Obama Warns Democrats Against ‘Circular Firing Squads’

"We have to be careful in balancing big dreams and bold ideas with also recognizing that typically change happens in steps."

firing squad lego peeps
Photo by Chris Christian (wiredforlego) under Creative Commons share-alike license.

Former President Barack Obama is concerned that his party is tearing itself apart.

“The way we structure democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you,” he said at an Obama Foundation town hall event in Berlin, Germany. “And that by definition means you’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want.

“One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives,” he continued, “we start sometimes creating what’s called a ‘circular firing squad’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.”

New York Post, “Obama: Democrats are having a ‘circular firing squad’ over ‘purity'”

As a longtime Republican driven out from that party as it was gradually taken over by extremists, I’m sympathetic to this concern. And I worry that the Democratic Party will alienate moderates and make it easier for Donald Trump to be re-elected President.

That said, presidential primary season is when the out-party struggles to define its identity. It’s actually quite healthy that the Democrats are hearing from self-described socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez*, progressive capitalists like Elizabeth Warren, comparative conservatives like Joe Biden, and a panoply of other candidates who offer variations within the spectrum.

Ultimately, though, Obama seems to be suggesting moderation in tone and conservatism in style rather than any ideological prescription:

The former president said he believes this approach “weakens” movements, and that those that would like to see a progressive agenda “have to recognize that the way we’ve structured democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you.”

Obama ended his speech by advocating for patience and incremental change: “We have to be careful in balancing big dreams and bold ideas with also recognizing that typically change happens in steps. And if you want to skip steps, you can. Historically what’s ended up happening is sometimes if you skip too many steps you end up having bad outcomes.”

Vox, “Barack Obama warns against a “circular firing squad” over ideological purity in politics”

He’s absolutely right about that.

_____________

*Yes, I’m aware she’s not running for the 2020 Democratic nomination; indeed, she’s Constitutionally ineligible because of her age. But she’s very much shaping the conversation and potentially part of the “firing squad” in question.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Something that I watched in fascination and dread that it would come to the Dems is RINO-ism. For the past 20 years an advantage the Dems have had is the relatively big tent though that is changing, first with the 2010 red wave and the decimation of the Blue Dogs and then the rise of the Bernie-crats. Makes me wistful for the days when Ted Kennedy or Paul Wellstone could craft a compromise with Orin Hatch or Pete Domenici and then cajole enough Dems to support the compromise that it would avoid the filibuster and pass the Senate.

    As a Dem who thinks of himself as a liberal, I don’t want the entertaining AOC or the despicable Bernie Sanders defining what it means to be a Dem.

  2. JOHN LENNON says:

    Great advise. The US Congress has become the enemy within and have lost their sense of purpose where they have become investigators in place of being legislators.

    They were elected to do what is right for the United States and all Americans to make our country a better place.

    Infighting will not accomplish that. WE must address the major concerns of poverty, failing schools, crime, homelessness, along with a myriad of other problems.

    I am the son of immigrant parents who came to this country for a better life in the 1920s and suffered through the Great Depression and WWII.

    They saw their sons go to war to ensure that the United States remained free from foreign intervention. I was drafted in 1954 to serve the country I was
    blessed to have been born in.

    I was drafted in 1954 and was proud to serve our great country. I am in the process of finishing my book which is highly critical of the country as it is today
    and the title is appropriate: A NATION OF MISFITS GOVERNED BY NITWITS

    When I was young, I was a Democrat, our entire neighborhood were all Democrats. Later in life the majority of Democrats switched parties. We didn’t
    leave the party, they left us

  3. Gustopher says:

    I would be worried if the Democrats were really going after one another on purity, but I haven’t seen that.

    Joe Biden got a multipronged attack on his many vulnerabilities, but they were going to come up as issues one way or another before the general election. If he survives, he survives stronger. Not touching women without their consent is not exactly deep into purity territory, and the forty year old issue attacks fell flat.

    Kirsten Gillibrand is somehow the villain of the Al Frankenstein story, but that’s not a purity attack, that’s an angry manchild attack. Even putting it into the purity framework, she is attacked for being too pure.

    People say Beto’s record was too conservative, but almost invariably follow it up with that they would vote for him. BTW, I really like that Beto seems to get non-white folks (as a white folk myself, I cannot say whether he really does, just that he seems to).

    If anything, puttering around Seattle and talking to my usual barflies, etc., I have seen a rumbling that the party is hostile to white men by having all these women running, which means that 1) any candidate needs to smooth that over, and 2) white men are really fvcking fragile.

