Trusting Obama

I’ve been mulling over the election, and it occurred to me that liberal blogs are about to be faced with an interesting question, namely: how much should we trust Barack Obama?

I assume that the answer is obviously not: completely, let alone: blindly. Even were I tempted to blind trust, which I’m not, one of the obvious lessons of reading right-wing blogs and commentary over the past five years is: you do neither your party nor your ideals any favors by becoming uncritical cheerleaders. There were obvious reasons for conservatives to oppose, for instance, the Bush administration’s assertion that it had the right to torture people, to imprison citizens without charges, and to wiretap without warrants; to call out Republican corruption before 2006; or to apply their normal skepticism about grand social reconstruction to the case of Iraq. Some conservative commentators did, but most of them preferred to defend the President no matter what.

In so doing, they didn’t just damage their own integrity; they harmed their party and their country. I have absolutely no desire to follow them in this. So I take it for granted that when I think that Barack Obama has done something wrong, I should say so. Period.

On the other hand, here’s a different sort of case: sometime last spring, Obama said that while he wanted to withdraw troops from Iraq over about a 16 month period, he was willing to be flexible in order to respond to conditions on the ground. Some liberal blogs jumped on this, and took it to mean that he was less than serious about withdrawing from Iraq.

I thought that while they might be right, they were leaping to conclusions too quickly. And I suspected that this was because we are used to dealing not with a President whom we trust, but with George W. Bush: a President who will not withdraw from Iraq unless he is forced to do so, and whose word is worthless. If you want to withdraw from Iraq and you’re dealing with Bush, it makes perfect sense to insist on an inflexible timetable: any flexibility you grant him will be abused, and if you get only a commitment to withdraw “if circumstances permit”, you can be certain that — oops! — we can’t withdraw now after all.

If you’re dealing with someone else, however, it’s not clear why you should insist on a strict timetable. Withdrawing from Iraq is (I think) exactly the sort of complicated, difficult endeavor in which it makes sense to be flexible. Things can go badly wrong in ways that require you to postpone some step; they can also go unexpectedly well, allowing you to speed things up. But they are unlikely to go exactly as planned, and therefore, if you want to do it right, you should, I think, commit yourself at most to a general timetable, reserving the right to adjust it based on conditions on the ground.

This means that if you trust that someone is, in fact, committed to withdrawing from Iraq, then you should not just be willing to accept his refusal to commit himself to an inflexible timetable; you should welcome it as a sign of basic common sense.

Or, in short: if you’re willing to believe that Obama is serious about withdrawal, you should give him the space he needs to do it right; if not, you should insist that he nail everything down. Trust is, in this case, the crucial question: if he is, in fact, serious about withdrawing troops, then giving him flexibility is not just OK, but preferable; but if his asking for it is a sign that he is less than fully committed, or if (as in Bush’s case) you already know that he will have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of Iraq, then it’s not. The question is not whether you should hold your tongue in the face of something you think is wrong because you trust Obama; whether or not you trust him determines whether or not you should think that what he’s doing is wrong.

That’s just one example of a case in which deciding whether Obama is doing the right thing or not will depend on whether or not we trust him. In this sort of case, I think it’s hard to find the right balance between trusting too much and trusting too little. For myself, I feel a bit the way I’ve always imagined it must feel when someone you care about has become a crack addict. He might get clean, he might say “look, I’m a different person now”, you might even believe him, but that doesn’t make the instinctive distrust you have accumulated over all those years of dishonesty and betrayal go away just like that. You might find it impossible to trust him at all, or you might be so happy that you trust him too much, but one way or another, you’re unlikely to get it right from the outset.

The difference, of course, is that when our President stands before us on January 20th and says: look, I’m a different person, he will be speaking the literal truth. I’m not sure that will make it any easier to strike the right balance, though. Speaking for myself, I expect to lurch around a bit before I find my footing.

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