It went almost unnoticed, but the Obama presidency reached a potentially defining moment over the last few days -- and not in a good way.
On Friday, comedian Bill Maher on his ""Real Time" talk show lit into the president in funny, yet quite harsh terms.
"Remember during the campaign when John McCain attacked Obama for acting like a celebrity and we all laughed at the grumpy old shell-shocked fool? Well, it turns out he was right. It's getting so you can't turn on your TV without seeing Obama. Who does he think he is -- Dick Cheney?....Selling the personal part to stay popular? I'm all for it. But, hey, you got us already -- we like you. We really, really like you! You're skinny and in a hurry and in love with a nice lady. But, so's Lindsay Lohan.
"And just like Lindsay, we see your name in the paper a lot, but we're kind of wondering when you're going to actually do something...This is why I don't want my president to be a TV star, because TV stars are too worried about being popular -- and too concerned with getting renewed. If you can't shove some real reform down [the throats of Republicans] now, when can you?....
"I never thought I'd say this, but actually what he needs in his personality is a little George Bush. He needs to stop worrying about being loved and bring out that smug insufferable swagger ... We need to marry the good ideas that Barack Obama has with a little bit of that Bush attitude, that certitude. ... I'm glad Obama is president, but the audacity of hope part is over. Right now, I'm hoping for a little more audacity."
Mixed in there are examples of where Maher feels that Obama hasn't pushed enough on either health care, the banks or global warming. Maher's argument is as much stylistic as it is programmatic. He thinks Obama is more interested in being president than doing the tough things that a president is supposed to do.
Maher's not a completely conventional liberal, so it would be easy to dismiss his critique.
But he's not alone on the left: Salon writer Glenn Greenwald has been strongly criticizing the administration for what Greenwald sees as a real failure to dismantle Bush policies on torture and civil liberties:
The speech [on closing Guantanamo Bay] was fairly representative of what Obama typically does: effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds). Like all political officials, Obama should be judged based on his actions and decisions, not his words and alleged intentions and motives. Those actions in the civil liberties realm, with some exceptions, have been profoundly at odds with his claimed principles, and this speech hasn't changed that.
If Greenwald were clearly frustrated and disappointed by the distance between Obama's words and deeds, cartoonist and author Ted Rall was apoplectic. In a column earlier this month, he suggested the 'R' word -- resignation:
Obama is useless. Worse than that, he's dangerous. Which is why, if he has any patriotism left after the thousands of meetings he has sat through with corporate contributors, blood-sucking lobbyists and corrupt politicians, he ought to step down now--before he drags us further into the abyss.
I refer here to Obama's plan for "preventive detentions." If a cop or other government official thinks you might want to commit a crime someday, you could be held in "prolonged detention." Reports in U.S. state-controlled media imply that Obama's shocking new policy would only apply to Islamic terrorists (or, in this case, wannabe Islamic terrorists, and also kinda-sorta-maybe-thinking-about-terrorism dudes). As if that made it OK.
In practice, Obama wants to let government goons snatch you, me and anyone else they deem annoying off the street.
He's not kidding. One or two voices of this nature are fine. But, the tone -- and the early nature of this sense of disappointment on the left is rather startling.
And it can only grow. Aside from individual commentators, Obama has also angered one whole part of his base: The president isn't merely not rushing to deal with gays in the military by lifting "don't ask, don't tell," he's also gone to court to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. This isn't just a flip-flop: Obama had pledged to repeal DOMA. Instead, his Justice Department is defending DOMA in ways that Obama's gay and liberal supporters find appalling:
The brief then proceeds to defend DOMA “on the merits” – using language that is factually incorrect, and arguments that (if adopted by the courts) would damage future attempts to secure gay rights ... and they cited prior cases of out-of-state marriages that were between (a) an uncle and niece, (b) a 16-year-old and adult and (c) first cousins. Comparing same-sex marriage with incest and pedophilia is what one would expect from a Republican Administration, and for a court to agree with such reasoning is unhelpful.
Another strong Obama supporter -- Andrew Sullivan -- was infuriated to learn that a conservative Bush administration holdover in the Justice Department was one of the authors of the DOMA brief.
All of this is in the wake of other cases of Obama either defending or extending Bush-era policies related to the war on terror.
Obama's overall popularity is still high, so he doesn't have to panic. However, unless he gets a couple of clear-cut policy wins that show him going to the mat on some principle, those numbers will drop -- and could free-fall if the left feels he's not willing to stand by their values.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.