Gates Describes Obama’s Approach Towards The Military As “Pitch Perfect” On Book Tour

When I cited the negative headline and mixed quotations in Bob Woodward’s account of the memoir recently written by Robert Gates, I suspected that the negative tone was largely due to Woodward’s strong anti-Obama bias. Now that Gates has started giving television interviews and has seen the media account, he is not being as critical of Obama as suggested by Woodward. This account is of his appearance on the Today Show:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified claims he supposedly made about President Obama’s commitment to the military surge in Afghanistan, saying Monday he “absolutely believed” the commander-in-chief supported the mission at the time.

Gates told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that the president fully supported the November 2009 surge but began to have reservations by the following spring.

“But as late as December 2010, he was still saying we were on the right track in Afghanistan,” he said. “So it was in our private conversations that he would express these reservations about whether it was working. But the decisions were right, and I believe that he believed it would work. “

Gates has been under fire for statements made in his new memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” that suggested Obama lacked commitment to decisions he made about his strategy in Afghanistan.

In his memoir, Gates had also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions” when discussing Afghanistan. He described Obama’s approach towards the military as “pitch perfect” in an interview with NPR which also described Obama’s suspicion of the military’s desire to increase troops in Afghanistan:

INSKEEP: I sense, in listening to you talk, Mr. Secretary, and having read this book, that you’re trying very hard to give a nuanced portrait of the president and others around him. So I want to stipulate here you do speak highly of his decision-making ability. You actually compare his decision-making process to that of Abraham Lincoln. You say that he was very kind to you personally, that he made many very strong decisions. But at the same time, even on occasions when he agrees with you, when you recount stories in the book of inside meetings you seem to be bothered by his attitude, the way that he phrases things when it comes to the United States military. What was the problem that you saw between this president and the military?

GATES: Well, I think that — first of all, I think that the president’s approach towards the military, particularly right after he was elected and initially, was pitch perfect. He — and I will say also Mrs. Obama’s interactions with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with troops and so on, was exactly right, and there was never any question of their support, their affection, their respect for the troops.

I think that — I think that what got things a little bit — well, what started to get things off track was the military leadership pressing for a substantial increase in the number of troops literally days within — after the inauguration. And the feeling on the part of the vice president and others that the military was trying to box the president in and, as they would put it, jam him into making a big decision in terms of an increase of nearly — of some 20,000 troops —

INSKEEP: In Afghanistan.

GATES: — in Afghanistan within days, if not weeks, of becoming president. And I think that that attitude of suspicion of what the military was trying to do had its roots in that — in that discussion in February and March of 2009. And when it came to Afghanistan, and Iraq for that matter but mainly Afghanistan, fed a suspicion that the military was always trying to box the president in and force him into significant troop increases and so on.

And so there was this feeling — and because of various public comments made by senior military officials, by the chairman, by General Petraeus later, by General McChrystal and others, the feeling that they were trying publicly to put the president in a position where he had no alternative but to approve what they wanted. And as I write in the book, looking back I always tried at the time to persuade the president that this was no plot, that the military didn’t have a plan, if you will, to try and box him in. And, frankly, I don’t think I was ever able to persuade him that that was not the case, again primarily when it came to Afghanistan.

A president who both makes the right decisions and has some skepticism as to military recommendations for increasing troops is exactly what we want, and one reason why we have civilian leadership of the military.

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Ron Fournier Defends Obama From Reports Of Criticism By Robert Gates

Yesterday I questioned whether all readers would see the memoirs of Robert Gates the same way as Bob Woodward, who has a long-standing anti-Obama bias.  Ron Fournier had the same impression as I had yesterday. While Woodward’s story reports negative comments from Gates about Barack Obama’s skepticism about the war in Afghanistan, Gates also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.” If Obama made the right decisions after questioning Gates and showing skepticism towards military recommendations, it sounds like he was doing the right thing. Fournier wrote:

In what Bob Woodward called a “harsh” judgment of President Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes of the commander-in-chief adding troops to Afghanistan over the objections of his political team, second-guessing that decision, and never quite trusting his generals. “For him,” Gates writes in his memoir, “it’s all about getting out.”

To that I say, bravo. While excerpts of Gates’s books are being interpreted as embarrassing for Obama, I’m looking forward to reading the memoir in full—and expect to come away more impressed with the president than his Defense chief.

Consider first what the memoir says about Gates himself. Criticism of a sitting president from a former Cabinet member is rare and should be taken with a grain of salt. In a breach of propriety that raises questions about his integrity, the excerpts reveal Gates to be surprisingly petty at times, such as when he complains about spending cuts at the Pentagon and the lack of notice about Obama’s decision to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays serving in the military.

