Thankful that Obama Has Helped Make Dissent and Debate Patriotic and Safe Again

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obama debate.jpg
(This essay was commissioned by and first appeared in The Huffington Post.)
Arianna Huffington asked me (and a sizeable gaggle of her other pals) to write something up for Thanksgiving. What am I thankful for? What moves me on Thanksgiving?
My significant other lets me know regularly how lucky we are to have our health, a couple of nice homes, jobs that pay reasonably well, friends and dogs who love us, family that we seem closer to each year, and causes that we are passionate about.
But he tells me this because I’m not often thinking about how great or not things are close to home. I know that there are many on the jobless rolls right now – and I think about them a lot. I know there are folks losing their homes and it really frustrates me to read in contrast about Wall Street’s recent huge rebound. I know there are lonely people – with no connections to their communities, families, and without friends. I know a lot of sick people with marginal or no health care.
I can’t stop thinking about these down trends from the American good life – and I worry about the macro challenges facing the country, our political system, and our new and fascinating President.
I am grateful that we have Barack Obama in the White House – because he has changed the face of the nation – and altered forever the horizon of what is possible for Americans who don’t have the Anglo-Saxon cosmetic veneer that every US President before Barack Obama possessed.
I also am grateful for Obama’s invitation for debate and fair-minded criticism. His decision to bring in policy practitioners who have divergent views from one another, his embrace of heterodoxy, and the manner in which these conflicts come right up to his desk reflect a profound self-confidence in our young President.
Obama’s embrace of debate and political diversity can be both strength and weakness – but in the long run, it’s better to have debate than not in a time when the world is at a major punctuation point in history and when things tomorrow will be quite different than they were yesterday.
There are many things I’m not happy about.
I’m not happy about the policy choices of Obama’s economic team that have produced a Wall street bailout while banks still dither in their loans and small businesses still find an economic noose around their necks as they try to secure financing. I don’t like how the administration has underperformed on job creation. I’m not happy that the tens of thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers in the Armed Forces and National Reserve still have to live a lie as they put themselves on the line for the security and welfare of all Americans of every brand and stripe. The failure of the administration to secure a strategic leap out of the mess the Bush administration left in the Middle East and with Iran, Israel/Palestine, and Afghanistan is very worrisome.
But what a change in a few years.
It’s “safe” again to pose uncomfortable questions to the President of the United States and his team. It is actually “patriotic”. Barack Obama embraces this patriotism of those who challenge him and dissent from his core policy positions and decisions. This is a stunning difference with the political world America has left behind.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, who has become the co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, is someone who during the George W. Bush administration had his patriotism questioned. Vice President Cheney blasted Hagel for asking key questions about the solvency of thinking about the Iraq War and challenged his loyalty to President Bush, the Republican Party, and the nation.
This was outrageous – and indicated how deeply a climate of fear and vindictiveness had taken hold in and poisoned Washington as legislators on all sides of an issue fought over the course of public policy.
That is over. There are ferocious debates today over health care, climate change, education policy, the budget and America’s long term fiscal position, over Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran, China, and economic policy.
But these debates are raging in a climate in which it is OK and safe to engage in civil debate.
In the Bush years, the efforts at thought control were so severe that spear-carriers like Tom DeLay sought to get those of a different political make-up fired from private sector jobs. Former Oklahoma Congressman Dave McCurdy, now head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was one of DeLay’s targets. Funders cut off think tanks that opposed the Iraq War. Hate mail campaigns were launched against those who expressed views independent of the Bush/Cheney machine.
I have a lot of criticism that I direct at the Obama White House – but I try to be civil and fair-minded, inspired by the President and how his team mostly operates (the Greg Craig situation being a major and disappointing exception).
But this White House embraces differences, rivals, and debate. This is extraordinarily important, and of all things this Thanksgiving – I’m thankful that challenging the government’s course and trying to put better ideas on the table are unabashedly patriotic again.
Have a good, old fashioned policy debate with someone you don’t necessarily see eye to eye with this weekend — and feel good about it. Shake hands when it’s over, and agree to disagree if things end up that way.
That is what we have back again — and that’s something to celebrate.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

22 comments on “Thankful that Obama Has Helped Make Dissent and Debate Patriotic and Safe Again

  1. Michael says:

    If Steve Clemens is so thankful that dissent is patriotic again, how does he explain today’s op-ed from Brennan: Political criticism of the Obama WH only helps Al-Qaeda?
    Are you biased, Mr. Clemens, or merely naive?

