The Obama Inauguration: A Case Of Hope Over Experience

220px-Inauguration-01-20-2009Below is my column today in USA Today on the Inauguration Speech of President Obama. Unfortunately, my family got back and reported that the Jumbotron or giant screen was malfunctioning so they missed the entire inauguration speech. Thousands of people were similarly deprived by whatever contractor was handling the screen — a terrible disappointment for thousands who came from all over the country.

Here is the column.


The second inauguration of President Obama was, as expected, a visual and rhetorical treat. Obama did not disappoint with uplifting rhetoric that called on the nation to unite for great achievements in the face of great challenges. However, the speech was devoid of substance and did little to answer the concern not with our political system but with the president himself.

There was an undeniable difference in this second inauguration. The crowd was around half the size as the crowd in 2009 and Obama begins his second term with a popularity rating of 50%, according to the most recent Gallup poll. Indeed, while the theme of the second inauguration was “Faith In America’s Future,” for many it could be “Hope Over Experience.”

The smaller crowd watching Obama (including members of my family) symbolized the disenchantment of many who had rallied for him at the start of his first administration. While unlikely given his more pressing thoughts, it would have been helpful for Obama to glance out at that smaller crowd and consider who was likely missing.

First and foremost would be civil libertarians who have found themselves in a bitter fight with Obama. Early in his first term, Obama shocked many by publicly assuring CIA officials that they would not be prosecuted for torture — despite Obama’s recognition that waterboarding used by the Bush administration is torture. What followed could never have been predicted on Jan. 20, 2009. Obama would not only embrace the controversial Bush policies on surveillance, secrecy and presidential powers but expand on those policies. Most notorious was his formal policy asserting the inherent power to kill any U.S. citizen considered to be a threat to the nation’s security.

The very images during the inauguration that thrill most Americans — including civil libertarians — take on a more troubling meaning for those of us opposed to Obama’s establishment of an “imperial presidency.” Obama’s reference to this nation overcoming “the tyranny of a King,” carried less of an inspiring than an ironic meaning for the man who has asserted unprecedented unchecked authority as president, including the right to kill U.S. citizens without trial or charge.

Indeed, the speech highlighted the difference between civil rights and civil liberties in Obama’s common usage. Obama returned to his theme of equality in civil rights with gays, immigrants and others. However, many confuse civil rights with civil liberties. Civil rights generally guarantee equality in treatment by the government, though it can refer to rights like due process and free speech. Civil liberties are in some ways the baseline of rights for all citizens. Everyone can be treated equally in a system that denies basic rights such as due process or privacy. Obama has always viewed equality as the motivating theme of his government, not liberty.

When Obama was first inaugurated, I wrote a column warning people, as a fellow Chicagoan familiar with his career, that Obama was more motivated by programs than principles. That has certainly been proven correct. However, I never thought that principles like those forged at Nuremberg would be discarded by this president.

Yet, many still hope that, without an election ahead, Obama will embrace those principles in his second term. Again hope triumphs over experience. Both parties remain in control of people who bear responsibility for the loss of civil liberties in this nation and are likely to continue their cynical political calculations.

Notably, there was no mention of civil liberties by Obama in the speech. These were powers acquired through acquiescence by both political parties and the silence of many liberals who vehemently opposed such policies under George W. Bush. Obama now holds virtually unchecked authority and he knows it. He will have to fight over health care, immigration and guns. However, neither party will challenge him on his assertion of an array of powers that border on the authoritarian. These are powers attained by the omission of action that are clearly not to be surrendered by an act of self-denial.

The dream of Martin Luther King was certainly realized by the election of our first African-American president but so was the dream of Richard Nixon in the establishment of an imperial presidency. Drones, secret evidence, kill lists and expanded surveillance policies are images of a dream that has become a nightmare for civil libertarians.

The presidency being celebrated today is different from the one that is defined in our Constitution — and not a subject of joy for those who resist the concentration of power in our system. Standing before the Capitol was the most powerful president in our history — a man who has shifted the balance of power in our system in a way that will be difficult to correct in the future.

