Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama's supporters have had to grapple with the tension between his generosity toward his critics, and his related reluctance to demagogue and politick in ways that would rally more Americans to his side.
That's not to say he never demagogues, as I'm certain Mitt Romney's supporters will remind me. But he has an at-times puzzling tendency to cede points to his critics when he could seize the advantage by sharpening distinctions, particularly when his own favorables are at or near all-time lows.
On that score, this riff about critics of his Russia-Ukraine policy was a welcome departure.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Obama said at a Monday press conference in the Philippines, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
He's a politician, and I'm a journalist, so it's on me to note that irrespective of his critics' bloodthirst, and irrespective of what I think ideal policy would be, he's both drawing a false dichotomy and a false identity between supplying arms and invasion/occupation.
But so what? His critics are overwhelmingly either acting in bad faith, or professional war enthusiasts, with some overlap between the two camps. That's how I'd describe them. He describes them as anonymous political commentators "in an office or in Washington and New York," to emphasize the point that they stand to lose very little by advocating for hostilities that will never endanger them. We're both writing exceptions out of the argument. But that's appropriate. This isn't playing out in the U.S. as a substantive debate between credible experts, but rather as a political debate that Obama's critics are trying to rig against him. In so doing, they are demanding an escalation of hostilities, and characterizing a reluctance to escalate as an inherent weakness. That attitude did us no favors when it was taken to its logical endpoint last decade, and Obama was barely caricaturing it in his comments.
He's emboldened by the fact that the country remains war weary. But the public is on his side about a lot of issues other than war, and I think he'd benefit from using this tactic in debates over those issues more often.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.