    Reply

  2. liz says:

    But the rule of law is still a thing of the past Steve.
    Puppy pics?

    Reply

  3. DonS says:

    Compass, schmompiss. I’m talking attack dog with a script. Not fucking Metternich.
    Biden is a suggestion that readily comes to mind. Other persons and forums should all be considered. Like make a joke out of Jon Stewart too. After all, the Nazis have Palin and Bachmann who are accorded microphones and attention. No, one can nitpick Biden of course. It’s the idea that is important; finding the right messanger(s) should not be a problem in this great land of ours.
    Unless of course, speaking out against encroaching Nazism is just too, you know, risky and declasse.

    Reply

  4. nadine says:

    God help anyone with Joe Biden as his compass. Biden comes up with the goofiest ideas. He was the one who wanted to divide Iraq into three countries. I suppose that had the side benefit of momentarily united the factions in their shared horror of the thought – it would have been a bloodbath.

    Reply

  5. Paul Norheim says:

    “Joe Biden? Why not? The ‘problem’, and the administration as the necessary institution
    to address it, needs an attack dog who will not be cowered. He would also need to be
    empowered and backed up.”
    Don, I think you have a point there. If Biden sees his role as the opposite of the role
    Cheney saw himself in – less as an obsessed ideologue and fear monger, and more as a
    50/50 independent voice and a voice from the real world – he may serve as a compass for
    Obama.

    Reply

  6. John Waring says:

    And Obama’s continuation of FISA abuses, Patriot Act provisions, and signing statements aren’t exactly indicative of someone that considers dissenting opinions “patriotic”.
    Thank you, POA. Let’s also not forget Obama’s refusal to bring war crimes prosecutions against those in the Bush administration guilty of torture.

    Reply

  7. Linda says:

    I have to admit that if I ever knew that there was a Second Anglo-Afghan War from 1878-1880, I forgot it. I’m not a foreign policy or world history expert. But today someone sent me a poem that Rudyard Kipling wrote about it:
    “he Arthimetic of the Frontier” by Rudyard Kipling
    A great and glorious thing it is
    To learn, for seven years or so,
    The Lord knows what of that and this,
    Ere reckoned fit to face the foe—
    The flying bullet down the Pass,
    That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”
    Three hundred pounds per annum spent
    On making brain and body meeter
    For all the murderous intent
    Comprised in “villanous saltpetre!”
    And after—ask the Yusufzaies
    What comes of all our ‘ologies.
    A scrimmage in a Border Station—
    A canter down some dark defile—
    Two thousand pounds of education
    Drops to a ten-rupee jezail—
    The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
    Shot like a rabbit in a ride!
    No proposition Euclid wrote,
    No formulae the text-books know,
    Will turn the bullet from your coat,
    Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
    Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can—
    The odds are on the cheaper man.
    One sword-knot stolen from the camp
    Will pay for all the school expenses
    Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
    Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
    But, being blessed with perfect sight,
    Picks off our messmates left and right.
    With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
    The troop-ships bring us one by one,
    At vast expense of time and steam,
    To slay Afridis where they run.
    The “captives of our bow and spear”
    Are cheap—alas! as we are dear.
    This poem was published in 1896.