    However, I do expect that if Buttigieg continues to surge, that some people will round up the purity ponies for a stampede. He’s a bit too conciliatory to conservatives for some people’s taste. And, he may be tone deaf or naive on race (he has plenty of time to show that he isn’t, but things like “all lives matter” and his willingness to chat with Ben Shapiro on twitter leave me … not quite concerned, but cautious).

    But, I think there has to be a small amount of purity pony patrols around the edge of the big tent. If the Republicans had that, they would have driven off Trump, for instance.

    Any Democratic nominee is going to be:
    – pro-choice
    – better than “not actively hostile to women and minorities”
    – for universal health care
    – concerned about the environment and global warming

    There are boundaries, but it’s a pretty big tent. And it gets stretched out further for Senate and House races (see the guy from West Virginia whose name I am blanking on)

    (Since I am apparently all Buttigieg all the time, I just want to add — every McKinsey consultant I’ve known has had the same character flaw: looking at numbers and not seeing the people behind those numbers. Buttigieg left McKinsey because he wanted to do more to help people. I can’t quite square that, and it leaves me cautious.)

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  4. Gustopher says:

    I love that one of the related posts to this is: “Texas Cheerleader Who Refused to Cheer Rapist Loses in Court”

    I mean, I hate that that happened, but it really provides a strong counter point to fears of a curricular firing squad on purity.

    Also, I am pleased that Democrats worry about being too focused on ideological purity, rather than worrying about racial purity.

  5. Teve says:

    If anything, puttering around Seattle and talking to my usual barflies, etc., I have seen a rumbling that the party is hostile to white men by having all these women running, which means that 1) any candidate needs to smooth that over, and 2) white men are really fvcking fragile.

    Fuck yeah we are. When you grow up getting extra special treatment that you don’t even realize you’re getting, it makes you thin skinned.

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  6. Scott F. says:

    Obama’s advocacy for patience and incremental change isn’t new for him and it has an uneven track record.

    On the one hand, Obama’s conciliatory efforts to take into account people who didn’t agree with him won him the pleasure of being sh*t upon for eight years by a nihilistic opposition party. He would try to “go high” but they kept going lower and lower, so it’s hard to see that his earnest attempts to be understanding won him even some common decency from his ideological opposites.

    On the other hand, the ACA was the most significant progressive legislative accomplishment since I started voted in the 80’s. He swung for the fences on healthcare, then compromised for a ground rule double that was more incremental than many would have liked. Yet, without Obamacare then, there wouldn’t be calls for Medicare for All now.

    I think the framing of “moderation in tone but not in ideology” has it about right. One can be civil while calling for bold change. Just don’t expect to get any credit for your civility and be prepared to seize any ground short of your bold position as progress forward. Purity is for hand soap.

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher:

    (… every McKinsey consultant I’ve known has had the same character flaw: looking at numbers and not seeing the people behind those numbers. Buttigieg left McKinsey because he wanted to do more to help people. I can’t quite square that, and it leaves me cautious.)

    Contextualize it this way. Maybe leaving shows that he learned something. Just sayin’.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    The US Congress has become the enemy within and have lost their sense of purpose where they have become investigators in place of being legislators.

    In case you didn’t know, investigating is part of their job…

  9. Martin says:

    On the other hand, the ACA was the most significant progressive legislative accomplishment since I started voted in the 80’s. He swung for the fences on healthcare, then compromised for a ground rule double that was more incremental than many would have liked. Yet, without Obamacare then, there wouldn’t be calls for Medicare for All now.

    HRC proposed a universal program as First Lady, remember? But it was shot down by the AMA. Since then, the medical supply industry has become huge, thus hospital bills have skyrocketed, and there are more opponents now. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this claim by Scott F. ACA is the worst of both worlds: forced on people, but doesn’t cover adequately. And now the Reptile Party has gutted key parts of it.

    How BHO managed to blow a supermajority in his first two years is beyond me. Notice how Dummercrats whine about the Electoral College when they are in opposition but mysteriously were silent when BHO had that supermajority and could have sent an Amendment to the states. Ironic that this failed progressive is likely to be known by history for two things: breaking the racial glass ceiling (which doesn’t mean a lot of people climb up thru it) and becoming a sage ex-president.

    “Circular firing squad” = good one. None of the media commentators seem to get the image. If the squad is in a circle, they start shooting their own after the target drops. French Revolution didn’t end well either.

