Below 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.
INAUGURATION: A CASE OF HOPE OVER EXPERIENCE
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