Then remember why Obama was elected in 2008. He reflected the nation’s ambivalence toward war, promising to pull out of Iraq and wean Afghanistan from U.S. dependence. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, waged war on Iraq under false pretenses and with a lack of skepticism toward neoconservatives in his war Cabinet, led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Initially, anyway, he deferred to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals. Famously calling himself “The Decider,” Bush rarely revisited a decision, and earned a reputation for stubbornness…

If military commanders were shown disrespect or given obstacles to fighting war, that would be one thing. But if they were questioned and challenged and kept in check, it is another. Isn’t that the president’s job?

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Robert Gates Memoir Critical Of Obama Administration On Afghanistan (But Was Their Skepticism Towards War Really A Bad Thing?)

Robert Gates is receiving a lot of attention today for his memoir entitled Duty. I suspect that this will have limited long-term impact, but for now it provides a source for lots of quotes both positive and negative about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. We must also take into consideration that the initial report comes from Bob Woodward, who has not been all that reliable in recent years and his selected quotes may or may not be representative of what Gates wrote in the entire memoir. Plus it is not necessarily a bad thing for civilian politicians to show skepticism of military action which might be upsetting to someone with a more military background. Gates is not necessarily correct in his assessment of all matters. For example, Max Fisher writes that Gates was wrong on the most important issue he faced in failing to see the opportunity for peace with the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gates certainly got in wrong in arguing that Gorbachev was not a reformer.

While the headline of the story reports negative comments from Gates about Barack Obama’s skepticism and lack of interest continuing the war in Afghanistan, Gates also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”It is hardly a surprise that Obama had mixed feelings about that war which he inherited.

Comments that Hillary Clinton opposed the surge on political grounds might be politically harmful, especially if  used to support the narrative that Clinton lacks principle and is guided by political expediency (not that considering the views of the public is necessarily a bad thing). On the other hand he also wrote this about Clinton: “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” I can already see this quote in Clinton campaign ads.

Gates was hardest on Joe Biden, complaining about his  “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Another account of the book in The New York Times quotes Gates as writing, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” I think that that with the current anti-war mood of the country, the portrayal of Biden as a major skeptic of the Afghanistan war might wind up doing him far more good than such a broad-based attack.

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WikiLeaks Reports on Afghanistan Might Not Be The Pentagon Papers, But They Might Influence Policy

So far it appears that the release of reports on Afghanistan by WikiLeaks has no smoking guns and contains nothing which will harm U.S. national security or harm the troops. A comparison to the Pentagon Papers was inevitable, even if there are major differences here. The leaked papers do not demonstrate dishonesty on the part of either George Bush or Barack Obama regarding Afghanistan comparable to what was revealed about American leaders regarding Vietnam. The Obama administration might complain about the leaks (as we would expect any administration to) but we are not going to see the type of battle to suppress them which Richard Nixon engaged in over the Pentagon Papers.

This does not mean that the leaks will not have an effect. The publicity might still revive the debate over why we are in Afghanistan and whether it serves U.S. interests to remain. John Kerry, a leading critic of the Vietnam war (as well as an opponent of the Iraq war before it began, despite the attempt of 2004 primary opponents to distort his record), had this comment:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) released the following statement this evening in response to the New York Times story on the leak of classified documents concerning Afghanistan and Pakistan:

“However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

I doubt we will see open battle between the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Obama administration as there was been Democrats and the Nixon administration in the later days of the Vietnam war, although the committee might raise some uncomfortable questions for the administration. I suspect it is more likely that if Kerry turns against this war he might have some success in making Obama reconsider.

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David Letterman’s Top Ten Highlights of President Obama’s Trip To Afghanistan

David Letterman’s Top Ten Highlights of President Obama’s Trip To Afghanistan

10. The welcoming chants of “Death to America!”
9.   Using miles to get bumped up to business class
8.   Picking up sexy negligee for Michelle at “Mahboba’s Secret”
7.   Playing a little 1-on-1 with Hamid Karzai
6.   Seeing “Hot Tub Time Machine” dubbed in Pashto
5.   Military demonstration on new secret weapon: ground-to-air-goat
4.   The splendor of Kabul in the springtime
3.   Catching Jon Lovitz at new Kandahar comedy club “Laffghanistan”
2.   Spotting a confused John McCain arguing with a falafel
1.   Leaving Afghanistan

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The State of the Union Address

Barack Obama needed a great speech and he delivered. (Transcript of State of the Union Address here.) As noted by both myself and others live blogging or otherwise commenting live, the speech started out slow, initially with no applause. He finally received applause with, “It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight.” He received further applause for expressing dislike for the bank bail-out, and more for speaking of getting the rest of the money back. Talk of cutting taxes was also received well.

Obama took advantage of the negative view of Wall Street and gained points for recognizing the importance of Main Street:

For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn’t; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now.

