When I heard that two self-described conservatives had weighed in on the merits of the Obama administration, I eagerly anticipated reading the articles and commenting here. Ultimately I was disappointed. First, let me explain “self-described conservatives”. If my conservative readers are any judge, neither Andrew Sullivan nor David Frum are true blue conservatives. Sullivan, a newly minted American citizen hailing from the United Kingdom, and gay, abandoned the Republican party quite conspicuously some years ago, while claiming his conservative bona fides were as strong as ever. Frum had the audacity to suggest that the GOP needed to be more inclusive and lose the crazy if it wanted to survive: blasphemy to the hard-core. For coloring outside the lines, both men have been called RINO’s by their critics. Still, since the two men took opposite sides on the Obama debate, I wanted to see what they had to say.
Sullivan: A Love Letter to Obama
In his Newsweek cover story, Andrew Sullivan comes out of the chute, risking any claim to objective analysis by declaring himself an unabashed fan of Barack Obama. We try to ignore that and look at the claims:
- In 2010, we stopped shedding jobs and since then have gained 2.4 million more jobs, more than were added net in 8 years of Bush. The bleeding stopped concurrent with the stimulus. This is fine enough but Sullivan makes no effort to convince us of the cause-effect relationship of the stimulus to the job gains.
- Government employment has declined 2.6% since 2009. So much for growth of government under Obama. No argument there.
- The stimulus did not reduce unemployment to 8% in year 1 because the damage to the economy was underestimated. True though that may be, is it anything to campaign on? An integral part of solving a problem is properly defining the problem. That’s a failure no matter how you cut it.
- Sullivan writes: “Under Bush, new policies on taxes and spending cost the taxpayer a total of $5.07 trillion. Under Obama’s budgets both past and projected, he will have added $1.4 trillion in two terms.” It’s hard to believe Sullivan is making reference to Obama’s budgets. It’s been over 900 days since we’ve had a budget.
- The core of Obamacare is the mandate, originally modeled by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Far from a government system, it funnels customers right into the private health insurance industry. Plus, as Sullivan points out, what could be more conservative than not allowing uninsured people to get a free ride in the ER?
After reading Sullivan’s defense of Obama’s domestic record, it’s clear that it’s a mixed bag. The great irony is that the prime objective of his GOP opponents is “to kill Obamacare” which has its roots in Nixonian politics and is not even close to a leftist solution.
Sullivan then moves onto foreign policy. Here, Obama’s opponents have to really stretch to find fault.
- Obama got bin Laden with a method contrary to the advice of the VP and Sec of State. Given the choice of just bombing the site or going in with the Seals, Obama chose the latter and could verify that we did indeed get bin Laden. The Republican spin of course is that Obama owes it all to Bush. While still disputed, let’s concede that information gathered during the Bush years eventually led to bin Laden’s capture. The fact remains that Bush openly admitted that he no longer gave bin Laden any thought. Finding and killing public enemy #1 was not a priority. Obama did it, and rightly said during the recent State of the Union that for the first time in 20 years we are no longer under the threat of Osama bin Laden.
- Sullivan points out that the “lead from behind” strategy in Libya is an improvement on the cowboy reputation we had pre-Obama. He neglects to add it is the smarter way to do business in a tough economy. Sullivan also rightly points out the wisdom of our handling of the Iran uprising in 2009. Had we engaged in covert or overt action to overthrow Ahmadinejad, the revolt would have been tied to the United States and would not have been seen as a freedom movement sparked from within. Contrast that with the overthrows in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya which were clearly seen as revolts from within.
- Sullivan closed with the observation that liberal dissatisfaction with Obama is unwarranted based on the fact that ” Politifact recently noted that of 508 specific promises, a third had been fulfilled and only two have not had some action taken on them.”
I found Sullivan’s defense somewhat soft overall. Even though his article cited hard facts, it was buoyed with some emotional flights of fancy including his main premise that Obama plays a long game and that we are too stupid to look beyond short gains. That impressed me as little more than wishful thinking.
Sadly, David Frum’s rebuttal was even worse.
David Frum’s Response to Sullivan: A Non-response
About one week after Sullivan’s article, David Frum wrote a response. Frum opens thusly:
Andrew Sullivan had good sport last week shooting fish in a barrel, rebutting the most unfair, the most intemperate, and the most flat-out crazy of the criticisms of President Obama. Now let’s move to the real debate.
In other words, I agree with everything Sullivan wrote and I’m going to write about something else entirely. That, my friends, is not a response to Sullivan’s article. Now that the whole reason for writing the piece has been abandoned, let’s get under the hood of Frum’s analysis.
- Frum starts by bemoaning the rise in Social Security disability claims in the past three years. But he fails to tie this trend to Obama specifically, or to any particular Obama policy. In fact, he basically concedes it is a consequence of a deep recession. So why did he go there in the first place?
- Pointing to government expansion, Frum says, “In fact, hiring is up across the federal government, by 15 percent since 2007.” When you include the last two years of the Bush administration, you don’t prove anything about the Obama administration. I prefer to believe Sullivan’s numbers.
- Frum discusses the folly of public work projects which increase dependency on government for hiring. My confusion with this argument is that construction workers don’t work for the government. They work for whatever company won the bid to do the government work. Then Frum contradicts himself by criticizing the stimulus: “People argue over the size of the president’s fiscal stimulus, but the real problem was its shape. Only about one dollar in eight out of the nearly $800 billion stimulus was devoted to the most effective form of anti-recession spending: infrastructure.” But wait a minute, I thought infrastructure jobs increased dependence on the government as an employer? David, make up your mind.
- Then Frum takes his foreign policy shot: “During the campaign of 2008, Obama vowed a much bigger commitment to Afghanistan. He kept his promise. And what does the U.S. have to show for its redoubled war there? Precious little, if anything at all.
By contrast, in Iraq the administration does have something to show for its efforts, including more oil production than at any time in the past 20 years, with more to come in the months ahead. Here the policy of almost total U.S. withdrawal threatens to destabilize all that has been accomplished, admittedly at severe cost.” Frum neglects to point out that Obama was basically cornered into committing more troops to Afghanistan than he wanted. He also neglects to admit that the war there is going poorly not because of Obama but because of insurmountable cultural issues. On Iraq, he accidentally gives credence to the blood for oil motive for war that many Iraq war opponents have always suspected. Then he conveniently omits the fact that Obama is abiding by Bush’s timetable. And most sadly, Frum seems in denial that Iraq is a no-win situation. We put in place a corrupt government incapable of running the place this year, next year, or any time in the future. Is Frum calling for endless occupation?
It’s hard to understand why Frum wrote the article in the first place since he fails to address Andrew Sullivan’s points and then fails to convincingly tie Barack Obama to any of the deficiencies he outlines.
Interestingly, the better critique of Sullivan’s article on an anti-Obama note comes from Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, a blazing liberal. Cenk cites the lack of boldness in Obamacare, the preservation of Bush-era civil liberties violations and Obama’s total failure to change the atmosphere of Washington, D.C. , specifically where campaign finance is concerned.
More than anything, I think the two articles on Obama by Sullivan and Frum demonstrate how difficult it is to pin down Obama as a huge success or an abject failure. Obama has the unenviable task in November of proving a negative … “without me, things would have been much worse.” How do you prove a thing like that? The result is that Obama will have to convince the American people that, with his Republican opponent, things will definitely be a lot worse.
Photo credit: Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project