First, duck the argument. Second, nitpick. Third, vilify. That’s what Niall Ferguson says liberal bloggers did after reading his Newsweek story on Obama’s record. Here, he offers a point-by-point defense of his argument.
The other day, a British friend asked me if there was anything about the United States I disliked. I was happily on vacation and couldn’t think of anything. But now I remember. I really can’t stand America’s liberal bloggers.
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous,” Lord Macaulay famously wrote, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” But the spectacle of the American liberal blogosphere in one of its almost daily fits of righteous indignation is not so much ridiculous as faintly sinister. Why? Because what I have encountered since the publication of my Newsweek article criticizing President Obama looks suspiciously like an orchestrated attempt to discredit me.
My critics have three things in common. First, they wholly fail to respond to the central arguments of the piece. Second, they claim to be engaged in “fact checking,” whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts. Third, they adopt a tone of outrage that would be appropriate only if I had argued that, say, women’s bodies can somehow prevent pregnancies in case of “legitimate rape.”
Their approach is highly effective, and I must remember it if I ever decide to organize an intellectual witch hunt. What makes it so irksome is that it simultaneously dodges the central thesis of my piece and at the same time seeks to brand me as a liar. The icing on the cake has been the attempt by some bloggers to demand that I be sacked not just by Newsweek but also by Harvard University, where I am a tenured professor. It is especially piquant to read these demands from people who would presumably defend academic freedom in the last ditch—provided it is the freedom to publish opinions in line with their own ideology.
Let me begin by restating my argument. President Obama should be judged on his record in office. In my view, he has not only failed to live up to the high expectations of those who voted for him, but also to the pledges he made in his inaugural address. (In order to be fair, I deliberately did not judge his performance against his campaign pledges.) The economy has performed less well than the White House led us to expect, despite a bigger increase in national debt than it led us to expect (exhibit 1).
Note, however, that I cut the president some slack on the economy. He inherited a bigger mess than most people appreciated back in November 2008. And forces beyond his control (Europe) have clearly dampened the recovery. Here’s what I wrote:
It was pretty hard to foresee what was going to happen to the economy in the years after 2008. Yet surely we can legitimately blame the president for the political mistakes of the past four years. After all, it’s the president’s job to run the executive branch effectively—to lead the nation. And here is where his failure has been greatest.
Notice, then, that my central critique of the president is not that the economy has underperformed, but that he has not been an effective leader of the executive branch. I go on to detail his well-documented difficulties in managing his team of economic advisers and his disastrous decision to leave it to his own party in Congress to define the terms of his stimulus, financial reform, and health-care reform. I also argue that he has consistently failed to address the crucial issue of long-term fiscal balance, with the result that the nation is now hurtling toward a fiscal cliff of tax hikes and drastic spending cuts.
The second part of my argument is that these failures of domestic leadership have fed into a failure of foreign policy. As commander in chief, President Obama has earned a relatively strong public reputation mainly thanks to a campaign of assassination that liberal bloggers would have excoriated if it had been conducted by his predecessor. His withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will, in my view, prove to have been premature. More importantly, he has been indecisive in his responses to the revolutionary wave that has swept the Middle East since the Iranian “green” revolution of 2009. And, finally, he has been inconsistent and ineffective in his handling of the major strategic challenge of our times, the rise of China. (By the way, I base these judgments on a great many off-the-record conversations with influential policy-makers here and abroad. When a very senior military man asks you: “Have we any global strategy beyond just trying to hang on?,” you have a right to wonder if the answer might be “No.”)