    As Mike Wong and many other non-whites have pointed out, “We don’t need white people to tell us what to be offended at.” Yet concern trolls are everywhere in Dummer strongholds, stirring up panic (Baby Bush’s modus operandi for draining the Clinton era surplus and terrorizing the populace).

    Remember the Christakis incident at Yale? Husband-wife co-hosts of a dorm circulated an email saying that their students didn’t have to follow a directive from Diversity Central about what NOT to wear on Halloween. Their position was that college students should learn to make their own decisions, a developmental stance that is anathema to the PC police.

    Now that our economy has been hollowed out by bankers, the two rising routes for employment are the security industry as promoted by the right (TSA, etc.) and admin jobs on campus and in corporate HR as promoted by the left (Diversity VP and other armies of concern trolls who endlessly find new ways to justify their roles).

    Worried about RINO? How about LINO = liberal in name only. Loves to scream about identity tags and microaggressions, but doesn’t care about actual lives being lost in perpetual wars overseas, unions being busted and wages stagnating, or the old meme of innocent until proven guilty that was established after a very long historical recognition that “it could happen to me, too.”

    I only voted for Obama once, based on the adage “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Check out Obama the Conservative for a long list of his un-liberal policies, actions, and inactions, including continuation of Bush wars, deepening of domestic spying, list of countries that need extra scrutiny for visas to visit the US (that’s right, Trump didn’t create the original list), making nice with Wall Street, failure to close Gitmo, and many more.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: How often do people learn something? Like really learn something and actually fundamentally change? Possible, but rare. He may have even been a poor fit there all along (he was young when he went there, even younger than now!).

    He seems too good to be true, and I recognize that all my years of listening to NPR have primed me to salivate at the prospect of a young, thoughtful, ivy educated, midwest progressive with military experience who can speak to all sides in seven languages about James Joyce and his faith informing his progressive views. I think he’s kind of amazing, but I’ve been programmed to find him amazing.

    I’m waiting for the discovery that he is a serial killer or something. Or that he’s as wildly out of touch with America as I am.

  11. Gustopher says:

    @Martin:

    HRC proposed a better program as First Lady, but it was shot down by the AMA.

    The best plan means nothing without the ability to get it passed. Alternately, part of any plan has to include getting it passed.

  12. Martin says:

    @Gustopher: So, how hard could that have been with a supermajority? And “one step at a time” rings hollow when there are so many aspects of his presidency where zero steps were taken.

  13. Martin says:

    @Gustopher:How often do people learn something? Like really learn something and actually fundamentally change? Possible, but rare. He may have even been a poor fit there all along (he was young when he went there, even younger than now!).
    I don’t see a problem here. If you’re saying he was really young and probably didn’t fit, then he’s not really changing/learning. He’s just realizing where his moral compass always was.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    How BHO managed to blow a supermajority in his first two years is beyond me.

    Umm, no, that’s not what happened

  15. Martin says:

    President Obama should have gotten more done

    from the second link

    OK, I stand corrected: 4 months of supermajority, not 2 years. But the above excerpt is still a valid critique: previous presidents who lacked a supermajority still got a lot done. What we see about Obama are endless excuses that his “hands were tied” (ironically echoing “Let Reagan be Reagan” or “Trump would drain the swamp but the Deep State is stopping him”).

    And you haven’t addressed the LINO epithet, nor the very long list on the Obama the Conservative web site. Those criticisms can’t be countered with “he tried to be conciliatory and the Reptiles just kept undermining him.” Perpetuating Bush’s mistakes isn’t a matter of being conciliatory.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @Martin: Obama was limited by what the 50th and 60th most progressive members of the Senate would accept, for reconciliation and filibuster purposes. And, the Republicans in the Senate did everything they could to stop him.

    He doesn’t have a Green Lantern ring, he couldn’t push things through by sheer willpower.

    Guess what? The next Democratic President also will not have a Green Lantern ring, and also will not be able to enact an agenda entirely through willpower. Unless we nominate John Stewart (Hal Jordan has some unfortunate past associations with Paralax, and anyway, I think we’ve had enough white men, don’t you?).

    It’s also hard to take anyone seriously who refers to Republicans as Reptiles, rather than Rethuglicans.

  17. Jen says:

    Regarding Beto being too conservative and Buttigieg being “too conciliatory to conservatives for some people’s taste,”–these individuals need to be handed a map. Indiana and Texas are red states. One of my favorite up-and-comers in the Democratic party is Jason Kander from Missouri, who would probably be similarly critiqued.

