's Trump comment passed muster thus far. Has Trump really spent all that much time trying to block their immigration? To my knowledge he was responding to a question and many there after for the next couple days during the refugee crisis but hasn't campaigned on it all too much.

Nathan W writes:

"Integrity? ... That's not integrity."

Seriously? An 8 year presidency in the most powerful country in the history of the planet, and this is the first scandal that comes to mind? I could name 100 countries that would feel blessed to be in a situation where this even make the list of the top 100. Also, can you please relieve me of my ignorance ... which "defense of free speech" are you referring to? Obama may have had very legitimate reasons in levelling this critique, regardless of whether you agree with his disagreement. In my books, there is no reasons that would should expect politicians to refrain from disagreeing with court decisions (you know, free speech and all, which you are very concerned about), so long as they unambiguously accept the word of the court as final.

On Tea Party groups.

I highlight the "if true" part. Has it ever crossed your mind that there are more politically active "charities" on the right wing than the left? A priori, I would have expected this is true, because the left wing tends to be a lot more concerned with issues which are more related to charitable issues than the right. For example, when's the last time you heard of a right wing organization working on poverty, access to education, HIV, or a whole host of things which are basically related to charitable endeavours.

While I would be deeply troubled that Obama would not take action if the worst portrayals of the situation are essentially true, I am skeptical, because there is nothing at all stopping anyone else from pressing the case in the courts. Given the number of people who would deeply love to have a conclusive legal findings which made Obama or the Democrats look bad, I am predisposed to conclude that, upon closer reflection and planning to put lot of time and reputation into the project, that they find that the anti-Obama case simply isn't as open and shut as some would make it out to be. Also, right wing organizations may be abstaining from pursuing this in the courts because the end effect would be to draw attention to the absurd level of political activity on the right covered under "charitable" status (an ignorant opinion, but I expect this is the case).

This is rather different from the case of Canada, where environmental charities were broadly targeted by Harper (outright denied, despite language in related legislation and discussions of "foreign intrusion" into Canadian issues which made it patently clear to non-partisans that this was absolutely the case), where it seems that just about every major left wing charity in the country came under major scrutiny, whereas it seems that essentially zero right wing organizations received any additional scrutiny under the Harperites.

"Obama kept his pledge not to put more Muslims at Guantanamo by, instead, killing them with drones"

I hadn't realized you were so patently anti-Obama. I disagree with Guantanamo and find the use of drones very troubling. But realistically, the alternative to drones was riskier military strategies, not Guantanamo. The fact that Obama is plying peace with non-extremist Muslims (the vast majority) while using military force against violent extremists, is not a sign of incongruity unless you are predisposed to find it.

On military age combatants and civilian casualty counts.

I would consider this to be more scandalous than anything else you mentioned. That is disgusting. Every time I read "X number military age men died" or "there are X number military age men" somewhere I am disgusted.

If you are in a situation where every military age man should be considered as a non-civilian, then it is time to give up on the word "terrorist" and accept that there are legitimate grievances leading them into the fray.

I respect a lot of what you have to say about a lot of things. And I would like to emphasize that. I really enjoy some of the perspectives you provide. But after this post, in any issue of obvious partisan relevance, I can only reasonably assume that partisanship is quite likely to be clouding your judgment (wake up?).

Starting a war that kills a million people based on lies is a scandal. Inferring that Muslims are, in general, terrorists, is both scandalous and stupid in that it drives a wedge between America and peoples who presumably it might like to be on good terms with.

But expressing disagreement with a court judgment and the fact of somewhat more right wing charities losing status than left wing ones? In a n8 year presidency in the most powerful country in the history of the planet? Let's build a statue if that's what you're grasping at!

Did you have a lot to say about the million dead Iraqis after the WMD lines were "posthumously" found to be a load of horse manure? I mean, I'm pretty sure that just about everyone was pretty sure they were talking about nukes, no? I mean, wasn't the report that "legitimized" the attack related to yellowcake? The stuff they found, however, biological weapons, was the same as stuff that Americans has previously sold to Saddam. What kind of country sells someone a weapon, and then later invades them on the premise of having that very weapon? The fact of finding those biological weapons and claiming it as vindication that there WERE WMDs ... wow, people decades from now will still be wondering how GWB escaped prison for that one (we might remind them that the USA has lots of guns and they are very large guns).

