After the Inauguration, I shared my thoughts on President Barack Obama’s address. I liked the speech but, as with many civil libertarians, I do not share the faith in his commitment to principle — at least not the principles behind civil liberties. Below is today’s print column that touches on some of the same themes with a few additional observations.
OBAMA AND THE LEAP OF FAITH
The theme of President Obama’s second inauguration speech was promoted as “Faith in America’s Future.” Indeed, speaking to a smaller crowd with polls showing his popularity at a low of 49 percent, Obama was clearly speaking to the faithful – a core who continued to rally around this iconic figure. For others, the theme seemed often seemed more “Hope Over Experience.”
Though the president spoke eloquently of fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream, his first term was most notable for fulfilling Richard Nixon’s dream of an “Imperial Presidency.” From kill lists to warrantless surveillance to drone attacks to secret evidence, Obama eviscerated values that once defined liberals. Then, by sheer power of personality, he made them love him for it.
Notably, the inauguration speech spoke of civil rights rather than civil liberties. The references to gay rights were unprecedented and commendable. However, it also reflected the difference between equality and liberty in Obama’s vision.
Civil libertarians have long complained that Obama has lowered the baseline of rights for all citizens with eroding privacy protections, unilateral presidential powers and limits on due process. We can all be treated equally and have few rights. Equal denial of rights is nothing to celebrate.
While heralding America’s triumph over the “tyranny of a king,” Obama has acquired near authoritarian powers in some areas. Early in his first term, the president shocked many by going to the CIA and publicly assuring CIA officials that they would not be prosecuted for torture — despite Obama’s recognition that waterboarding used by the Bush administration is indeed torture.
Ultimately, Obama has not only embraced the controversial Bush policies on surveillance, secrecy and presidential powers, he has also expanded those policies. Most notorious was his assertion of the power to kill any U.S. citizen considered a threat to the nation’s security.
His administration also has moved to squelch lawsuits designed to protect citizens from warrantless surveillance and investigations. The White House has adopted the rejected Nuremberg defense of “just following orders” in blocking charges against government officials responsible for torture and other abuses. Further, the administration has embraced the military tribunal system and the use of secret evidence in prosecuting certain defendants.
Even on the very values of equality embraced in the speech, Obama was offering hope over experience. Politics rather than principle have long guided this president.
Obama’s passion for gay rights was notably missing in his first term. During much of the past four years, the Obama administration fought against gay rights in a variety of cases in federal court, from challenges to “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the Defense of Marriage Act.
Even today, after switching legal positions on issues like DOMA in court, Obama has been unwilling to support the claim that sexual orientation should be given the same constitutional protection as race or even gender. It was Vice President Biden who forced Obama to publicly embrace same-sex marriage toward the end of his first term — public statements that Obama admitted angered him.
Though some insist that the president was merely exercising political realism in avoiding such divisive issues before re-election, it meant that he repeatedly chose politics over civil rights in his first term. The test of principle is to support equality even when it is not to your advantage.
Obama’s repeated insistence that “we must act” may foreshadow even more unilateral action in the future. The president has already proclaimed in the immigration area that he will not enforce certain laws. He has asserted the right to unilaterally define what constitutes a congressional “recess” to allow him to appoint high officials without Senate confirmation. He has claimed the right to attack other nations with drones based solely on his view of national interest.
To put it simply, Obama is the president Nixon longed to be. It will take more than a lip-synched Beyoncé performance to quiet these concerns. What was once a system of checks and balances has been replaced by a leap of faith that these powers will be used by Obama and his successors wisely.
It is faith in Obama, not our future, that has lulled too many into silence in the face of an Imperial President.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.
January 23, 2013