When Daniel Ellsberg, the White House analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers and blew the lid on the Vietnam War, was attempting to give career advice to an up-and-comer named Henry Kissinger, he warned him:
“You will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess.”
For this and other reasons I have never known precisely how to make a complete and accurate moral judgment on presidents. Not only is it a job in which decision-making relies on massive reservoirs of information not available to the general public, but it is also a job in which getting things done requires navigating a labyrinthine mess of deal-making, negotiating and quid pro quo. In a way, I think the first thing leaders at that level have to sacrifice is any semblance of ethical purity.
I believe that if my preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders, had won the presidency, a huge portion of his enthusiastic base would have abandoned him within months.
First of all, as president, he would have become a “liar.” Meaning he would have had to abandon campaign promises that he was not able to achieve. In order to explain the fact that he was not able to achieve some of his campaign promises, he would use watered-down political doublespeak, because he would not be able to freely discuss the actual political maneuvering that went on without permanently damaging relationships that are key to effective governance.
This would read as lies, and, strictly speaking, it would be. Politics is the business of lies.
Secondly, he would create alliances with business and political interests that his voters view as abhorrent. He would do this in order to try and accomplish his progressive agenda to the best of his ability, but it would look like to the naive like he was making friends with the wrong people. In order to garner support for his most valued ideas and goals – the stuff that got him elected – he would have to allow or support the passage of policies that he doesn’t like or agree with. He might have to look the other way two or three times while his opponents garnered victories in order to win their support for his biggest and boldest ideas.
This would look read to many among his base as “selling-out.” In a way, it would be. Politics is the business of selling-out.
Thirdly, he would kill. This should go without saying. You don’t get to be the president without getting blood on your hands. It is neither possible nor necessarily even ADVISABLE for America to immediately and unilaterally withdraw from all of our military conflicts. Sanders would have had to engage in them, even if his ultimate hope would be to end them. And he would give orders that would result in the death of innocent people, because that is an intrinsic part of war. (Also, he would use drones. The alternative to drones is American men and women in harm’s way. Drones aren’t going anywhere.)
This would read as “war-mongering.” And, sure: politics is also the business of war.
At this point, to a large and naive continent of his base, he would look like a liar, a sell-out, and a war-monger. Would he be these things? Yes, to the extent that anyone who decides to enter politics at that level takes it upon himself to be these things. It becomes a question of whether that person embraces them as a goal unto themselves or views them as a necessary evil to achieve other, worthier goals.
And I think Bernie Sanders is an unusually good man who would have done good or even great things in office. And I think he would have engaged in less of this stuff than probably most presidents. But he would have engaged in it – hopefully. If he turned out to be unwilling to get his hands dirty, he would have been a lame duck who never accomplished anything.
When a good man enters politics at a high level, the very first thing he has to sacrifice is his pretense to goodness.
Am I comparing Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama? Yes and no. Sanders is way to the left of Obama, and much closer to my own politics. What I am saying, as Obama leaves office, is that absolute moral judgments become very difficult to make with any kind of authority in politics. You can – and it is imperative that you do – make moral judgments, but you have to make them within the context of the immoral or amoral universe in which these actions and people exist.
You can be an anarchist, and reject electoral politics altogether – view them as an evil. I have tendencies that way. But if you are going to embrace them or engage with them, you have to bring in a really large degree of intelligence and analysis.
Frankly, I don’t have a lot of that kind of intelligence or analytical ability. I don’t know to what extent Obama was a frustrated progressive and to what extent he is basically a moderate conservative. I like him on a personal level, I think he did some good things, I think he is an immensely intelligent and competent president. I don’t think that he pretended to be one thing while secretly meeting in back-rooms to screw over the American progressive movement with his support of Big Oil and the American surveillance state. I think the truth is a lot more complicated than that. It’s politics and it’s a dirty, murderous, dishonest business that nevertheless requires people who are intelligent and have some semblance of decency to engage in it.
Mostly, I think Obama was pretty much an ideal embodiment of the current Democratic Party: unwilling to challenge some of the basic structural problems in the United States, but still supportive of basic principles of civic government and social welfare, and not hung up on prehistoric ideas around human behavior.
That might be damning with faint praise, but it actually sounds pretty great compared to what’s coming. I think history will judge him pretty well within the context of his times. Hopefully history will also say that it was the last stand of a cautious, conciliatory, conservative Democratic Party, before they turned into a real progressive force in reaction to the authoritarian revolution that stole our country in 2017.