I identify the over-selling of Obamacare as the most scandalous thing of his presidency. He said no one's premiums would go up, and that was an outrageous lie, and as president of the USA he should have known that at the time.

Nathan W writes:

MikeDC - "the bar is a lot higher for Democrats"

For example? How critical was the media of GWB after it was found that his war which killed millions was based on lies? I daresay, less critical than many outlets are of Clinton's choice of email servers. And yet, you suggest the media sets the bar for "scandal" higher for Democrats? Can you name a single scandal that the media made a big deal out of under either of the previous two Republican presidents?

"More or less unilaterally waging war on several different governments (Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc)"
- The Libya strikes did not commence strikes until the Arab League gave its approval. Moreover, several NATO members participated in the bombing. I think it was a really made move, given that it should have been seen as obvious that, sans Ghadaffi, things would fall apart and with effects spreading to other countries. But this was not at all unilateral.
- Syria is not a unilateral situation either. You might like to read up more on the coterie of countries involved in the Syria conflict. Meanwhile, the USA is not directly involved in anti-regime efforts.
- Yemen - US is providing the weapons, not waging war. I personally don't see much distinction between the two, but convention has that there's a huge difference between dropping bombs on people and selling bombs to people who wlil.

Jay - "had Benghazi occurred during a different side of the aisle's administration it would definitely have made the scandal list"

What planet are you living on? Congress spent more time grilling Clinton on this than the grand sum of all time Congress spent on hearings related to 9-11 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/benghazi-committee-hillary_56292597e4b0aac0b8fc14ef?utm_hp_ref=canada&ir=Canada§ion=canada&adsSiteOverride=ca). The right wing media desperately tried to make a scandal of this, over and over and over again, for years on end, and persists on it. A movie was made about it. Clinton has faced more scrutiny over emails and Benghazi than Bush faced for starting a war based on lies that killed a million people. And you think the tables are turned the wrong way in the opposite direction?

"Basically covering up the fact that the VA is a travesty."

Is that something new? Why are you pinning it on Obama? It may be disappointing that he didn't do much, but it's hardly a "scandal" that he failed to do something that no one else has done something about for a very long time.

"Selective enforcement of immigration laws."

See previous counterargument.

Nathan W writes:

Phil - "To not raise the issue of campaign finance reform in such a forum would be a lack of integrity. "

Probably one of the most scandalous things in the entire country. It is a strong indictment on the level of legalized corruption in BOTH parties that essentially no one is speaking of this. Except for Sanders.

What is scandalous is not that Obama is doing nothing about it, but that NO ONE is doing anything about it.

Nathan W writes:

[Several additional comments withheld. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Jay writes:

@ Nathon W

What planet are you living on? Congress spent more time grilling Clinton on this than the grand sum of all time Congress spent on hearings related to 9-11 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/benghazi-committee-hillary_56292597e4b0aac0b8fc14ef?utm_hp_ref=canada&ir=Canada┬žion=canada&adsSiteOverride=ca). The right wing media desperately tried to make a scandal of this, over and over and over again, for years on end, and persists on it. A movie was made about it. Clinton has faced more scrutiny over emails and Benghazi than Bush faced for starting a war based on lies that killed a million people. And you think the tables are turned the wrong way in the opposite direction?

What does 9-11 have anything to do with it, there was no real scandal there for Congress to focus on, most of them voted for it right along with the administration. You said it yourself, congress and the right-wing media spent time on it but nobody else really does which goes for the e-mails as well. Scandals are all about coverage and perception and when people say the bar is higher for one side or the other that is what they mean.

Can you name a single scandal that the media made a big deal out of under either of the previous two Republican presidents?

Most recently the Chris Christie bridge "scandal" comes to mind. If you think the media treated W fairly during or after his presidency then it is really your posts that drip with partisanship.

Dain writes:

Obama's unwillingness to describe that Paris kosher market attack as anti-Semitic and instead as "random" is also a blight on his record. It seems sending positive vibes toward one group (Muslims) means sending negative vibes toward another...

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