    Reply

  8. DonS says:

    Approps of the smallish discussion downthread of the notion of political narcissism, Glenn
    Greenwald has a story that should be near and dear to the hearts of all Clemons fans, related to recent comments by John Bolton. Bolton was trying to be cute in making a point about the wrongness of trying alleged terrorists in New York, which showed him up to be a narrow-minded coward in Greenwald’s view. I gladly concur.
    Embedded in Glenn’s post is a related reference to “nationalist narcissim”, and the almost unbearable ego-centrism of so many in the political elite related to the assumed sui generis specialness of the US.
    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/11/25/bolton/index.html
    One has to hope that Obama, who is almost certain to be classified as a ‘surrender monkey’ whichever way he turns, does not base his deliberations and decision on one minute’s consideration of these offensive notions and people. But I’m not so sure.
    As an explanation for the state of endless war we seem to be pursuing, Glenn cites this “warped and broken psychological state”, again, related to discussion downthread describing our unhealthy and dysfunctional politicians/system; a psychologically sick one. It cannot be overemphasized that it is this perverse notion of patriotism and strength against which the strongest dissent is required. It may be a losing battle for all the reasons many of us recognize. And Obama may not have the temperament to be the president who can call out this terrible trend, without which the voices of ignorance continue to garner the big microphone.
    Joe Biden? Why not? The ‘problem’, and the administration as the necessary institution to address it, needs an attack dog who will not be cowered. He would also need to be empowered and backed up.

    Reply

  9. Tony C. says:

    The problem with Steve’s mostly “thankful” overview is that it
    underscores just how insidious the Bush administration was. By
    that I mean that because the previous Administration was so
    despicable, and behaved so outrageously, the Obama
    administration appears, by comparison, the to be praiseworthy
    in certain respects.
    Obama deserves credit because it is now “…’safe’ again to pose
    uncomfortable questions to the President of the United States
    and his team”? That’s a feather in his cap?
    Steve (and many others who share his perspective) are, in my
    view, viewing the Administration through the wrong lens. The
    important question is not whether it is preferable to the
    previous Administration (or a McCain Administration), or
    whether it has corrected some overreaches, but whether Obama
    is living up to his promise(s). And the answer to that question is,
    quite obviously, a resounding NO.
    The point is that the Bush administration was so extreme, and
    lowered the bar to such a grotesque level, that Obama can
    appear to be doing good and important things while actually
    doing very little.
    It’s not unlike a car dealer putting an absurdly high price on a
    car so that the customer ultimately believes that he or she is
    getting a great “discounted” deal.
    Steve, have you gotten a great deal on a car recently?

    Reply

  10. gb says:

    Steve, Peggy Noonan has a piece written from much the same cloth that you write. Your work always impresses me even though I don’t agree with you all of the time. You are a quality thinker, and we are lucky to have you.
    Peggy Noonan on Thanksgiving:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748704204304574546093616349588.html

    Reply

  11. samuelburke says:

    “Environmental and political activist Robert Czernik discusses the
    RNC8 group of activists arrested and charged with violating the
    Minnesota PATRIOT Act during the 2008 Republican National
    Convention, the criminalization of political dissent, the use of
    conspiracy charges to justify preemptive arrests and the RNC8’s
    ongoing legal battle.”
    http://antiwar.com/radio/2009/11/26/robert-czernik/

    Reply

  12. Mr.Murder says:

    Thanks also to TWN and to you and yours, Steve!

    Reply

  13. TonyForesta says:

    Well spoken Mr. Clemons. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours my brother.

    Reply

  14. Linda says:

    Even if I don’t like Obama Administration so far on re-regulating Wall Street, Afghanistan-Iraq, and health care reform, I am thankful that
    1.) Science is back guiding many decisions such a FDA regulation of tobacco and on global warming/climate change.
    2.) OSHA and DOL are enforcing laws that were not enforced enough in Bush Administration.
    3.)Better appointments to the federal judiciary.