    These are *EXACTLY* the types of people who can bridge divides and get elected (and yes, I’ll note that both Kander and Beto lost statewide elections, but they both came very close–closer than expected in red states).

    I have the same concerns as Obama. The amount of tearing down is not helpful, and it absolutely will not end well if the purity police get their way.

  18. Matt says:

    @Martin: Joe Lieberman and crew have something to say about that so called super majority. Joe was still pretty pissed about nearly losing his seat (he lost the nomination and barely won as an “independent”) and was basically refusing to be a Democrat at that point. For god’s sake Joe ENDORSED the Republican candidate for president in 2007 and wanted to be his running mate for VP in 2008…

    I remember this time period vividly as Joe Lieberman slandered singlepayer nearly every time he was on TV. Dude was slightly less hostile towards the PACA and was one of the votes that was being watched as the PACA made it’s way through. God that dude was so slimy…

  19. wr says:

    @JOHN LENNON: ” Later in life the majority of Democrats switched parties. We didn’t leave the party, they left us”

    Just guessing here — was that right around 1964?

  20. wr says:

    @Martin: Sorry, I forgot — are you part of the Judean Peoples Front or the Peoples Front of Judea?

  21. Scott F. says:

    @Martin:

    Tell us again of what came of First Lady Clinton’s healthcare proposal? Seems a text book example of the outcome you get when you try to skip too many steps.

    And I’ve noticed you haven’t bothered to name a more progressive policy outcome than ACA, so I’ll stand by my assessment.

    Martin, you couldn’t demonstrate a greater example of a purity warrior than what you’ve done in comments here. You’re why we can’t have nice things in this country. Spare us all with the LINO BS. I wish for much more progressive, liberal policies in the USA, but I’ll accept anything left of the cliff edge we’ve been brought to by Trump (and the political powers he’s has emboldened).

  22. Martin says:

    @Scott. That’s a reasonable rebuttal to my critique of your ACA praise. I guess what bothered me most about it was your assumption that it would lead to universal health care. It won’t. Most likely it will be scrapped and undermined, then hopefully universal health care will happen in the future.

    Is it purity? You tell me: did numerous European countries that have fundamental coverage for the populace “grow” their policies step by step? I don’t know their history but I bet some were proposed as a sweeping policy that included all people, not just old, young, and disabled.

    LINO isn’t a joke if you look at the Obama the Conservative web site. Perpetuating the security state and renaming warmongering as the neoliberal “humanitarian intervention” aren’t changes, and they are certainly not “step by step” compromises that undo the Bush legacy.

    IMO, the last liberal nominated by the Dems was McGovern (the first person I voted for). And his catastrophic loss led the Dems to institute the un-democratic super-delegate system, presumably to prevent the party from nominating a populist in the future. Why is it that we wag fingers at “populists” like Trump but deny that up-and-coming Dems are also populists?

    Consider that Pres. Eisgruber of Princeton, a constitutional scholar and solid liberal, wrote to senators of both major parties reminding them that the Constitution forbids any religious test for public office. Therefore questioning a judge during confirmation hearings about whether her or his religion would affect decisions on abortion or capital punishment is actually against the law. Did these senators not read the Constitution in high school? Maybe they got (re)elected by voicing the uninformed demands of their voters, which is a form of populism, no?

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Martin: ACA put health care firmly in the government’s list of responsibilities. You will note that even Republicans have to say “repeal and replace” as “repeal” only gets them the 27%ers, and pushes others away.

    As far as Obama’s record goes, there are lots of things that I don’t like. Not prosecuting the torturers is one of them — or at least pursuing a South Africa style truth commission approach.

    The drone war I am ambivalent about. It’s wrong and it’s evil, but it gives us a capability somewhere between lobbing a few cruise missiles and invading. It allows us to limit our intervention, when so much of America wants a greater intervention to show those people who is boss. Wrong and evil, but less wrong and less evil than many alternatives.

    Less evil is still evil, but it’s less evil.

    And, maybe less evil isn’t good enough, but we can push for the less evil we can achieve in the short term, while still working to change the views and the structures in America that make less evil the best we can hope for in the short term.

    At the end of the day, we have a country where 43% of Americans approve of Donald Trump, and geographically distributed to give them more political power than that. And, until we can get the FEMA re-education camps up and running, and turn the Dakotas over to the Native Americans, we have to work with that.

    At least until global warming turns out to be an extinction event.