What we’ve learned about Obama (and power)

by Russ Roberts on May 4, 2011

in Politics

Go back to the campaign of 2008, McCain (remember him?) and Obama. Suppose in the middle of the campaign, someone returned from the future and told you that by 2011, the President of the United States will have kept Guantanamo Bay open, launched a war against Libya, and crossed covertly into an ally’s territory to assassinate Bin Laden. Who would you think that would be? McCain or Obama?

Couldn’t be Obama. The man who was repulsed by American exceptionalism, who pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, the man who said the way to deal with bad guys is to talk to them, not attack them.

What happened?

Three possibilities come to mind. The first is that politicians on the campaign trail lie and dissemble. They need to motivate their base, craft an image, and so on.

The second possibility comes from a CIA economist who told me in the middle of the 2008 campaign that when Obama becomes President, he’ll know what Bush knows (meaning horrific and frightening classified information) and he’ll do the same thing as Bush.

The third possibility is that when you get into power, you change. It’s fun to play video games with real lives. You can’t help yourself. It’s easy to convince yourself (given that classified information) that you have no choice.

I think it’s a mix of two and three. I think Obama the candidate really thought he would be different. President Obama is not so different.

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Adam May 4, 2011 at 9:25 am

There’s a fourth possibility that you didn’t consider–that no matter what the president wants, he is more constrained in what he can accomplish than people believe he is. Eli Dourado made the point explicitly:

The fact is that Obama faces all kinds of political and institutional constraints in the execution of his role as president. There are not as many degrees of freedom as it may at first appear. Adam emphasizes the discretion that presidents have, and undoubtedly they do have some. But if Obama can’t even close Guantanamo, something that I believe he really wants to do, then the presidency probably matters less than people think.

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

I would have an easier time agreeing with that if the president hadn’t successfully rammed his health care bill down the throat of his own squirming party. In contrast, closing Guantanamo seems to have a lot more support within his party – yet, it’s still open.

Fearsome Tycoon May 4, 2011 at 11:53 am

You are vastly overestimating the role Obama had in crafting that bill and the legislative process by which it was passed (hint: none).

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Except, of course, for his signature making it law.

Economiser May 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm


Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Obviously, what Slappy said.

As far as I can tell, he crafted none of it and he didn’t know or care what was in it – just like congress!

Given that he and Nancy routinely dragged trembling Democrats into his office to “talk” them into voting for it, I really can’t buy that he had no hand in congress passing the thing.

PrometheeFeu May 5, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Actually, the healthcare reform he presided over is very tame by comparison to the one he promised as candidate. You should also consider how long it took for this bill to pass. Obama may have pushed some Democrats to vote, but overall, the very slow process is a testament to Obama’s inactivity on the subject.

Mikenshmirtz May 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm

“But if Obama can’t even close Guantanamo, something that I believe he really wants to do, then the presidency probably matters less than people think.”

I don’t think you’ve been paying very close attention.

geoih May 5, 2011 at 7:11 am

The Guantanamo question is a poor marker. It’s one thing when fanatical murderers are running around in Tora Bora (or Darfur or wherever), and another thing when you have them locked up in your back yard. No matter how much you think wild animals should be free, who would release them knowing that they will soon be back to hunting you?

A far better marker of Obama’s true convictions would be Libya. The empirical data on this topic are there for all to evaluate.

Bill Woolsey May 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

The Libya intervention follows liberal interventionist principles. Various international bodies approved it, and the Europeans have taken the lead. Instead of an explicit goal of regime change by the U.S., the “international community” is undertaking a humanitarian mission to protect the people. You know, like we should have done in Burundi.

As for Bin Laden, I would be surprised if any President had acted much different.

What? Ask Pakistan to make an arrest and extradite?

Perhaps I didn’t pay enough attention to Obama the candidate, but it seems to me that your impressions of them were based upon Fox News.

Russ Roberts May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

I don’t watch Fox News. I don’t have cable. My main point is that Obama the candidate promised much less military intervention, unilateral or otherwise and much more talk and negotiation. He promised more police and fewer soliders. He promised more criminal trials and fewer military tribunals.

Scott Murphy May 5, 2011 at 9:17 am


from the above site … “So part of the reason I think it’s so important for us to end the war in Iraq is to be able to get more troops into Afghanistan”-Obama circa 2008.

I think candidate Obama was fairly aggressive on foreign matters in debates. The marketing campaign from move on and others was not.

Martin Brock May 4, 2011 at 10:25 am

What? Nothing. Ignore bin Laden. Trivialize his role in “world affairs”. Don’t wage incredibly costly “war” on stateless actors. Call this policy “turn the other cheek” if you want.