    Reply

  15. PissedOffAmerican says:

    http://www.thenewamerican.com/index.php/usnews/foreign-policy/2389-president-obamas-qnice-guy-actq-wearing-thin
    President Obama’s ‘Nice Guy Act’ Wearing Thin?
    Written by Joe Wolverton, II
    Tuesday, 24 November 2009 18:11
    Rodney Dangerfield made a very profitable career off his famous lament, “I can’t get no respect.” Seems these days that President Obama knows exactly what Rodney was talking about. In an article that appeared Monday in Der Spiegel, a weekly magazine published in Hamburg, Germany, President Obama’s “nice guy act” was mocked and the successes of his professed aim to bring civility and mutual respect back to American foreign policy were questioned.
    In a piece that begins by recounting a few signal moments of President Obama’s recent trek through Asia, Der Spiegel bemoans the President’s diplomatic efforts and seems to take glee in the tepid response of Asian leaders to his overtures. President Obama, who before embarking on the Asian junket, predicted a friendly reception as he was one of their own, the first “Pacific President.” Twelve banal banquets and hundreds of handshakes later, it was evident that the President’s “fellow” Asians were not quite au fait with the welcome wagon routine he was expecting.
    As evidence of Asian indifference to the American president’s visit, Der Spiegel describes a particularly irksome meeting with journalists outside of the Blue House in Seoul, the official home of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The report depicts a harried President Obama rushing past the gathered media offering nothing more than a “thank you” before ducking into his Korean counterpart’s home and leaving his press secretary, David Axelrod to make a statement on the president’s behalf.
    “The Asians smiled but made no concessions,” crows the magazine. The friendly but futile reception that awaited President Obama in Asia is proof, the author of the article claims, that President Obama’s domestic appeal has for the most part been lost in translation overseas and he now suffers from diminished stature throughout the world. Several examples of the president’s shrinking influence are cited.
    First, there is the case of Israel, traditionally one of America’s staunchest and loyal allies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has informed President Obama in very clear and certain terms that his government adamantly refuses to adhere to a moratorium on development of Israeli settlements in the region. Furthermore, Netanyahu recently reiterated to the president that peace with Palestine will be brought about only through that nation’s acceptance of a roster of well-defined and inviolable terms, pressure from the United States notwithstanding. “We thought we had some leverage,” groaned a former Clinton-era ambassador to Israel, “but that proved to be an illusion.” It seems that the misdirection and sleight of hand so masterfully employed by President Obama at home is seen as fumbling and inexpert elsewhere.
    Japan is another erstwhile ally of the United States that gave President Obama the cold shoulder while traveling in Asia. Ministers of the new Japanese governing coalition were scheduled to appear with President Obama at a photo opportunity in the Indian Ocean where they would watch tankers from the Japanese navy refuel American warships on their way to service in the war in Afghanistan. The Japanese officials were a no-show. With friends like these, the President doesn’t need enemies, even those with glossy pages.
    Finally, the article in Der Spiegel cites President Obama’s failure to achieve any significant concessions from Beijing in the area of human rights abuses as convincing evidence that President Obama may not be up to the burden that has been placed upon him. His detractors are quick to compare the current American president’s foreign policy frustrations to those of another unqualified world citizen, Jimmy Carter. Carter’s weaknesses, missteps, and mishandling of delicate and complicated matters, both foreign and domestic, are legendary. The perception, whether accurate or not, that Mr. Carter was weak and too willing to quickly accede to global pressure, is to be fervently avoided according to Obama spokesmen. There is a sense in the West Wing that it would be better for Obama’s foreign policy posture to be compared to that of George W. Bush than that of Jimmy Carter.
    The President’s political foes are equally dedicated to drawing the unfavorable comparison as often as possible. One of the Democratic party’s most vociferous and media-savvy critics, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, accentuates the mash-up in his inimitable fashion, “Carter tried weakness and the world got tougher because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead. This [President Obama’s foreign stature] does look a lot like Jimmy Carter.”
    As the previous several administrations have proven, however, it matters little which party’s principal occupies the Oval Office, while the rhetoric and reasons between Democrats and Republicans may appear antipodean, the quantifiable results are undeniably indistinguishable.

    Reply

  16. Ben Rosengart says:

    Every year, Americans go nuts telling each other “the secret to a
    tasty, juicy turkey”. Low heat, brining, smoking, frying, …
    The real solution is to throw away the turkey and cook a couple of
    nice chickens instead.
    Me? I’m roasting a turkey this year. Oh well. My friends and
    family only tolerate a certain amount of iconoclasm.
    Steve, as I said on Twitter — I think you’ve been “civil and fair-
    minded” since before the Obama phenomenon, but it is generous
    of you to credit him and his team with inspiration. I hope you
    and those close to you have a wonderful holiday.

    Reply

  17. Paul Norheim says:

    Outraged,
    I would have preferred the Indian stuff any time – except today. Right now I`m slaughtering a
    virtual turkey to join Thanksgiving celebrations with the TWN regulars. Cheers!

