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.


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

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

  1. Mark,
    Thank you for the very complete response. I still have a problem with one President and one senior military officer deciding an American must be killed. The drone killings are easier and cleaner than actually having to arrest or capture an American terrorist and I wonder if that is one of the reasons this process is used. We will have to agree to disagree.

  2. Beverellie:

    “Yeah, I’m a big John Wayne fan…he knew he was flawed and admitted to it without issue.”

    ***************************

    Personally, I found Jimmy Stewart a better patriot; Humphrey Bogart a better tough guy; and E.T. a better actor.

  3. I quit reading U.S.A. today after they outed Aurther Ashe dining from aids he recieved from a blood transfusion. What a rag

  4. rafflaw:

    “I agree with much of what you are suggesting, but how do you reconcile the ability to kill American citizens without due process? That is a big deal for me and I support Obama.”

    ************************

    I suppose the short answer is that timing and context are everything. The targeted killing of enemies in an armed conflict does not require due process as most legal scholars accept. The killing of American Anwar al Aulaqi is the most cited case for the opposition like Professor Turley but there have been a few others. al Aulaqi was a senior leader in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

    The distinction I and many others draw is between “targeted killing” during armed conflict and “peacetime assassinations” (PTAs). PTAs are never constitutional and are a domestic and international crime. On the other hand, targeted killings during war time are not crimes internationally or domestically.

    Congress authorized the President to levy war on those nations and persons who attacked us on 9-11. The language is “all necessary and proper force” against those “he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” The purpose of this authorization is to “prevent any future acts of
    international terrorism against the United States by such nations,
    organizations, or persons.” The President also enjoys plenary military power under Article II of the Constitution to defend the nation. (“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States….”)

    To accomplish that end, the President is invested with the power to identify and attack enemies detailed in the authorization. One of the methods employed is targeted killing of persons which is not the same as indiscriminate killing. It has five specific criteria that would not apply in PTAs of Americans or anyone else. They are:

    1. a on-going international or non-international armed conflict specifically authorized by a legitimate act of Congress;
    2. a specific individual must be targeted and not some indiscriminate group of persons or civilians who have not taken up arms against the US or directly aided those who have;
    3. The targeted person who has engaged in hostilities must be beyond the normal arrest power of the US or beyond a reasonable possibility of arrest;
    4. The person authorizing the targeted killing must be a senior military officer;
    5. The targeted person must be directly participating in hostilities as a continuous combat function or as a spontaneous, unorganized act.

    Thus targeted killing is not some wild-eye response to terrorism by the Executive but a set protocol that is utilized in response to the authorization of Congress to levy war under it’s Article I powers.

    Professor Gary Solis does a good job of explaining the law in his book, The Law of Armed Conflict.” I think it is “must reading” on the topic.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=6FKf0ocxEPAC&pg=PA542&dq=%22targeted+killing%22&hl=en&ei=WJnrS4_NE8KB8gbTm_zQBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=%22targeted%20killing%22&f=false

    To target an American, the President must also find that such an action is necessary to prevent an concrete, imminent threat to US security.

    There is a Vanderbilt Law Review note that also helps understand the issue:

    http://www.vanderbilt.edu/jotl/manage/wp-content/uploads/mckelvey-pdf.pdf

    You know my philosophical basis for not opposing these measures as we’ve discussed many times. I just wanted to give you the particulars of this issue’s resolution in my mind.

    ~Mark

  5. Obama’s presidency symbolizes society today.

    We have become a society steeped in flash over substanced. His ease at talking the talk without walking the walk. He creates jobs councils and does nothing with them. Creates a debt commission and all but ignores their findings. He talks about working across the aisle and then never even walks down it.

    It’s all about how he is perceived and what his ratings are. The media is his advertising agency and Hollywood will eventually give him the Oscar he so richly deserves.

    The future will decide whether he was Honey Boo Boo or John Wayne.

    Yeah, I’m a big John Wayne fan…he knew he was flawed and admitted to it without issue.