Instead, the U.S. government has once again contributed to bin Laden’s legendary status. He didn’t imagine himself immortal. He’d rather lived another day to “fight” another day, but otherwise, this debacle is exactly how he wanted to go out. He didn’t commit suicide in a bunker like Hitler, and he didn’t cower in isolation before hanging like Hussein. He resisted ’til the bitter end, with the support of his allies, and now he’s a martyr. The entire Arabian Sea is his shrine.

danny May 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm

If we had engaged in the strategy set forth by your first paragraph I think we’d have saved hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars in seen and unseen costs and we’d probably be safer today for it.

It just doesn’t pay the bills at Lockheed to do nothing.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am

Why do people always assume that the critics of Obama all watch Fox News? I’d be surprised if 50% of the regular commentators here watch Fox.

If anything it just shows the bias of the anti-Fox people.

John V May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm

yes. similar response to my answer below.

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I always laugh at the people who are apoplectic about Fox news. Do I think that Fox news has a bias, sure, do I think they are sometimes sensationalist, absolutely.

However, for many many many decades, before the Internet, talk radio, and Fox news, there was only ONE point of view that ever got any noticeable air time or prominence in any media.

That was a center-left world view that was highly hostile to conservative thought, and highly dismissive of libertarian arguments.

Now, at least there is a little balance and the left get all bent out of shape about it.

Mark T May 4, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Yes, I didn’t even know Fox News was a separate channel from the Fox where I watch NFL games until a month ago. I just thought it was like CBS News, a division that ran the news program on the same channel I know as CBS. When an acquaintance of mine appeared on a show on Fox News, I said I tried to watch him [on "Fox"] but the show wasn’t on my Fox station for some reason. I was embarrassed to learn that Fox News was a different channel altogether.

The Reticulator May 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm

I dunno, I don’t watch it either. I used to say I’ve never seen it, but in recent years I’ve been unfortunate enough to have been in the same room with a FOX news broadcast a couple of times. Even more unfortunately, I’ve been in the same room with CNN a few times.

Maybe the critics of Obama’s critics spend a lot of time watching it. Somebody must.

I don’t watch TV news. I do recall seeing the 1982 election returns on TV — an evening when the only pleasure was watching Dan Rather backpedal. But that was the last time I watched election returns on TV, and it was probably about that time that I quit watching TV news altogether. In fact, we kept TV out of our house altogether for a couple years here and there in the 80s. Later, when he was grown up, one of my kids thanked me for it.

Well, there was an exception. My wife sometimes remarks how she was surprised to find me watching the television so much during the Gulf War. Wars have a way of increasing the power of government, even after the fighting is over. It was a time of anxiety. But there are a lot of big news events I’ve never seen on TV. I’ve never seen footage of the Twin Towers coming down, for example. I did watch some YouTube clips of the tsunami in Japan, but there were no TV idiots to have to listen to.

I hardly ever listen to presidential speeches. I’ve seen more of Vladimir Putin on TV (RTR Planeta on the internet) than George W Bush and Obama combined. But TV attracts stupidity. Nobody ever got any smarter by being on or near a television.

Chuck Yeager said something in his autobiography about his days as a young WWII fighter pilot. Some of his colleagues were not so skilled. He knew they were going to get killed. He didn’t want to have anything to do with them — didn’t want any of what they had to rub off on him. So he avoided them. Similarly, I avoid television. I don’t even listen to radio much any more. When driving I listen to audio books — history, mostly — or else just spend the time thinking. One can think better without that racket in one’s ear.

But often enough, I’ve been accused of getting my views of the world from FOX.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I find it funny that the ones trying to slander a person with the “you must watch Fox news” think they are so open minded and tolerant.

John V May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

“Perhaps I didn’t pay enough attention to Obama the candidate, but it seems to me that your impressions of them were based upon Fox News.”

Dumb answer. I displays the all to common need to cram everyone into one’s own mental paradigm.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Definitly. It really just shows their bias more than anything else. It’s some form of projection I guess.

crossofcrimson May 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm

“….but it seems to me that your impressions of them were based upon Fox News”

It’s too early to start this drinking game…

DaveyNC May 4, 2011 at 9:38 am

I think mostly number 2. It’s easy to run your mouth when on the campaign trail, but once you are the man in the chair, “s— gets real.”

Then, of course, there is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYefHfokP44&feature=player_embedded

Forgot about that.

Retardo May 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

Adam has a good point above.

Also, there are the constraints of getting re-elected, which touches on the “scary secrets” idea: Campaign promises don’t come with consequences. When you actually do close Guantanamo Bay, that may have results that you’ll have to explain to somebody.

Another point, related to the “scary secrets” hypothesis, is what Daniel Ellsberg had to say to Henry Kissinger on the subject. I imagine most readers here have seen that, but it’s worth a look — bearing in mind the irony of fanatical ideologue like Ellsberg lecturing somebody else about the limits of knowledge.

Sam Grove May 4, 2011 at 11:41 am

What Ellsberg didn’t include is that a lot of that information was provided to get the recipient to believe a certain way by someone who knows even more than the recipient.

What power to be whoever provides information to powerful people.

