The transition from Bush to Obama has been a strange one for me. There is a certain ease to opposing someone whose ideology is so different from yours. There is no need to be subtle, to try and tease apart where things are going wrong – you know why they are doing this thing that you hate: because they don’t value what you value.
With Obama, things are different. He tells me that he values what I value – liberty, tolerance, security. And yet somehow I find myself outraged, again and again, by his actions. And I find myself trying to make excuses for why he is doing what he’s doing. “He has to compromise,” I tell myself. “He wants to stand up for our beliefs, but he can’t.”
It’s what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is more complex than simply assuming the ill will of enemies and the good will of friends. It is a way for us to do so without feeling like bleeding hypocrites. We attribute bad outcomes to the situations our friends were put in. But we focus on the intentions of our enemies. It was their fault bad things happened. They wanted it that way. They could have changed things if they’d really tried.
And so Bush and Obama both pushed the bail-out, but Bush was stealing money for his cronies and Obama was making the best of an impossible situation. Neither Bush or Obama (so far) pushed for marriage equality, but Bush is a homophobe and Obama is just hoarding political capital. Bush and Obama have both kept troops in Iraq. Obama understands it is a strategic necessity. Bush likes shooting Iraqis just to watch them die.
Yes, there are concrete differences in ideology, policy, rhetoric between the two Presidents. But we should be wary that easy assumptions sometimes lead to disturbing biases. It is easy to let ourselves believe we are being even-handed, when in fact we are nothing of the sort.
(Originally posted June 2009.)