  6. The most chilling image is a Presient with the powers Obama has amassed who used them to force the Congress to give him what he wants.. I don’t like the Congress but imagine a real despot putting members on a secret kill list or in the name of national security sending a drone to pick off a particularly recalcitrant legislator. You don’t have to look far to see what that looks like. No one should have that power regardless of whether or not he has chosen to used it. The threat is that he could and if he dies who will be able to oppose him. If one can rationalize not prosecuting war criminals because “we want to look forward not back.” And then use the same rationale to protect bankers and other economic criminals while prosecuting beyond any proportionality whistleblowers and activists the use of kill lists cannot be far behind. Civil liberties are key when they are ignored no ones civil rights are safe.

    I hope President Obama will do a turn around on these issues but I see no evidence of that.

  7. In the immortal words of Ronald Reagan (whom I generally would not quote), There you go again. Professor, you are back to citing Gallup – presumably, because it shows Obama in the worst light. And this line: “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” is, again, just plain misleading. The smaller crowd is because it was a second inauguration, which ALWAYS has smaller second crowds. Obama’s second inaugural had attendance of up to a million – far more than most first inaugurals have. Your criticisms of Obama are usually valid, and I agree that his record on civil liberties leaves much to be desired (and comes as no surprise to me). But when you spin the numbers, and ignore the facts that are inconvenient to your thesis, you are no better than the FOX and MSNBC talking heads you routinely criticize. Again, disappointed.

  8. Mespo,
    interesting examples, and I agree with much of what you are suggesting, but how do you reconcile the ability to kill American citizens without due process? That is a big deal for me and I support Obama.

  9. That was one of the best columns posted here in the past five years.

    Bravo JT!

  10. Raff,

    You live in The Peoples Republic of the Former USA…… You have no rights that were to be taken away to start with….. Will Someone tell the wizard the curtain is open again……

  11. “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.”

    ************************

    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.

    He enjoys incredible war-time powers, but has he suspended habeas corpus (Lincoln)? Nationalized the steel industry (Truman)? Interred an entire ethnic group (FDR)? Or tried to pack the Supreme Court (FDR)? Has he used the NDAA of 2012 to indefinitely detain Americans without trial as many (even here) said he would do?

    Nope, he’s done what President’s always have done– what they have to do to protect the nation. Funny, we have such a tolerant and sentimental view of the past and an unforgiving view of the present.

  12. When the goopers were foaming at the mouth to give Boy Blunder all that power back in the early to mid aughts we begged them to imagine that power in the hands of a Democratic President. The point of it was the hope we could scare them into using better sense. It failed.

    Worse is that they are now completely comfortable with this Democrat having that power. While this President is so much better than the alternatives we have been given, in the area of executive power and abuse he seems to be cut from the same cloth. I don’t know how we will ever drag us back to a rational government. Even if we do the precedent has been set and someone will one day an even worse the W individual could very easily turn all of that power against us.

  13. I agree with much of what you stated professor, but I would add at least one qualifier. If we have the country’s permission to use drones, I have no problem with them being used against enemies of the country. If they use them correctly and attempt to limit deaths and damage to non participants, I don’t have a problem with them. However, if it is an American citizen, due process requires a different approach and an attempt to catch him and bring him/her to trial should be the standard rule. Just labeling him an enemy does not provide the due process for a citizen.

  14. puzzling 1, January 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Brilliantly said, JT.

    Those who advocate for and apparently trust President Obama with these unprecedented powers apparently have not thought beyond 2016.
    ========================================
    Those are not the scary ones.

    The ones that have “thought beyond 2016” in this context are the scary ones.

    The others will be the scary ones after what that could lead to happens.

  15. Brilliantly said, JT.

    Those who advocate for and apparently trust President Obama with these unprecedented powers apparently have not thought beyond 2016.

  16. I was standing at the screen next to the Washington Monument. I missed it too- the only parts we were really able to see were of everyone walking in- every speech or performance was basically completely screwed up- you got 1 word out of every 10 with no video. It was really disappointing- I had friends who came from out of town to see it, and we just ended up coming back to my apartment and watching the video online 🙁

  17. Disagree. “The smaller crowd watching Obama…symbolized the disenchantment of many…” Has a 2nd inauguration for any president even come close to matching the attendance of the reelected president’s 1st?

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