Andy May 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

Obama admitted lying about NAFTA on the campaign trail, I’m sure that’s not the only case.

ORyan May 4, 2011 at 9:47 am

Could be that what he did was actually the right thing to do. When running for office, the propaganda of easy Peace sells, but in the real world Peace is neither easy or cheap.

Corey May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am

In ref: Point three – I think it’s important to recognize that at the top of the chain of command you WANT the commander-in-chief to see individual soldiers and targets as virtual pawns in a video game. We have to trust that the large-scale goals are correct and that this commander is trying to win the ‘game’. We have to accept that the best generals must send men to be killed in order to reach those goals. The alternative is a kind of risk-induced paralysis where no goals are achieved.

Rugby1 May 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

“I think it’s important to recognize that at the top of the chain of command you WANT the commander-in-chief to see individual soldiers and targets as virtual pawns in a video game.”

I have to respectfully disagree with you. Although I do understand your finishing comment, I would rather a risk-induced paralysis then an environment where the Commander in Chief treats soldiers as pawns in a video game that are easily expendable in pursuit of a cause only understood in terms of “grand scale goals.” It is a singular belief in grand scale causes, correlated with treating humans as disposable assets that have lead to some of the worst atrocities of mankind.

Sorry but I do not have to blindly trust anyone, especially not a politician, who openly flip flops with political winds, is a known liar, has no military experience, and is surrounded by sycophants that probably fawn on his every muttering.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 9:54 am

I’m not happy with everything that Obama has done and I’ve definitely made points similar to the one here myself. In some cases I’m glad he changed his mind (I never thought Guantanamo should be closed – just that we should conduct ourselves in accordance with the law there). However – I do have to differ with you on this Osama bin Laden point. I think Obama has always been of the mind that al Qaeda is an enemy that we ought to be fighting, and with whom – short of surrender talks – talking isn’t on the table.

This is an interesting way of putting it: “It’s fun to play video games with real lives. You can’t help yourself.” I would have thought the people “playing video games” would be the candidates who ponitifcate but have no real sense of what they’re pontificating on until they actually get in the job. That doesn’t justify decisions made on the job – it’s just to say that I think you have it backwards, and that there’s nothing virtual about the job itself.

Marcus May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am

Concerning your second paragraph, no, he doesn’t have it backwards. He gave 3 options Daniel and the gist of your second paragraph is that you think #2 is more likely than #3.

Why not just say that. Damn.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 10:08 am

Well, OK.

But in saying #3 is less likely isn’t it reasonable for me to explain why I think #3 is unconvincing? Is providing thoughts and reactions illegit?

Marcus May 4, 2011 at 10:15 am

If that’s all you did I wouldn’t even have replied.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 9:59 am

I think the only sense in which Obama has “changed” is if you believed the advertising and the choreography. Obama has a pretty clear record and he’s stuck decently by that. He’s always said we have a military task to accomplish in Afghanistan, he’s always said he was going to withdrawl safely from Iraq. We’ve pulled back major combat operations – I personally think (and I’ve said this since Bush started talking about drawing down) that it seems dangerous and not in the interest of Iraqis to just leave immediately. Stopping combat operations, pulling back from the cities, reducing our troop level considerably, and then more slowly moving the rest of the troops out seems perfectly reasonable to me – and it ought to be what we should shortly consider doing in Afghanistan too. Anyone who thinks Obama is somehow going back on his word because he’s doing this isn’t being reasonable, I don’t think.

Same with Guantanamo – people are grasping at straws. What do you care more about – that conveniently we have a place off-shore to keep POWs and terror suspects, or that they are denied due process, basic human dignity, and are tortured. I care considerably more about the latter issues. Deal with those, and then who cares if Guantanamo itself is still open.

But you’re right – people playing politics with this still have the prison itself to point to. But I think the argument is weak. No politician is perfect. Was anyone under the impression that any was? When you come at it holding them to a perfection standard of course they’re going to fall flat. Big deal. Don’t we expect them all to fall flat by that standard?

It’s like judging econometrics against physics. Yes – if you pick an entirely non-sequitor standard of comparison it just might not meet that standard. So?

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:13 am

I think the only sense in which Obama has “changed” is if you believed the advertising and the choreography.

That’s such a good point, I think you could have just ended your comment right there. Political campaigns in general are little more than bait and switch operations. I’m not sure it’s possible for them to be anything else.

My physician likes to talk politics when I see him and he’s thinking about running for office. Although I’m in about 90% agreement with him on issues, I told him I wouldn’t have the heart to vote for him.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 11:22 am

Even that has wiggle room, though. “Hope” and “change” are pretty vacuous words. I still have hope it’s going to be a very important presidency, and I see all kinds of important changes that have been made.

But the campaign, of course, keeps it vague to appeal to me as well as people with a very different idea of what “hope” and “change” mean.

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:38 am

Yes, Hopey Changey was brilliantly vacuous. Since he never defined what he meant, he could be everything and anything to everyone and anyone. Of course, once he won, meeting all of everyone’s and anyone’s expectations was impossible.

