As the public learned more about the details of Bowe Bergdahl’s release and the deal that led to it, criticism of the president’s actions came from his usual detractors. While a bipartisan group in Congress defended their own institutional prerogative to be notified of Guantanamo prisoner exchanges, the commentary has been a bit more ideologically skewed.

My fellow political scientist Justin Vaughn (who is also a friend and sometimes a co-author) wrote a post a few weeks ago noting legal and Constitutional objections to Obama’s decision to exchange five Guantanamo detainees in return for Bergdahl’s release. Vaughn’s objections included the more immediate legal question of Obama’s violation of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

Obama or Bush?

Steve Damron / flickr
Bush Street sign in San Francisco covered with Obama sticker.

In a subsequent discussion about Obama (on Facebook), Vaughn rightly pointed out that many liberal academics have stayed silent on Obama’s imperial actions when they would likely have responded strongly to similar choices from George W. Bush. He’s right, and it’s not just Bergdahl. Read Vaughn’s post on Obama and the Bergdahl swap. In the 2008 campaign, Obama was clear about his objection to wars and invasions without clear justifications and exit strategies. The Democratic Party platform stated in 2008, “We reject sweeping claims of ‘inherent’ presidential power.” Despite these commitments, the Obama administration has exercised considerable unilateral power.

Vaughn’s argument situated Obama’s decision in the Bergdahl case within the larger context of the imperial presidency, a term coined by Arthur Schlesinger to describe “the pattern of executive overreach and aggrandizement of power that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s to the pattern of executive overreach and aggrandizement of power that characterized the 1960s and early 1970s.”

Journalists and some legal scholars have voiced concerns about the administration’s overreach and broken promises. But Vaughn’s comments made me wonder about my obligations as a scholar. For someone who studies presidential politics for a living, are there any valid reasons to apply different standards to the presidents I personally support and those I oppose?


The first and most obvious possibility is that I’ve fallen into the trap of applying different standards to different leaders. On its face, this looks like plain hypocrisy. When Obama does something, because he shares my party affiliation, it must be the right thing to do. By contrast, when Bush does something, it must be wrong. This is a deeply reductive and cynical view.

But presidents, and the party affiliations we share with them, stand in for real values. Recent presidents have symbolically represented powerful ideas – positive and negative – associated with the two parties. Obama’s political persona calls forth ideas about internationalism, multiculturalism and academia – things that are loved on the left and viewed with suspicion, at best, on the right. In contrast, Bush represented religious faith, cowboy toughness and moral redemption. So it’s possible that the fact that Obama is making the decision signals to liberal Democrats that it’s a decision made with care, humanity and deliberation – regardless of whether that is actually true. This kind of information shortcut could be meaningful, or it could be deceptive and, to use Vaughn’s phrase from our online discussion, intellectually dishonest.


Another possibility is that the depth and asymmetry of polarization makes criticizing the president an unappealing choice.

When asked why so few liberals weighed in on Obama’s possibly illegal actions, my first reaction was, “why would we want to pile on?” This goes beyond mere defensiveness; the sense that the president can’t win, or is the victim of racially charged critiques, can dampen the urge to speak out about the administration’s more “imperial” actions. At times, it appears that Obama’s most vocal critics have stepped beyond the bounds of loyal opposition, undermining the legitimacy of the administration.

To be sure, there were some strong and vocal protests against George W. Bush during his time in office. But the left never produced anything like the Tea Party, and few questioned Bush’s right to be in office (even after the tumultuous 2000 election).

Congressional Democrats were much less united in their opposition to Bush than their Republican counterparts are to Obama. Although the approval numbers are similar, there are some important differences. It’s become commonplace for commentators on the right to suggest that Obama is deliberately hurting the country. This climate makes it difficult for those who generally support the president to offer a precise and reasoned objection to specific policy actions.

The chilling implications of this possibility are less obvious than with the first, but their subtlety makes them no less real. By dividing the country very clearly into “with us or against us” camps, the right-wing rage industry has replaced criticism aimed at improving policy with criticism aimed at delegitimizing the whole governing enterprise.


The third possibility that I’ll explore here is that the dearth of liberal academic criticism for Obama’s policies reflects legitimate cognitive dissonance, especially from those of us who cut our intellectual teeth reading scholarship on presidential war powers.

The first source of internal conflict is the contradiction that it seems many liberals face with foreign policy. We dislike many aspects of war – its implications for civil liberties, its diversion from domestic spending priorities, its devastating consequences for the environment and for human life. (Note: conservatives may not like these either, but that’s another post, best written by a conservative.) At the same time, many liberals also feel a pull toward humanitarian intervention. Guilt looms over “doing nothing” about catastrophes like Rwandan genocide. Maybe some liberals have a clear sense of the conditions under which they support intervention, and what kinds of interventions are most acceptable, but, if we’re being honest, I am not sure that I have clear and consistent standards.

Resolving that tension often leads us to procedure. Liberals can use procedure to discern between appropriate and inappropriate interventions – if the international community is on board, then the action is acceptable. Similarly, liberals tend to be more skeptical of presidential war powers, while conservatives are more likely to subscribe to ideas about stronger and more unilateral presidential power.

Process is important – the cooperation of the international community and the checks and balances of the Constitution both lend legitimacy and bring additional voices to the table. But liberals tend to shroud their arguments in these debates, sidestepping the real questions about what role the United States should play in the world, and when and whether military action is an effective response to humanitarian crises. We tend to fall back on Constitutional ideas, specifically, the idea that Congress should lead war efforts and the executive branch should defer.

These questions, while complex, are easier than thinking about how much we are willing to sacrifice for a humanitarian action or about how best to bring about peace and stability in a troubled region. Focusing on process also allows us to maintain the image of detached, scholarly neutrality.

This is a cop out if we, as liberals, want to take our own ideology seriously. The framers of the Constitution didn’t put Congress in charge based on an abstract principle. They placed the war power under Congressional control, not the president’s, because they thought this arrangement would produce better outcomes – namely, fewer reckless, expensive wars. In this line of thinking, Congress would deliberate and better reflect the concerns of the nation, involving the nation in conflict when it was most important and enjoyed the most public support.

But what if contemporary political reality requires something different? Specifically, what if presidents are sometimes – or even most of the time – best positioned to take the kinds of actions that will produce the best substantive results? There are a lot of things wrong with unilateral, sweeping executive power. But Congress, with its frequently myopic approach, its intractable partisan battles and its perpetual reelection campaigns, may not be much better. Perhaps we should turn our attention to harder debates over policy substance alongside our arguments about which branch should do what.


Scholars perform an important service to the community when we share our specialized knowledge and apply it to an important policy problem. I don’t think we need to abandon our own convictions in order to do so. Political scientists are especially well positioned to comment on policy debates in two ways. As I’ve suggested above, we can step back and comment on the larger implications of the debate – including our own responses to what our fellow citizens are saying. We can’t stop ourselves from having personal reactions, whether we have the impulse to defend or criticize, but we can ask ourselves why we have those reactions, and put our own responses in context.

We can also – sometimes – use data to assess cause and effect, and thus to generate ideas about what policies might bring about the most desirable outcomes. But we have to be willing to engage honestly about which outcomes we prefer and why.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.