Obama is again offering himself as a substitute for rights and protections lost. It is a poor substitute and one that we will regret. Once the moving music and rhetoric is stripped away, there was little substance in this speech. What is left is the image of a man who has acquired powers long denied to his predecessors – powers likely to only increase in the second term. It is not his power of personality but his model of a presidency that will last beyond this term.

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 20, 2013

28 thoughts on “The Obama Inauguration: A Case Of Hope Over Experience”

  1. Arthur Randolph Erb:

    “There is a big problem with your assertions. They do not account for the FACT that those supposed killings are only taking place where there IS NO LAW or government to appeal to in order to bring those Americans to justice and their day in court. So while I do not like the idea of carte blanche killings as you assert, the fact is that it only applies to those beyond the normal reach of governments and who are in FACT waging WAR against the USA. I hope he kills more of those so called Americans. Good hunting!”


    Why you’re very Lockean in your analysis. See my previous comment to Mike Appleton discussing this very topic:

    Your reasoning is correct given the assumptions you make. The problem is that you make a profoundly erroneous assumption in your argument. It is best explained by Hobbes:

    To this war of every man against every man this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ distinct, but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it. And thus much for the ill condition which man by mere nature is actually placed in, though with a possibility to come out of it, consisting partly in the passions, partly in his reason.

    There is no central power in this international sphere recognized by Al-Qaeda, hence there is no law they will accept save the law of the jungle. They are as Locke says, ” not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey.” You might as well accord rights to wolves in the midst of the hunt. Law depends on a recognition and respect by a majority of the community for the power it wields. Take that away, Hobbes says, and there is no society and hence no law. Thus actions in war cannot be judged by anything besides the standards of the prevailing side. Isn’t that what we glean from Churchill’s and Harris’ exoneration from war crimes? Isn’t that why we must be on the prevailing side regardless of the cost? Since WW2 we have tried to implement international standards of conduct but we’ve provided no means to enforce them except the World Court. How’s that worked out?

    We can disagree on the existence of morality in war, but can we really disagree with Hobbes’ assessment of man in his natural state?

    In these discussions, I am continually drawn back to the words of Cicero on war and morality I learned in Latin class:

    “There exists a law, not written down anywhere, but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right. When weapons reduce them to silence, the laws no longer expect one to wait their pronouncements. For people who decide to wait for these will have to wait for justice, too—and meanwhile they must suffer injustice first. Indeed, even the wisdom of a law itself, by sort of tacit implication, permits self-defense, because it is not actually forbidden to kill; what it does, instead, is to forbid the bearing of a weapon with the intention to kill. When, therefore, inquiry passes beyond the mere question of the weapon and starts to consider the motive, a man who has used arms in self-defense is not regarded as having carried with a homicidal aim.”

    “In Defence of Titus Annus Milo,” in Selected Speeches of Cicero

  2. “What’s stoping Obama from droning American citizens who disagree with him politcally. ” -Bruce

    Nothing at all. If the gov says that you’re one of the bad guys, well…, then it must be true.

  3. What’s stoping Obama from droning American citizens who disagree with him politcally. Who’s on the hit list? One way to get rid of gitmo is to release all the captives back to their nations of origin and then drone them. Droning clearly gives the president too much power. Remember there are plans to have unarmed drones in service over the United States, when will the pres. decide to arm them?

  4. “Terror Tuesdays” will continue:

    “Brennan is the hitman of this administration.” -Jeremy Scahill

    Dirty Wars: Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s New Film Exposes Hidden Truths of Covert U.S. Warfare (a remarkable piece)

    Premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the new documentary “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield” follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill to Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen as he chases down the hidden truths behind America’s expanding covert wars. We’re joined by Scahill and the film’s director, Rick Rowley, an independent journalist with Big Noise Films. “We’re looking right now at a reality that President Obama has essentially extended the very policies that many of his supporters once opposed under President Bush,” says Scahill, author of the bestseller “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army” and a forthcoming book named after his film. “One of the things that humbles both of us is [when] you arrive at a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door, you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that kicked that door in and killed half their family,” Rowley says. “We promised them that we would do everything we could to make their stories be heard in the U.S. — finally, we’re able to keep those promises.”