I see it as an important presidency too and I see important changes as well. I just think they’re important and bad and you probably think they’re good.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

It is important, but not for the same reasons, I think most Liberals would think, exactly like you say.

It reminds me of Walter Williams quote; “For the nation and for black people, the first black president should be the caliber of a Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama is not. Barack Obama has charisma and charm but in terms of character, values and understanding, he is no Jackie Robinson.”

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Justin P -
Hmm – I imagine a lot of black people and a lot of the nation would take issue with Williams trying to speak for them this way. I think he’s plenty high caliber, and the fact that the first black president is of such relative high quality (as I said above – no politician and no person is perfect) is really fantastic.

Williams ought not to bring “black people” or “the nation” into it if he just wants to express his own dissatisfaction with Obama. Where’s the traditional Cafe Hayek revulsion at the use of the third person?

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Danny, he’s just expressing his opinion, not claiming to represent all black people.

I have no problem with someone saying “we should help the poor and the sick”. I start having a problem with the statement when it is turned into a government policy demand.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm


I can imagine that there are a lot of black people that agree with Dr. Williams assesment. Why are you trying to disparage Dr. Williams’ speaking for all black people with your own remark where your speaking for black people.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle…

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:39 am

“compassionate conservative” is another vacuous doozy.

carlsoane May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am

Good points.

I would add that killing Bin Laden helps us make an orderly and honorable exit from Afghanistan. We can now plausibly claim that we have accomplished our mission, and our mission as Obama has consistently described it: to exact justice for an attack on our soil.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am

The way I said it to someone yesterday is that killing bin Laden doesn’t give us a reason to leave Afghanistan. The reason we were there was never simply to get him, so it doesn’t provide a reason to leave. However, if we think there is reason to leave, it does provide an excuse to leave, where listing the actual reasons might be less convincing to the public. That may be OK.

I honestly don’t know much about the conditions in Afghanistan – I’m agnostic on whether we oughta still be there or not.

carlsoane May 4, 2011 at 11:52 am

As I see it, we were there to cripple or wipe out the organization that attacked us, Al Qaeda, and their facilitators, the Taliban. We have now overthrown the Taliban, crippled the operational capacity of Al Qaeda and taken out its leader. It’s going to be harder to justify being there for reasons related to the original mission.

carlsoane May 4, 2011 at 11:55 am

Let me clarify regarding the Taliban: they were a secondary goal. We believed we had to overthrow them to achieve our primary mission, but our fight wasn’t with them.

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm

You are going out of your way to make excuses for your guy.

He has done very little as far as I can see to fulfill any of his campaign promises, the only thing I can really think of that he has come through on is Health care, and that is a horrible bill that does nothing they promised it would do.

Sandre May 4, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Daniel Kuehn,

When I read your comment, I saw the bull shit meter go berserk.

Daniel says…“I think the only sense in which Obama has “changed” is if you believed the advertising and the choreography. “

Yes, that’s what a lot of people believe, not just in politcal campaigns, but in all kinds of social situations. The omniscient “progressive”(and conservative) goverments continuously and tirelessly fight against false advertisements, lest we get taken for a ride that we weren’t planning to go on. This post is the equivalent of your ridiculous comparison of the national hysteria following Obama’s election to the small but passionate following that Ron Paul has.

Yes, we are talking about advertisements – the kind that few regular readers/commentators on this blog bought, but a large part of the U.S population did. Yes, we are talking about the Obama choreography of the Obama promises that mesmerized the Nobel “Peace” committee

Daniel says….“Same with Guantanamo – people are grasping at straws. What do you care more about – that conveniently we have a place off-shore to keep POWs and terror suspects, or that they are denied due process, basic human dignity, and are tortured.”

I care about honesty and keeping promises, and I care about not promising anything that you are not planning to keep.

What do we care about in terms of war and combat? Consistency – between words and deeds, between his votes in Senate when Bush was president and his action after Obama took over the reigns; and between his election promises and his actions after occupying the whitehouse.

Obama’s false promises, here is a small sampling.

rpl May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am

The problem with your second possibility is that it easily turns into a blanket denial of accountability. “Sure, my policies look crazy, but if you only knew what I know, you’d understand.” That’s asking for a lot of trust, and in cases where the truth eventually comes out, we find that it’s a trust that has all too often been abused. Too often, once we know what they know we find that their policies were not just possibly misguided or self-serving, but definitely so.

muirgeo May 4, 2011 at 10:07 am

We are NOT at war with Libya. Candidate Obama specifically stated he would go after a target in Pakistan if their leadership didn’t respond. ( see video starting at 1:40.


But yes a candidate could not possibly know the hellish issues the previous administration got us into with Guantanamo… and I suspect most of us lay people are not privy to the issues that didn’t allow him to keep his promise.