Obama countered the misinformation from the right which has tea-baggers who had their taxes cut by Obama protesting against imaginary tax increases:

We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. (Applause.) We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.

Obama announced a jobs bill, which I’m sure surprised nobody. He discussed his education policies along with tax credits for college education. He promoted high speed rail. He discussed the need for acting on climate change, along with the need for developing new energy sources even if one does not accept the scientific evidence. (I was happy to see him refer to the scientific evidence for climate change. I wish that he could also make a political issue out of those who do not accept the scientific evidence for evolution.)

The big question for the past week was whether, after getting so close, Obama would give up on health care because people in Massachusetts who already have a similar program saw no point in backing one nationally. Obama made it clear that he planned to move ahead:

Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office -– the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress –- our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.

Reducing the deficit was just one reason for backing health care reform. Obama pointed out that the problem arose under George Bush, and the economic conditions he inherited made it necessary to spend more:

At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. (Applause.) By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door. (Laughter and applause.)

Now — just stating the facts. Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis. And our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact.

Obama called for more action to reduce the deficit:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

We will continue to go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work. We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we will extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, investment fund managers, and those making over $250,000 a year. We just can’t afford it.[...]

I’ve called for a bipartisan, Fiscal Commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The Commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline. Yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I will issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.

Obama also called for earmark reform and for reducing the influence of lobbyists. He addressed why Washington does not work:

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of –I’m speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.

Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it’s precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it’s sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.  And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.  Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.  So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.

On foreign policy, Obama discussed his successes in fighting terrorism, and plans for getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq:

Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008.

And in Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.  We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans — men and women alike. (Applause.) We’re joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.

He also discussed eliminating “don”t ask, don’t tell.”

This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.

There were also several other items discussed and there is plenty of other commentary. The best one-liner came from Josh Marshall: “Nelson and Lieberman sitting together in axis of weasels.” The dumbest line from someone who was saying something favorable about Obama came from Chris Matthews:  “I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”

The speech actually went on for over an hour, which is rare for State of the Union addresses. The only previous presidents to do this was Lyndon Johnson one time, and I believe Bill Clinton every time.

Obama made many arguments to counter the distortions from the Republicans and the misconceptions held by the Tea Party movement. Contrary to the conservative memes, he supports Main Street and small business, not Karl Marx. He has cut taxes and is determined to reduce the huge deficit he inherited after years of Republican fiscal irresponsibility. He advocates moderate plans to reform health care coverage, not a government take over of health care. This won’t change the mind of partisan Republicans and ignorant tea-baggers but it will help Obama retain the support of the independents who helped elect him.

Update: Obama did quite well when his statements were checked by the legitimate, non-partisan fact checkers. Incoming  links show a sure sign of intellectual dishonesty–utilizing right wing partisan “fact checkers” who evaluated Obama’s statements based upon their biases as opposed to the facts.

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Bible Codes Inscribed On US Military Weapons

ABC News reports that “Coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ are inscribed on high-powered rifle sights provided to the United States military by a Michigan company.”  They note that this violates military rules which “specifically prohibit the proselytizing of any religion in Iraq or Afghanistan and were drawn up in order to prevent criticism that the U.S. was embarked on a religious ‘Crusade’ in its war against al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents.

One group has protested this:

“It’s wrong, it violates the Constitution, it violates a number of federal laws,” said Michael “Mikey” Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that seeks to preserve the separation of church and state in the military.

“It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they’re being shot by Jesus rifles,” he said…

“This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country,” said Weinstein. “It’s literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we’re fighting. We’re emboldening an enemy.”

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George Bush’s Failure at Tora Bora

The previous post reviews my grievances against George Bush, including how he allowed Osama bin Laden to get away when he could have been captured at Tora Bora. Coincidentally The New Republic is now running a lengthy story on the events at Tora Bora. The story addresses the complaints about George Bush at the end:

Tora Bora would return, briefly, to the forefront of American politics in 2004. With just over a month to go before election day, John Kerry attacked President Bush for failing to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora. Franks, who had by this point retired from the military (and who would go on to join the boards of Bank of America and Chuck E. Cheese’s), retorted several weeks later with a New York Times op-ed, writing, “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora.” Cheney weighed in the same day, calling Kerry’s criticisms “absolute garbage.” On October 27, Bush said Kerry’s remarks about the battle were part of a “pattern of saying anything it takes to get elected.”

Kerry remains furious about Tora Bora today. “They declared Osama bin Laden the world’s number-one criminal, and went out boldly proclaiming, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ and talking about the dangers of Al Qaeda,” he told me recently. “And when they had an opportunity to completely, not only decapitate it, but probably to leave it with the minuscule, last portion of its tail, they never showed up.” His anger is justified. Bin Laden was clearly at Tora Bora, and sending so few troops was indeed a major failure.

