By Jefferson Flanders

These days, President Barack Obama could well ask: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

Indeed, the harshest criticism of the President’s foreign and domestic performance has come recently from high-profile figures on the Left who had avidly supported Senator Obama in the 2008 campaign. In some cases they have excoriated Obama in deeply personal terms. And many of those with liberal-left buyer’s remorse have gone public with their discontent.

Consider Princeton academic Cornel West who described the President, a fellow African-American, as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” West added some racial swipes at the President, claiming that he “has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin.” (Joan Walsh of Salon called West’s outburst a “vicious and deeply personal rant.”)

Then there is actor Peter Fonda, one of the President’s many Hollywood supporters in 2008, now feels differently. Obama’s handling of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill angered Fonda, and he decided to launch an attack while at the Cannes film festival, telling reporters: “I sent an email to President Obama saying, ‘You are a f***ing traitor,’ using those words… ‘You’re a traitor, you allowed foreign boots on our soil telling our military – in this case the Coast Guard – what they can and could not do, and telling us, the citizens of the United States, what we could or could not do.”

For Matt Damon, another left-of-center movie star, Obama’s education policy apparently triggered discontent. In April he complained: “I really think he misinterpreted his mandate. A friend of mine said to me the other day, I thought it was a great line, ‘I no longer hope for audacity. He’s doubled down on a lot of things, going back to education… the idea that we’re testing kids and we’re tying teachers salaries to how kids are performing on tests, that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order. We’re training them, not teaching them.”

(Obama did have a clever response to Damon, delivered at the White House Correspondent’s dinner: “I’ve even let down my key core constituency: movie stars. Just the other day, Matt Damon — I love Matt Damon, love the guy — Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw The Adjustment Bureau, so…right back atcha, buddy.”)

It is not only celebrity leftists (Fonda, Damon, Harry Belafonte, Ed Asner, etc.) who have ratcheted up the criticism of the President. The ACLU and civil liberties advocates have been dismayed by the Obama Administration’s national security and defense policies.

Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald has been sharply critical of Obama’s continuation of many of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror tactics (rendition, indefinite incarceration of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, etc. ) and his aggressive foreign policy (the increase in drone attacks, ordering the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, and intervening in Libya).

Greenwald recently wrote that “Obama has either equaled or exceeded Bush/Cheney” in asserting presidential power. “That Obama refuses to seek Congressional approval for his war (and his top officials even suggest they have the power to defy any Congressional bans) — while Bush sought and obtained Congressional authorization for his — should be added to that ever-growing list.”

Ignoring the Peanut Gallery on the Left?

The best political course of action for the President, who can be somewhat thin-skinned, is to ignore the invective of his disappointed supporters on the Left. He must recognize that most voters will judge him on his performance, not on his ideological purity. Democratic Party activists may hate compromise (as do their counterparts in the Tea Party), but compromise is the stuff of effective politics.

To some extent, Obama faces a self-created problem. His “Hope and Change” campaign and his lofty rhetoric in 2008 raised unrealistic expectations. It was inevitable that he would fail to keep promises both small (like shutting down Gitmo) and large (declaring, absurdly, in his acceptance speech: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”) and that his failure would alienate some, especially many liberal-left “true believers.”

Yet catcalls from the Left may actually help Obama with 2012 swing voters—such criticism serves to validate Obama as a moderate, not the wild-eyed socialist as some on the Right characterize him. In fact, having over-the-top critics on the extremes—Hollywood leftists and right-wing Birthers—helps locate the President in the center of the political spectrum. And in American politics, the center is where you win elections.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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