So the forth possibility which you didn’t offer…that you are mis-representing some of the facts… seems the most likely.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 10:08 am

I forgot about that point on Pakistan – that’s a good point.

Russ Roberts May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am

But the Seals could have captured Obama alive and put him on civil trial. I know, that might not be a good idea. But as I pointed out in the comment to Bill Woolsey above, Obama’s whole campaign and demeanor as a candidate was based on talking and negotiating vs. intervention, civil trials vs. military tribunals and not alienating the rest of the world by acting acting like a cowboy. In the case of Bin Laden, Obama acted like a cowboy. His speech on Sunday night could have been written by George Bush’s speech writers. It was about America’s right to fight evil and bring about justice. I have no problem with that. I’m just saying that it’s a speech that strikes me as discordant with Obama the candidate.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am

If the Seals captured Obama alive I think they’d be court martialed.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 10:30 am

I’m just joking – I’ve done this once already too. “oSama” has been out of the news so long and “Obama” is so normal to say that it’s inevitable. Apparently this is why a lot of networks have written it as “Usama” because several “Obamas” have slipped through.

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am

But the Seals could have captured Obama alive and put him on civil trial.

Russ, I agree with your main points, but are you sure about this statement? Are you certain that the option existed in the midst of the raid?

Russ Roberts May 4, 2011 at 11:32 am

Evidently he was unarmed. That of course doesn’t necessarily mean they could have taken him alive. But it does appear that was not the goal of the mission. FWIW, I don’t think it should have been.

Methinks1776 May 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

I agree that it shouldn’t have been.

I would think he wouldn’t have been armed as he was probably surrounded by a private armed guard. I don’t think we will ever know if he could have been taken alive.

Kurlos May 4, 2011 at 11:40 am

The Secretary of Defense is the same, so you’d expect some continuity.

In the clip below, in 2007, candidate Obama makes it clear what he would do if he became aware of bin Laden’s location, with or without the permission of Pakistan. He described previous decisions to not “take out” bid Laden when we had a chance a “terrible mistake.”


Justin P May 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm

What makes you believe that he isn’t still alive somewhere, spilling his guts to his interrogators. No, I’m not a conspiracy nut, but you have to admit so far the evidence that he is really dead pretty much comes down to “because Obama said so.”

An Osama alive and spilling information but everyone thinks he is dead is far more valuable than killing him or capturing him and put him on trial.

Remember too this is the Obama that was against rendition, before he was all for it.

When it comes to intelligence, no one is ever telling the truth.

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 10:45 am

I am pretty sure firing missles and dropping bombs on the leadership of a soverniegn nation would qualify as a war.

Richard Stands May 5, 2011 at 12:12 am

As Mr. Cook tweeted:

“Barack Obama has now been responsible for firing more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace prize winners combined.”

Methinks1776 May 5, 2011 at 9:22 am


carlsoane May 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I agree with you that Obama has been consistent in his position on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But I think we are at war with Libya. What else do you call it when you are shooting down a country’s planes in their airspace? We are fighting the war with limited aims, but a war nonetheless. Imagine if China were sitting off our coast shooting down our fighters as they flew across California. We’d consider it a war.

MWG May 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

“We are NOT at war with Libya.”

Talk about sheople. You’ll eat anything Obama regurgitates into you mouth.

“But yes a candidate could not possibly know the hellish issues the previous administration got us into with Guantanamo… and I suspect most of us lay people are not privy to the issues that didn’t allow him to keep his promise.”

So we should just blindly accept any decision he makes, right? At least as long as he has a big ‘D’ at the end of his name.

Damn, you’re a partisan hack.

Economiser May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

I agree on GITMO and Libya. Bin Laden is a different case, though — I think any mainstream presidential candidate in 2008, including Candidate Obama, would’ve made the decision to attack Bin Laden under the circumstances. And if asked at the time, I expect they would’ve said as much.

To Daniel Kuehn’s point, most of us (or at least, I do) speak of “closing GITMO” as shorthand for enforcing US law there. Whether or not the prison is physically closed is secondary.

Brad Hutchings May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am

Actually, during the campaign, Obama actually did say that he would strike inside Pakistan if circumstances were right. The general reaction was that he was scary naive.

This Pakistan thing is a far worse development in the long run than UBL. Probably not Obama’s fault. The fact that we did this pretty much says that Pakistan is a completely worthless country with 100 nukes pointed primarily at the country that will be our most important ally of this century, India. Trotting out Jimmy Carter to patch things up on TV is a transparently empty gesture.

Randy May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am

What have we learned? Nothing new. Politicians use people. We already know this. Obama is incidental.

Martin Brock May 4, 2011 at 10:14 am

All of the above. Successful politicians lie/dissemble for a living. Classified information reinforces their delusions of grandeur. Power corrupts.

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 10:35 am

I have come to the realization that maintaining the status quo is a massive incentive for politicians.

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 10:37 am

BTW — can the media outlets please agree if its Usama or Osama….

