President Obama is a good and decent man. From his books to his speeches, from community organizer to 8th-year President of the United States, Barack Obama had a singular vision of a united America ready to stand together to face its greatest challenges. As he said in 2012, “there are no red states or blue states, just the United States.” He also believes deeply in the power of American institutions to self-correct, and in the basic decency of the majority of the American people. In the face of constant hostility and obstruction from his opponents, he continued throughout his presidency to extend an open hand, inviting both parties to come together to reach compromise.
In Obama’s White House, the worst thing one could be is overtly partisan for its own sake. Before taking any action, the president was at great pains to minimize any possible criticism from Republicans and make his positions seem as reasonable and, if possible, as bipartisan as possible.
These are noble instincts. But they also led in part to the undoing of his legacy. In dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis, President Obama avoided going aggressively after the titans of Wall Street, fearing a right-wing backlash and the possibility of sabotage by the finance industry. In return, he got Rick Santelli’s economic royalist rant and the creation of the Tea Party. In an attempt to create a bipartisan health bill, the president opened negotiations in the middle of the road rather than with universal healthcare, letting Montana Senator Max Baucus flail his signature achievement in the wind in the hopes of getting even one Republican lawmaker on board. Obama’s defense of the execrable Joe Lieberman in 2006 against the progressive insurgency of Ned Lamont was rewarded by the same Joe Lieberman scuttling the reduction of the Medicare eligibility age to 50–which would have made the Affordable Care Act literally impossible to repeal.
Which brings us to the 2016 election. A bombshell Washington Post story revealed that the Obama Administration and key Congressmembers were informed that the hacking of Democratic Party emails was ordered by Vladimir Putin personally to help Donald Trump. President Obama was left with two bad choices: 1) keep the information quiet, knowing that the entire Republican Party would react in overt disbelief and accuse the President of abuse of power to rig and manipulate the election outcome; or 2) stay above the fray and say nothing, under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win the election anyway and that the truth would be revealed in due time.
President Obama stayed in character and chose the high road, averting criticism and an increase in partisan rancor and suspicion. In an election where Trump was declaring the election already rigged, President Obama didn’t want to give the Trump campaign any further grounds for accusations and conspiracy theories. But in doing so, he allowed the American people walk uninformed into the election booth, resulting in the vicotry of a compromised candidate who was assisted by the unprecedented foreign interference of a hostile regime.
One Obama official declared that the administration “choked” in its response. This is only partly accurate. In reality, the administration simply cared far too much about what Republicans would say and think, and whether they would be falsely accused of hyperpartisanship in their response.
That is a noble impulse. But it is inexcusable in today’s hyperpartisan climate where Republicans won’t hesitate to levy the most irresponsible attacks on Democrats no matter what they do. The first commitment must simply be to the best available policy and to the truth–no matter what accusations the right may make.