  5. If we want a better President, we must press Congress to take back the awful powers we let be bestowed. No President will cede these on his or her own, and future Presidents are likely to be more temperamental than the current one.

    I do think JT’s grumbling over the mundane details of the event is him channeling his extreme distaste that higher order Presidential abuse of authority continues unabated. He has spoken out since the appointment of W by the SCOTUS that are actual freedoms are under attack so long as the executive has the power to torture, to indefinitely detain, to invade without declaration, and to data-mine without a warrant.

  6. You speculate that the reduced crowd numbers at Obama’s 2nd inauguration have to do with those who have turned away from him. Well, you might like it to mean that since it is the premise of your argument against him and progressives, liberals, etc. But it is only speculation on you part.
    I could speculate that the reduced numbers represent those who found work and now were at work yesterday. Or that the extended Bush clan did not attend, nor did the many, many Romneys.
    In fact, with the numbers in, the crowd size at yesterday’s inauguration exceeded expectations.

  7. There is a big problem with your assertions. They do not account for the FACT that those supposed killings are only taking place where there IS NO LAW or government to appeal to in order to bring those Americans to justice and their day in court. So while I do not like the idea of carte blanche killings as you assert, the fact is that it only applies to those beyond the normal reach of governments and who are in FACT waging WAR against the USA. I hope he kills more of those so called Americans. Good hunting!

  8. mespo,

    “Yes and no. He’s a guy who can’t get the Senate to pass a budget or the House to approve a debt ceiling. He barely got through a deal on raisng taxes to fund the government but only in diluted form.”

    Fair enough.

    “He enjoys incredible war-time powers, but has he suspended habeas corpus (Lincoln)?”

    If you’re declared an “enemy combatant”, even if you’re an American citizen, you can forget about due process so I’d say his record on habeas corpus is spotty at best.

    “Nationalized the steel industry (Truman)?”

    No, but you say that as if it’s a bad thing Truman did. Obama should have nationalized or broken up the big banks on Wall Street and sent most of their officers and upper management to the hoosgow pending their trials after the CDS debacle. Instead he did . . . exactly nothing but allow them a free pass so they can go on to commit more crimes that put global stability at risk for their personal profits..

    “Interred an entire ethnic group (FDR)?”

    He’s a liar and a civil rights nightmare every bit as bad as Bush. However, he’s not stupid. Not even a hardcore Neocon would try that with today’s demographics.

    “Or tried to pack the Supreme Court (FDR)?”

    Lack of opportunity does not mean lack of will.

    “Has he used the NDAA of 2012 to indefinitely detain Americans without trial as many (even here) said he would do?”

    Maybe, maybe not, and would we even know if he had? The point is that no one should have that power in a democracy even in a theoretical sense.

    “Nope, he’s done what President’s always have done– what they have to do to protect the nation.”

    And that rationale has been used by many people through out history right before they and their society went right over the edge. Gaius Julius Caesar was just protecting the Republic before he crossed the Rubicon to assume control of Rome and made sure he was declared “dictator in perpetuity”. Just like Augustus was when he sealed the coffin on the Roman Republic by his machinations with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus in forming the Second Triumvirate.

    “Funny, we have such a tolerant and sentimental view of the past and an unforgiving view of the present.”

    Maybe in the general but not in the specific. Some of us have been uniform in their condemnation of past bad Presidential actions that is not only intolerant of such abuses but very unsentimental. Even in our praise of Presidents past we have been careful to acknowledge the great ones warts and all. However, as a nation? Yeah, that’s an accurate observation in general terms.

    And what Bob, Esq. said.

    A righteous tour de force there, Prof.

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