The Spokesrider May 4, 2011 at 11:45 am

Why should they? Did they ever agree about Qadaffi/Khadaffi/whatever? His name came from a different language with a different alphabet. And there are different dialects. How you put those names in English letters may vary.

Besides, we need less conformity among our media, not more.

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Than I shall call him Fred.

Slappy McFee May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm

And they found him in Atlanta, rolling dice at the blackjack table at the TajMahal.

hanmeng May 4, 2011 at 11:06 am

Video games indeed. Not so long ago, Obama complained about the White House: “When it comes to technology, we are like 30 years behind.” Before he got to the White House, he said he was expecting “really cool phones and stuff.” Now he’s as happy a kid, playing war.

vidyohs May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am

You list three possibilities to which I will add one probability.

Probability #1. As a candidate Obama had zero valid ideas about the how the real world works, and his advisers collectively may have had only a tad more knowledge, with many of them being farther out in Marxist la la land than Obama himself. Therefore his entire campaign was very visibly carefully crafted rhetoric to inflame and inspire the anti-bush crowd and the large numbers of new young ignorant voters. Once in office Obama found that the president serves, but not necessarily the American people.

The Spokesrider May 4, 2011 at 11:39 am

In 1964, when I was in high school, I predicted that Lyndon Johnson would escalate in Vietnam the way his campaign was accusing the Goldwater campaign of wanting to do, though maybe do it less intelligently. I wish I had not been right about that. (I don’t recall if “escalate” was the word in use already in 1964, though.) In 2008 I told Obama supporters that they were voting for Bush IV. I was right about that, too.

Your CIA economist is partly right, though I don’t think it’s just a matter of having access to classified information. People behave differently once they are put in a position of responsibility. Of course, LBJ was already in a position of responsibility during the 1964 campaign, but politicians lie a lot, too. And sometimes they misjudge the options that will be available to them.

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Brother, brother,

We don’t need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer

For only love can conquer hate…

whotrustedus May 4, 2011 at 11:46 am

I’m actually prone to believe the first explanation. I’m generally skeptical of the candidates of the major parties. As such, I usually vote for some 3rd party or another. During the campaign, I initially thought that Obama might be the lesser of the 2 evils because I thought his foreign policy perspectives seemed more rational than McCain and that a president can have more independent (aka independent of Congress) influence over foreign affairs than domestic affairs. As the campaign wore on, I sensed that Obama was really just a conventional politician with a slightly better than average campaign presence. I kept telling my friends that Obama would end up not as “hope and change” but instead would be “more of the same”. I think he had every intention to work within the system and continue to carry out the policies that were already in motion. But like all successful politicians, he was able spin his campaign message so that voters could hear what they wanted to hear.

Anotherphil May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Explain this:

“I initially thought that Obama might be the lesser of the 2 evils because I thought his foreign policy perspectives seemed more rational than McCain”

For the life of me, I don’t know how anybody could think Obama would be more rational than McCain. There was a mountain to dislike about McCain (McCain-Feingold being his magnum opus) but what made you think a “community organizer” would be more “rational” than a guy whose been around the block more than a few times, including having seen war up close and personal as opposed to a “community organizer” with 143 days in the Senate as credentials.

Seriously, Are you just trying to help Professor Caplan sell more copies of “The Myth of the Rational Voter”?

After 2008, I am more convinced than ever that the “pied piper of hamlin” was a political allegory and the vast majority of people today are just as gullible as the people that bought snake oil decades ago.

Scott G May 4, 2011 at 11:50 am

Bryan Caplan and Adam Smith say it best.

“The conventional complaint about politicians is ‘shirking’ – their failure to do what voters want. I maintain that ‘shirking’ should be dethroned in favor of ‘demagoguery.’ Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a demagogue as ‘a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.’” Bryan Caplan

This applies to candidate Obama and President Obama.

“Every politician…neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value to himself, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to demote an end which was no part of his intention.” Adam Smith and Scott G

Sam Grove May 4, 2011 at 11:58 am

If a president learns that some of the classified information he’d received was “erroneous” or “misleading” wouldn’t that induce a certain paranoia?

When “enlightened” with highly classified information wouldn’t one tend to assume it’s all true?

Then, when there’s doubt, but the stakes are high, one must then inform others in such a way so as to preclude doubt. One becomes a liar.

The whole thing stinks.

Justin P May 4, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Don’t forget that Obama relied on “alternative interrogation” techniques to get the intelligence needed to go after Osama.

I wonder if the Left will want him impeached over it like they did with Bush?

Harald May 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm

The (mostly crazy) socialist philosopher Slavoj Zizek lamented Obamas victory and said that he would have preferred McCain to be elected. This because Obama would have to prove his hawkishness to the American public while McCain would not. Only McCain would be able to remain unquestioned on defense policy while dismantling the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Anotherphil May 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Everybody misses the obvious.

