“The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective” A book by Gary Dorrien

If Barack Obama is to be held accountable by the aggravated left for his first term in office, it’s for “the damage that his capitulation to Republican extremism has caused.”

That’s the central assumption of “The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective,” an early 2012 apologetic by Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary professor Gary Dorrien. Those looking for a full reckoning of Obama’s failures and successes will be unsatisfied with the book, as Dorrien appears to have written it to comfort those who believed in the historic promise of Obama’s election, not to help them come to grips with the doubts they’ve cultivated in the time since.

One week before another election, the deep significance of voting for Obama again causes considerable anxiety to millions of thoughtful and well-meaning liberals. If we give him another chance, will he at last engage Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in a strong public campaign to end the wars, help those who lost their homes in the financial crisis, create a green energy economy that will produce badly needed jobs while possibly averting the worst consequences of man-made global warming, and make education affordable to past, current and future students who are hamstrung by a collective trillion-dollar college debt?

book cover

The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective

By Gary Dorrien

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 256 pages

Buy the book

There are compelling reasons to re-elect Obama. At moments, he has performed the role of social liberal by supporting the causes of women, some immigrants and homosexuals. There is no question that his opponent would make life worse for these groups, and Republicans are indisputably the party of limited-to-no regulations for virtually all industries, including the behemoth oil, banking and military sectors. But many of Obama’s domestic, economic and military policies have failed to protect the lives and interests of people making less than $150,000 a year, including those whose social causes he has served. An honest appraisal of his presidency would include a consideration of all the reasons he has given us to doubt his commitment to the American public.

It’s what Dorrien leaves out that makes “The Obama Question” unconvincing. Over the course of eight chapters, we read of the hazards of Obama’s meteoric rise from the Illinois state legislature through the U.S. Congress and on to the White House. Drawing mainly from “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” books Obama wrote in part to make himself politically desirable (and that Dorrien notes are sometimes factually flawed), we’re told that Obama’s cool demeanor was forged during his childhood as an outsider in Indonesia and Hawaii, while the habit of compromise that has become the trademark and bane of his presidency was confirmed in his conversion to Christianity, a move the then-atheist made to ingratiate himself among black congregations during his work as a community organizer in Chicago.

Four of the book’s chapters offer explanations and criticisms of Obama’s major policies: his response to the financial crisis, the push to reform health care, his wielding of the military establishment, and his tax and budgeting schemes. Each section makes use of the Republican compromise defense to account for Obama’s failures.

The chapter titled “Moral Empire and Liberal War,” which serves to justify Obama’s expansion of the American military establishment, is the most telling in terms of its omissions. According to a Google Books search, the name “Bradley Manning” appears nowhere in the section’s 30 pages. Neither do the words “whistle-blower” or “rendition.” “Surveillance” comes up once, and the unmanned drone war, which has claimed dozens of civilian lives in Pakistan since Obama took office, gets a passing mention in a single paragraph.

To see long excerpts from “The Obama Question” at Google Books, click here.

When these brief references appear at all, they are treated in a manner consistent with the assumptions that prevail throughout Dorrien’s book, which places Obama’s embrace of imperialism in the context of his desire to work with his Republican opponents to maintain American military supremacy abroad. Dorrien appears to think that is a valid objective. “In foreign policy, as elsewhere,” he writes, “Obama is pragmatic, nonideological, predisposed to cooperation, and imbued with a Niebuhrian blend of American idealism and realism.” (The professor is referring to Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th-century American theologian and Cold War theorist after whom the chair Dorrien holds at Union Theological Seminary is named.) And in “security areas,” he adds, “the Democratic Party attracts managerial operators who take pride in running the American empire more smoothly than their neoconservative competition.”

However uncomfortable the author may be with the character of the American empire, his general approval of its military activities is made clear in the first pages of the chapter. After a brief reiteration of Obama’s cooperative nature, Dorrien explains Niebuhr’s version of just war theory. The doctrine demands the use of military force when innocent lives are at stake, and Obama credits it as a major influence. Among people interested in self-preservation, Niebuhr’s recasting of the just war concept no doubt holds merit, but it is a giant leap from the defense of oneself and others to the execution of a complicated worldwide war of aggression that, under Obama’s direction, continues to destroy civilian lives and create generations of desperate people committed to attacking anything that resembles the forces occupying their land. Contradictions like this appear throughout the book.

Under the pressure of such intellectual dissonance, one can see why Dorrien wrote “The Obama Question.” Like his intended audience, he too struggles with the failures of a president in whom he had higher expectations. Dorrien comes across as a genuine progressive who wants to honor principles that would benefit the American public while holding its decaying political system together. This is the essential predicament liberals face today. Like Dorrien, they want to elect a government that will protect average Americans from predatory corporations. The conventional wisdom, often repeated by our Democratic president, says that we do this by not making “the perfect the enemy of the good.” But it falls to us, the voting readers, to ask: good for whom?

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