Friday, September 30, 2011

Is Obama a disaster for civil liberties?


Jonathan Turley thinks so:

Historically, this country has tended to correct periods of heightened police powers with a pendulum swing back toward greater individual rights. Many were questioning the extreme measures taken by the Bush administration, especially after the disclosure of abuses and illegalities. Candidate Obama capitalized on this swing and portrayed himself as the champion of civil liberties.

However, President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them. The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly. Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture. In his first year, Obama made good on that promise, announcing that no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture. Later, his administration refused to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the "just following orders" defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

Though I remain, for the most part, a supporter of the president, I cannot disagree. While I would argue that he has done a lot of good thus far in office, this remains the major blot on his record.

Actually, I'd call it a disgrace.

It may be that there have been political rationales behind these policies, including refusing to prosecute the war criminals of his predecessor's administration. Perhaps Obama and his advisors thought he needed to look tough so as to shake off the perception of inexperience and intellectual arrogance (as if Cheney wasn't an arrogant prick). Perhaps they calculated that any sign of weakness, or even perceived weakness, on national security would leave him vulnerable to Republican attacks and weaken his re-election chances.

Whatever.

The point is that these decisions were made and, ultimately, Obama must be held accountable for them -- and for driving a wedge between his presidency and his liberal-progressive base, the millions of people who bought into his promise of change we can believe in and expected if not revolutionary change at least something other than the brutality of the Bush-Cheney years. As Turley notes:

A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that "the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals' rights and freedoms." Yet the Obama administration long ago made a cynical calculation that it already had such voters in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not "soft" on terror. He assumed that, yet again, civil libertarians might grumble and gripe but, come election day, they would not dare stay home.

Is Obama better than the alternative? Yes, of course:

Some insist that they are simply motivated by realism: A Republican would be worse. However, realism alone cannot explain the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate or organized opposition to Obama's policies on civil liberties in Congress during his term. It looks more like a cult of personality. Obama's policies have become secondary to his persona.

Realism is certainly part of it. Generally, there has been a willingness to forgive Obama his transgressions simply because Republican opposition and obstruction have been so intense. Besides, however important civil liberties may be (and I'm with Turley and Glenn Greenwald on this), other priorities took over, mostly economic. The fight was about stimulating the economy out of the abyss (the worst crisis since the Great Depression), about rescuing Wall Street (and credit markets generally) from implosion, about saving the auto industry, about health-care reform, about raising the debt ceiling and preventing the country from going into default, about fending off the surging Tea Party and the Republicans' right-wing assault on everything from Social Security to disaster relief. Disappointing as it may be, civil liberties have taken a back seat during Obama's first term.

That's not an excuse, just an explanation. Maybe Obama doesn't actually want to change anything. Maybe he was motivated not so much by political calculation as by personal preference. Yes, maybe his views on civil liberties are actually closer to Bush's (and Cheney's) than to progressives'. One can only hope that a second-term Obama would face greater and more sustained pressure to expand individual rights after this period of 9/11-inspired authoritarianism. 

With the reality of 2012 already upon us, the choice is clear. But that doesn't mean Obama should be let off the hook.

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