Back in my audit days, there used to be an expression “SALY” (same as last year). When a new audit staff was dispatched to an existing client, and had to learn the peculiarities of that client, the first thing they would do was refer to the prior staff’s workpapers and obtain new data but otherwise the form and content was SALY.

As such, candidate Obama thought he knew everything, found out he didn’t and now, seeing the danger 4.00/ 5.00?.per gallon gas poses to his ten vacation per year job, went back to George Bush’s playbook.

As for the difference between his promise and practice, he’s a particularly amoral politician. They all change when in office, he’s just unusual in that the change of direction is 180 degrees and the fawning leftists in the press aren’t pointing out that he’s now stealing his predecessor’s playbook.

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I would agree with his being more amoral than the average politician, seeing as that he came out of the totally 100% corrupt Chicago political machine. No way an honest person can survive that kind of atmosphere.

Bush was not the brightest leader we ever had, and was wrong on a whole lot of things, But you always thought that he was wrong on things because of principle, not just for the sake of pandering.

Anotherphil May 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Kyle, I agree with you, except he’s not just a passive product of Chicago bare-knuckle politics. Instead he was an eager student of Saul Alinski and the whole revolutionary mass that ascribes to V I Lenin’s quip about the object of power is its acquisition, its use will be determined later. He wasn’t merely corroded by Chicago, he sought out corrupting influences and embraced them.

The only difference I see between Obama and Orwell’s prescient anticipation of people like him is that that Snowball wasn’t “much of a talker” and had a single wordsmith in Squealer. Obama can talk (with a teleprompter) and subsists on an army of squealers and of course legions of “boxers” who always insist that Obama is always right.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm since seventrh grade, do it. Also read Brave New World by Huxley.

As for Bush, he was bright enough to get an Ivy League MBA. There are plenty of mensa-level folks walking around that make Bush’s oratory sound like Churchill. Inarticulate is not stupid. That narrative is not only wrong, its dangerous-as it paves the way for the artful monsters. You want “great” oratory? Nuremberg-1930′s. Even if Hitler was staccato and hardly mellifluous, he was persuasive enough to bring hell on earth.

I only hope we can snap back from the “soft tyranny” (Toqueville) and that its not to late.

Don’t buy into that Obama is “incandescent” brilliant crap. Nobody has the omnicompetence ascribed to him-he has the pretence of knowledge.

Away from the script, his command of the language, is uh, er uh. There’s a reason he conceals his grades and papers. He’s ambitious-but his ambitiouns involve reording society-which by its very nature makes us pawns on his chessboard.

As an aside, great article just posted in the WSJ about how the whole “transparency” mantra was a mirage as well.

Anotherphil May 4, 2011 at 3:14 pm

And yes, I type like Bush speaks.

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm

I find it interesting to juxtapoz the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. Orwell was good at drawing a picture of a possible totalitarian future, but that one did not come to pass, instead communism died.

But Huxley was far more prescient. A future where the government controls by trying to eliminate all causes of conflict, and by giving the populace the diversions they want, even though it destroys them.

Anotherphil May 5, 2011 at 11:12 am

I sort of thought the central message of animal farm is that once the revolutionaries acquire power, they will acquire the manners of the rulers they deposed.

The ironic thing is that Orwell was a socialist.

Mark T May 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm

We could also add that this candidate extended the Bush tax cuts for two more years in the face of strong Democratic opposition and massive deficits, bailed out Wall Street, and signed a health insurance bill that expanded the role of health insurance companies and included an individual mandate. How is the McCain era going, everyone?

kyle8 May 4, 2011 at 5:30 pm

and nothing that McCain has done or said since the election makes me loath him any less.

Downsize DC May 4, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Obama’s vote for the FISA Amendments Act in 2008, and that both he and McCain both voted for the Bailout, provided reason to doubt that Obama would be so different.

Daniel Kuehn May 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Regarding this: “The second possibility comes from a CIA economist who told me in the middle of the 2008 campaign that when Obama becomes President, he’ll know what Bush knows (meaning horrific and frightening classified information) and he’ll do the same thing as Bush.”

I know a few people in the intelligence community, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they like to brag about the secrecy and the information divide, and the sort of things they’re privy too. I could be wrong (that’s kind of the point – I’m not privy to the information), but I doubt there are a lot of complete surprises that you find out when you’re president. What you probably find out is a lot of the (1.) details and specifics, and (2.) back-room dealings and discussions.

I think most reasonable people would assume, for example, that al Qaeda has tried to develop nuclear weapons and developed plans for how they’ll set them off. And I think most reasonable people would assume that there’s some chance they have an operational program that’s a real threat and that there’s a chance that they’ve already tried it and been foiled. It’s absurd to think that the relative quiet of domestic attacks in the last ten years is because aside from the scattered instances we know about they haven’t tried anything. Most reasonable people, I think, assume they’ve tried lots of stuff and most reasonable people assume there’s some probability some of those attacks had a nuclear component. When you’re president, you find out exactly what attacks have been foiled and exactly how far along they have been in building these weapons – but I would imagine there’s little that would surprise you in the sense that you hadn’t considered and accepted the prospect of it.

