Wednesday, September 05, 2012

We still need to hold President Obama accountable on civil liberties

I'm a proud Democrat and enthusiastic supporter of President Obama, but that doesn't mean I can't and won't be critical of president and party when they fall short of the progressive liberal principles I hold dear.

Indeed, I have been strongly critical of President Obama on a variety of matters over the past several years, not the least of which has been his disappointing record on civil liberties. Here, for example, is what I wrote in September of last year:

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.


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.

In so many ways, in most ways, Obama has been a positive force for change -- think of health-care reform, marriage equality, the "DREAM" and dignity of undocumented Americans, and the country's improved international standing after eight years of Bush-Cheney warmongering. And while he has, to be fair, been an improvement of sorts on civil liberties, the simple fact is that he has kept a great deal of the Bush-Cheney national security state in place, and that continues to tarnish his presidency.

I concluded, "[o]ne 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."

One can continue to hope, but the pressure will indeed have to come from outside. As Adam Serwer writes at Mother Jones:

In 2008, Democrats were eager to draw a contrast with what they then portrayed as Republican excesses in the fight against Al Qaeda. Since then, the Obama administration has in many cases continued the national security policies of its predecessor—and the Democratic Party's 2012 platform highlights this reversal, abandoning much of the substance and all of the bombast of the 2008 platform...

The distance between the 2008 and 2012 platform shows just how hard it has been, and starkly illustrates the extent to which the Democratic Party has given up on its 2008 promises to roll back the national security state that emerged and expanded in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The platform does state that "practices must always be in line with our Constitution, preserve our people's privacy and civil liberties, and withstand the checks and balances that have served us so well," and, yes, the president did "[ban] torture without exception in his first week in office." That's hardly insignificant, but it's also not nearly enough -- as Serwer notes, there's still the Patriot Act, there's still Guantanamo Bay, there's still indefinite detention, and there's still racial profiling, on all of which the platform is silent.

Don't get me wrong. The choice in November remains crystal clear. And for all that Obama has done, or not done, in the area of civil liberties, there's no doubt that Romney would be far, far worse -- and that the Republicans are far, far worse than the Democrats.

And right now, just two months out, we have to focus on that choice, to make the distinction between the two options as clear as possible to voters. It's not about the lesser of two evils, it's about hope and opportunity on one side and privilege and brutality on the other -- and, yes, it's about accepting but not necessarily approving certain imperfections on the side we support.

To be sure, we need to remain critical. Party and president are important, but so too is principle -- and civil liberties are still under assault. And on this front the platform is hugely disappointing.

A win in November would mean four more years to hold President Obama accountable and to demand that our principles, core American values, trump the Bush-Cheney authoritarianism that remains. That's still our best hope for meaningful change.

By far.

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