In writing about this administration, I notice vastly different reactions to President Obama. I think maybe it's time to assess him generally. You will draw your own conclusions. These are mine.
In many respects, he's not at all who I thought he was. I knew that he was a Chicago community organizer; that he moved in some of the same circles as Bill Ayers, formerly of the Weather Underground; that he belonged to Rev. Wright's church where they were very serious about racism. I thought these experiences might define him but, having watched him in action, now I don't. I think he was a somewhat committed tourist, not a native, like a rich kid who spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps. The experience is great and you learn important lessons and make friends but sooner or later you go home, and this world where the people around him suffered from constant deprivation and injustice wasn't his. He sticks up for the very poor but he tends to ignore racism and he seems to have little concept of the poverty of the middle class and working poor. He doesn't seem to get what it means to live in a country where the average person has three overdue bills.
He's a Harvard academic. Not in the same sense as Bill Clinton - Ivy League, yes, but he's no Rhodes Scholar. He doesn't have Clinton's insatiable curiosity which is, quite frankly, a pity. Nor, for that matter, did he have Clinton's administrative experience. He relies on his Ivy League network to deal with areas on which he doesn't have serious expertise. Unfortunately, one of those areas is money, and the connections he trusts define fiscal health in terms of banking health and the health of major corporations. This isn't surprising given that his grandmother was a banker.
He is not primarily driven by ideology though he has some liberal preferences. If he is driven by a single principle, that principle is conciliation - the idea that if you're good enough, you can work with almost anyone. (I suffer from some of that, though I'm far more ideological than he is.) His national reputation was based on a 2004 Democratic Convention speech in which he said we didn't have to demonize each other. That resonated so deeply that it basically got him elected President four years later.
There are two problems with making conciliation his top priority. The first is that he doesn't lead, because leading creates conflict. He'd rather try to get everyone to agree after someone else leads. Not leading doesn't give him the reputation of being someone driven by conscience. While I don't think he's really a cynic, I think in this respect he reaps what he sows. The second is that his timing was awful - he attempted to become a conciliator at a time when his opposition was anything but conciliatory. Usually the's a honeymoon period after an election but, more than any other President I've ever seen, he never got anything remotely resembling the benefit of the doubt. No one ever said "let's see what he does" or "give the guy a chance;" instead, he was greeted with immediate hatred and "our biggest priority is to see that he doesn't get reelected." The extent to which this is true makes some of us suspect racism because this treatment was immediate and seemed to have nothing to do with his actions.
The fact that he ran headlong into this unprecedented reaction was not his fault, but the fact that he did not adjust was. Again, to contrast with Clinton: When Clinton was first elected, one of his first actions was to attempt to allow gays into the military, a politically lose-lose action based on conscience. (in other words he tried to lead.) He had his head handed to him, but he adjusted immediately and went into political operator mode for the rest of his administration, understanding what it took to accomplish anything. Obama, on the other hand, still wasn't playing hardball when the Tea Party almost threw the United States into default. His party was screaming for leadership and he still hesitated. I can't yet tell if we're finally seeing any shift in his second term; what I can say is that anyone who accuses him of not working with the opposition has no integrity because his biggest first term problem has been a willingness to do so at the expense of what is good for the country.
In terms of warfare, he's in uncharted territory, and I think there are many who don't get the extent to which this is true. Our primary enemies are no longer nation-states but organizations. How do you wage war against entities with no territory, no uniforms, and a willingness to see their host populations killed for its propaganda value and therefore uses human shields? How Bush (W) did it was to wage war against states anyway, in one case for harboring an organization and in another case for no good reason at all. But what happens if the organization is strong enough and the host state is weak enough that the state has no control over the activities of the organization within its territory? That's what's currently happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
There is no Geneva Convention for organizations. We learned graphically from 9/11 that we can't just ignore them, but there is no legal framework for fighting them, even though we have zero choice but to fight them. The Israelis have the most experience at this sort of thing (in a tactical sense - I am not interested in turning this into a discussion of Israel), but while their tactics have been successful militarily, they have the most horrendous PR problems in the world. Their answer has been to go after those who would kill them or participate in the planning of killing them with utter ruthlessness but to do so as surgically as possible.
That is essentially where the Obama administration finds itself. The Israelis, working in areas that are geographically pretty tiny and proximate, use missiles launched from hovering helicopters. The Obama administration, faced with very different geographical circumstances, uses drones. Keep in mind that Bush's solution was to attack the host country. So, on one hand, the use of drones actually reduces the number of casualties,probably quite drastically. On the other, we are not at this point aware of the criteria used for selecting targets and, particularly when targets encompass wedding parties and children, those criteria will have to be codified as subjective standards will prove to be politically and morally untenable. Even if the public never learns those standards, Congress will have to, because a total lack of oversight is just too dangerous.
What happens when an American citizen joins one of these organizations? We know what would happen if an American joined the military of a nation with which we were at war - they'd be an enemy combatant, period. War doesn't involve due process. The father in this case was in this respect an enemy combatant; I'd like to know, or for someone outside the executive branch to know, the criteria for the son.
Now we come to what Eric Holder recently said, a remark that put me, of all places, allied with Rand Paul. Not where I want to be. There are substantial differences between military and police functions, at least in the United States. An American terrorist working within the United States is not a combatant, he or she is a criminal. Now we're talking about a phenomenon that belongs to the FBI, not the CIA. The Timothy McVeighs of America are entitled to due process. We don't assassinate here, we arrest. If things get paramilitary, we start with SWAT, not Rangers. The implication that we should do otherwise is ridiculous. War with organizations may be unprecedented but viewing domestic organizations as needing surveillance for reasons of domestic terrorism is something J. Edgar Hoover did on a daily basis.
This episode may turn out to be very revealing. We didn't understand in 2008 that we were electing an Ivy League Establishment President, but that's really who he is. (Again, I think Bill Clinton tried to warn us, but he had too vested an interest for us to take him seriously, and his warning would have been driven by that interest, even if true.) He may sympathize a little with a frustrated public or even, by his own standards, a lot, but he believes in working within the System and, as a result, was no friend of the Occupy movement, even though that movement stayed peaceful. The signal here may be - if Holder's answer really was driven by his boss - that when the chips are down, he's going to protect the Establishment in ways that he has not as of yet protected the trending-toward-impoverished public, and that he'll protect the Establishment From the public.
Or, I suppose, it could be simple political incompetence, mixed with a misguided effort to reassure those who think he's too far Left. As usual. Leftover conciliation of the wrong people.
This is not to say he's Mitt Romney, a Let Them Eat Cake country club Republican whose only use for the Great Unwashed is their occasional propensity to vote. Romney would have been a substantially worse nightmare.
Nor is it to say that I'm an admirer of Rand Paul or even that I believe there is no cynicism in his filibuster. However, I think that regardless of his political calculations, Paul really is outraged, and outraged over the right things in this case.
What scares me most about this President is how little he understands about money and whom he relies on for advice. Ultimately, that will be the biggest problem we face with him, both in terms of how sources are distributed and in terms of who he'll be willing to protect from whom.
I think he was from a functional standpoint not our best candidate in 2008 (though he was from a symbolic standpoint). Hillary would have been better politically and John Edwards would have been better ideologically. In 2012, as bad as we knew him to be, that choice was way too clear-cut.
My suggestions? Let our elected representatives know that political assassination in the US of citizens by unilateral order of the White House is Not Acceptable and hope nothing economically explodes on his watch, because I at least am not reassured that he'd be on our side of the barricades.