Most of what intelligence-types know is probably mundane but absolutely essential details. The stuff that is less mundane and more substantial may be weighty stuff, but probably not things that would “surprise” anyone that’s really thought about the threat of terrorism.

BV May 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm

… depends upon who gets to define “reasonable” and “absurd”.

BV May 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm

… and probably, and assume, and doubt, and …

Jeff Neal May 4, 2011 at 5:37 pm

He is different – he’s rude and small. See here for my take on his rudeness to Donald Trump – a scene very much like his publicly chastising the Supreme Court during the state of union.

> http://wp.me/p1jTK0-6K

BR Kelley May 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

First, McCain, as well as Obama, campaigned on the promise of closing Gitmo. Second, McCain, as well as Obama, campaigned on ending “enhanced interrogation.” Third, McCain, as well as Obama, campaigned on ending military tribunals.

McCain has fallen lockstep behind Obama’s adventurism in North Africa. He could have easily given the SOTU berating the Supremes for their Citizens United decision.

Whereas in ’08 voters knew Obama was an authoritarian on economic issues, they remained unconvinced of his authoritarian foreign policy tendency. However, voters knew of McCain’s authoritarian deference on foreign affairs, they were unconvinced he was benign on economic issues.

SheetWise May 4, 2011 at 11:26 pm

“… a CIA economist who told me in the middle of the 2008 campaign that when Obama becomes President, he’ll know what Bush knows and he’ll do the same thing as Bush.”

It’s the only answer that makes sense. We don’t know what either one of them know.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” — Winston Churchill

DRNV May 5, 2011 at 9:30 am

How does one become a CIA economist? Is that what Krugman really is? Are the NY Times Financial Section & Harvard Business School just counter-insurgency puppet fronts to control counter-economics?

ACW May 5, 2011 at 9:18 am

IIRC, Obama wrote in “Audacity of Hope” that his three biggest American heroes were Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR. With the possible exception of GWB, you could not possible find three people in our history who were MORE in favor of a strong, powerful executive branch. In other words, I think Obama did signal us that he wouldn’t be all that different. We just chose to ignore it. (I include myself here. As a libertarian, I was at least somewhat hopeful that he would be better on foreign policy and civil liberties. Oh well…)

Anotherphil May 5, 2011 at 11:13 am

Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Jackson.

Power is so seductive.

DRNV May 5, 2011 at 9:21 am

Bismillah from the Deseret Lands of Pahrump through Salt Lake. Is not this land ruled by a de facto Gestapo? A reformed Gestapo that mainly incarcerates & spies, but a Gestapo nonetheless.
Everybody from the children of Bugsy to the the children of Brigham Young sing together now: “This land is 90% government owned land, it isn’t your land, from California to the…”

Greg Ransom May 5, 2011 at 9:53 am

Obama openly advocated this in the Presidential debate, McCain didn’t:

“and crossed covertly into an ally’s territory to assassinate Bin Laden.”

Marty Mazorra May 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Great points Don… I’m going to post your article on my blog… thanks!

Marty Mazorra May 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Oops, I mean great points Russ…

B.Stone May 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Russ Roberts:
“Obama’s whole campaign and demeanor as a candidate was based on talking and negotiating vs. intervention, civil trials vs. military tribunals and not alienating the rest of the world by acting acting like a cowboy. In the case of Bin Laden, Obama acted like a cowboy. ”

I don’t mean to nitpick (or maybe I do), but I’ve always disliked what the phrase “acted like a cowboy” insinuated. It’s as if cowboy is a synonym for a renegade outlaw without regard for morality or justice and who sees violence as the solution to every disagreement. This is completely contrary to the vast majority of both historical cowboys and modern ones, and it certainly wasn’t these traits that led cowboys to be iconic heroes for much of the globe. Sure, I write this from Texas which admittedly raises the possibility of my bias on the matter, but then again I might also say that being in Texas and being immersed in the history of the West provides me a thorough first-hand knowledge compared to those whose conception of cowboys is formed from movies and prevailing opinion (which usually involves regional bigotry).

I’m not even disagreeing with the points you raised on Obama, and I’m not assuming you even intended anything by it. I just might suggest you quit giving cowboys a bad name.

gdg May 6, 2011 at 9:46 am

Actually, Obama promised to kill Bin Laden during his campaign but not surprised that this blog would promote the WSJ/Foxnews disinformation agenda:


Tim May 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm

“The man who was repulsed by American exceptionalism, ”

He never said that. All he said was every country feels like they are “exceptional.”

If you are going to make stupid remarks, at least get your facts right.

lyesmith May 9, 2011 at 2:49 pm

” crossed covertly into an ally’s territory to assassinate Bin Laden”

Hmm If I am not mistaken in 2007 Obama actually said that he would do that, and do it in Pakistan.

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