    Reply

  18. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “My friend John Taylor, who heads the Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, has an excellent comment in reaction to mine that is well worth reading”
    Hmm, from Taylor, “sell it on Amazon”.
    Actually, Steve, in reading your essay, the thought struck me that you might make a career out of writing feel good greeting cards for Hallmark.
    You get specific as to what was done to Bush dissenters, but you really don’t get specific as to who has openly challenged Obama, and got the feel good kinda new open-ness and tolerance for dissenting opinion from Obama that you describe.
    If cowardly rolling over for open rebellion is your criteria, then I gotta agree with you. I certainly haven’t seen any ramifications or consequences for Reid or Hoyer’s open mutiny to Obama’s settlement stance. I mean, hey its nice seeing a President that is so “tolerant” of dissenting opinions that he ignores the Majority Leader openly derailing and undermining the White House’s foreign policy efforts.
    And Obama’s continuation of FISA abuses, Patriot Act provisions, and signing statements aren’t exactly indicative of someone that considers dissenting opinions “patriotic”.
    But he must think the Bush Adnministration’s policies, actions, and “dissent” against our freedoms and rules of law are “patriotic”, because, fact is, he refuses to hold any of those criminals accountable.
    Its wonderful knowing he is “tolerant” of dissent against his continuation of two unpopular and unwinnable wars, and that he considers such dissension as “patriotic”. It definitely lessens the pain of being ignored while he sends our troops off to die anyway.
    Sarah Palin’s “mystique” is that she resonates with the poor hapless citizens that were born with less than average intelligence. Unfortunately, there seems to be a surplus of such creatures.
    Give Hallmark a call. Or I understand there are a few openings for Message Force Multipliers over at CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. And Rachel and Olberman can always use advice on what not to tell us about.

    Reply

  19. nadine says:

    Taylor says debate is being “anathemized on the right”
    You’ve got to be kidding me.
    There is a huge groundswell of peaceful civil dissent going on in the country called the “tea party movement.” This movement is largely libertarian in philosophy, not Republican (they are as mad at the Republicans as the Democrats) and is driven by fear of the out-of-control spending going on in DC.
    Far from being called “patriotic” by those in power, this movement is being systematically ignored, downplayed, mis-reported as racist, and insulted with junior high sexual innuendo (“tea baggers”) by the Obama White House and the MSMers who carry water for the WH.
    Has anybody in the Obama WH called the tea party movement “patriotic” even once? I’d like to see it if they have. From where I stand, dissent changed from “patriotic” to “racist” last January 20th.
    As for the Republicans, they are having the sort of debate parties out of power always have, on whose fault it is that they lost power, and which flags they want to rally around in order to regain power. That is not anathemizing debate. That is part of healthy internal debate.

    Reply

  20. Steve Clemons says:

    My friend John Taylor, who heads the Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, has an excellent comment in reaction to mine that is well worth reading.
    Those interested in Sarah Palin’s mystique, or not, will be particularly interested:
    http://tinyurl.com/yjxdt2s

    Reply

  21. Outraged American says:

    Hey Paul, it’s Thanksgiving. We just eat today and regret later.
    Join us virtually and eat whatever the heck you want today.
    Something nice like steak, or do they have cows in Norway? I
    honestly don’t know. Forget the turkey, and I have no idea if
    they have turkey in Norway, because FYI turkey’s tasteless.
    And now I’m going to give thanks for this beautiful day, no cloud
    in the sky, and take two of the dogs for a walk to work off the
    first course, and maybe go throw that shoe I keep meaning to
    throw at McCain’s old mansion.
    Give thanks that Palin is a few thousand miles from the White
    House and that her rouge is going to run out soon and then
    she’ll take over Oprah’s time-slot and have even more power
    than if she were in the White House, and then we’ll have a
    populist revolt and Dan Kervick will have to learn how to fire a
    gun.
    Thank you Lord.
    Hey, and Nadine, Mazel Tov! Not that I believe one word you
    type but you deserve a day off too.

    Reply

  22. nadine says:

    “But this White House embraces differences, rivals, and debate.” …as shown by their bipartisan approach to major legislation.
    Oh, wait. Their definition of bipartisan is occasionally getting Olympia Snowe’s vote.
    Steve, if you really believe this, as opposed to just saying it to cheer the Huffpo crowd, then you need to get out more.

    Reply

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