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Most Liberals Back Obama Despite Disagreements

While there has been some noticeable criticism of Obama from the left, with some even resorting to ridiculous hyperbole claiming Obama is no different from George Bush, Public Policy Polling puts this in perspective:

Our new poll suggests that liberal unhappiness with Barack Obama is still largely anecdotal and not very widespread. His approval rating with liberal Democrats is 95%, with only 3% disapproving of him.

On health care 88% of voters in that group say they’re with Obama and only 7% are opposed. We simply are not seeing any broad evidence of push back toward him from the left for not advocating for single payer.

There is a little more unrest with him on Afghanistan. 68% of liberal Democrats support his approach there with 22% opposed. Even with those who disagree with him on the issue 81% express approval of his overall job performance so it doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker by any means.

Despite the occasional attacks on Obama from the liberal blogosphere, it looks like most liberals are capable of differentiating disagreements on specific issues with overall approval. Besides, most of us never expected to agree with Obama on everything, and realized that the chances that someone who wanted to get out of Afghanistan immediately becoming president, regardless of the merits, was pretty close to zero.

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Cut the Messiah Crap

During the campaign opponents of Barack Obama tried to dismiss the support for him as a cult following a Messiah figure. After Obama won the nomination and then the election I had hoped this nonsense had come to an end but Dana Milbank revives it in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Obama received millions of votes. Undoubtedly different people had different reasons for voting for him and saw him differently. To dismiss his support as a cult was absurd back then, and it is equally ridiculous to repeat the claims that his supporters saw him as some sort of Messiah.

During the primary campaign it became clear that Barack Obama was the only candidate I found acceptable who I thought had a reasonable chance to both beat Hillary Clinton and beat whoever would win the Republican nomination. Milbank believes Obama supporters did not see him as another politician. I never had any illusion that someone who could get to that stage was not a politician. The point is not that he was not a politician but that his type of politics was preferable to that practiced by both Hillary Clinton and the current Republican Party.

Milbank misunderstands the response to Obama’s decision to remain in Afghanistan. Yes, of the millions who voted for him I am sure that some were surprised and felt betrayed. Many more of us were fully aware that the current plan is totally consistent with the plans Obama discussed as a candidate. The fact that Obama had said he planned to remain in Afghanistan as a candidate does not mean we cannot criticize the policy. Campaigning on a policy does not give a candidate some sort of immunity to being criticized for the policy–even by those who supported the candidate. We knew that he was not a Messiah who would always be right.

I bet that many Obama supporters predicted, as I had, that Obama would do many things we would disagree with. Back in December 2007 I wrote my annual list of Festivus grievances, that year airing my grievances with the major presidential candidates. On Obama I wrote:

My suspicion is that in a couple of years I will be writing a number of blog posts disagreeing with some of your actions as president, but things will be far better than if any of your major opponents were to win.

Milbank concluded with reaction to Obama’s decision on Afghanistan, describing some of the opposition and writing:

His Afghanistan policy, likewise, is above all a pragmatic, nonideological strategy. He stayed true to his campaign promise to take the fight to the Taliban, but he also tried to build a consensus. You’d think his supporters might applaud this sort of thoughtful, methodical leadership as a repudiation of the Bush style of government by political theory.

Yes, it is true as Milbank also wrote, that some on the left have gone overboard in attacking Obama over this and other areas where they disagreed with him. Some have even unfairly compared Obama to George Bush. Just earlier today I wrote that “I Might Not Agree With Obama On Afghanistan But At Least He Seriously Considered The Issues.” The post praises Obama for at least seriously considering the ramifications of his policy and attempting to avoid past mistakes, along with contrasting Obama’s decision making style to that of George Bush.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I listened to a large portion of the audio book of David Plouffe’s book on the Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win, while driving or while following around family members as they went shopping. Obviously David Plouffe’s portrayal of Obama must be taken with a grain of salt but while listening I was thinking about why the Messiah line never really hurt Obama. Even while Plouffe was obviously building up Obama, it wasn’t as any sort of Messiah but as an intelligent man (repeat: man) who seriously considered the issues and who did represent a change from the politics of the Clintons and the Republicans (which over time had become virtually identical).

Obama will continue to make mistakes, or at least make decisions I do not agree with. What is important is that we have a president who seriously looks at the facts and asks questions before making deciding. That is not being a Messiah, but it is being vastly superior to his predecessor. I might disagree with some of Obama’s decisions, and certainly never saw him as any type of Messiah, but I still believe, as I did back in 2007, that we are better off than we would be if any of the other candidates had won.

Update: Public Policy Polling puts liberal dissatisfaction with Obama in perspective. While many do disagree with him on specific issues such as Afghanistan, overall only three percent of liberal Democrats disapprove of him.

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