Obama and The Leap Of Faith

PresObamaAfter 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.


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

109 thoughts on “Obama and The Leap Of Faith”

  1. AP.
    The savings and loan association crisis in the 80’s had it share of sacred cows. Cong. Henry Hyde was spared even though he was alleged to have been knee deep in the scandal as a board member of a local S&L.

  2. “This stands in stark contrast to the failure of many savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s. In the wake of that debacle, special government task forces referred 1,100 cases to prosecutors, resulting in more than 800 bank officials going to jail.” -from the following article

    In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures


    Published: April 14, 2011



    “But several years after the financial crisis, which was caused in large part by reckless lending and excessive risk taking by major financial institutions, no senior executives have been charged or imprisoned, and a collective government effort has not emerged. This stands in stark contrast to the failure of many savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s. In the wake of that debacle, special government task forces referred 1,100 cases to prosecutors, resulting in more than 800 bank officials going to jail. Among the best-known: Charles H. Keating Jr., of Lincoln Savings and Loan in Arizona, and David Paul, of Centrust Bank in Florida.”

  3. On the Need to Continue Pointing Out That Nobody Has Gone to Jail for the Financial Crisis

    By: David Dayen Monday October 22, 2012 11:33 am


    “I would say that William Cohan has had enough. The author of several books about the financial sector cannot believe that nobody on Wall Street has been held to account for the crisis that caused the Great Recession. And though it pains him to end up on the same side as Elizabeth Warren, to whom he delivers a sneering aside, and though the op-ed as a whole gives far too much respect to the idea that “these things happen” in capitalism, overall Cohan summons a good deal of moral force here.

    At the moment, the message we are broadcasting far and wide is: There will be no justice; there will be no accountability; let’s return to the status quo as quickly as possible […]

    No one — no one — on Wall Street has paid a serious price. The one criminal prosecution — of the Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin — failed miserably. Every bank has received its slap on the wrist, has had its insurance carrier or its shareholders cough up a few hundred million dollars — the cost of doing business, don’t you know — and moved on. And governments, most recently New York State, have decided to milk the banks for badly needed cash rather than charge the miscreants themselves.

    Once upon a time, prosecutors were vigilant about prosecuting bad financial behavior on Wall Street. According to the Financial Times, during the savings-and-loan crisis of the mid 1980s, some 3,500 bankers were jailed for their transgressions. I still haven’t heard a good reason why the number of successful prosecutions in the wake of our most recent financial crisis remains at zero.

    This has become old news. The world-weary cynics among us say that you can’t fight City Hall, or in this case the corporate executive suites (there’s increasingly no difference), and they scoff at anyone who would dare to think differently. But there’s a fine line between having the awareness to see a fix in the making, and failing to be outraged by it. I don’t really care that “nobody has been prosecuted for the financial crisis” is an old and tired refrain; what matters is that it’s an appropriate refrain, and that the fact of it still must shock the conscience of anyone who didn’t benefit from the transaction.

    Hamilton Nolan gets at this point in a discussion over Greg Smith, the former Goldman Sachs banker whose new book details the ways in which the vampire squid screwed over its own clients. I haven’t read the book, but this seems very right to me:

    What bothers most Wall Street-savvy critics about Greg Smith is this: he got a lot of attention for complaining about a situation that all of these Wall Street-savvy people already know exists. Smith’s charges were, for them, old news—and worse, they smacked of a naivete about what banks like Goldman Sachs do. These Smith-haters resent the attention he reaped, and charge him with being either stupid, or dishonest about what he was doing for those 12 years he worked at Goldman […]

    I would simply like to assert that, no matter whether or not you believe Greg Smith is a hero or an opportunist, he did what we would all hope that our own banker would do: he spoke out publicly about something that was wrong. The fact that his charges are old news to the Wall Street people, the bankers, the financially savvy, and the media figures that cover them is not an indictment of Greg Smith. It is an indictment of everyone who accepted rapacious amorality as the natural order of things. It is not important whether or not Greg Smith is a hero. What is important is the principle that people in positions of power should not grow so inured to corruption or unfairness or the rotten nature of their particular institution that they accept that state of affairs without question. To understand how something works does not mean that we must lackadaisically assume that it should work that way. And we should never become so cynical that we create an environment in which whistleblowers receive more criticism than the institutions they blow the whistle on.

    Old news can still have news value, in other words. Until the fraud and abuse actually stops, it’s incumbent upon those who know the system for what it is to speak out. Silence because of fear of repetition makes no sense at all. Nor does the cynical response of boredom at well-worn facts. The financial oligopoly at this point profits from the expectation of dealing in bad faith. It assures that nobody will do the work to reverse the trend, that fraud is endemic to banking and people just have to deal with it. We lose quite a lot when we give up that rhetorical ground.”

  4. Breuer’s out. How about bring in Sptizer? Surely he’s done nothing that could possibly disgrace an administration that’s bombed civilians, persecuted whistleblowers, coddled torturers, and rewarded fraudsters.

  5. As a non-lawyer, I have to ask this question: Has the lack of prosecution of the peddlers of fraudulent mortgages and the other financial industry criminals allowed the statute of limitations to run out on their crimes? Perhaps this is the reason for the lack of priority given to these crimes by the White House and Department of “Justice”.

  6. I feel the same way about Greenwald that I feel about Christopher Hitchens. Disagreed with both of them about the wars… Greenwald has recanted, i suppose, but Hitchens never did- and I still love him.

    Great doc on banksters, income inequality, the corrupt American political system, et al:

  7. Glenn Greenwald on security and liberty

    Glenn Greenwald’s reader Q&A:
    the highlights

    On Thursday, Glenn Greenwald took questions from his readers in a live Q&A. Here are some of the highlights


    Q: You write a lot about our loss of liberties, the growing surveillance state, and our perpetual warfare. Given the nature of this conflict, and the increasing abilities of technology, where do you see this leading in the next few decades?

    A: I really believe at this point that the most important trend in civil liberties assault is the importation of War on Terror tactics onto US soil and their application domestically (indefinite detention, ciitzen assassinations, massive surveillance expansions, para-militarization of police forces, drones, etc). I think government planners expect unrest in the future due to economic distress and these measures are mostly about keeping the domestic population pacified, as we saw with the Occupy movement.

  8. SwM,

    Don’t know where to put this …

    I see Dianne Feinstein introduced her gun bill today. This is a battle well worth fighting and I am 100% on-board for the fight.

    (I would suggest they keep Obama out of it as he always tends to give away the store to anyone who waves a dollar bill in his face.)

  9. the reason Greenwald lives in Brazil is because he couldn’t marry his boyfriend in order to obtain a green card.

    They both decided it would be better to live together in Brazil than to be continually fighting for some solution to American citizenship for his significant other.

  10. SM:

    “after I read that he supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars I became somewhat skeptical. When he started advocating for Ron Paul, I became more skeptical. The other day he said something favorable about Rand Paul. I hope he doesn’t start pushing a presidential run for him.”


    That’s my take on the guy,too. Contrarianism is good business for him or so it seems.

  11. Swarthmore mom 1, January 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    ap, He is tweeting from Brazil’s finest beaches. 🙂

    Swarthmore mom,


    (I’d like to be sitting on one of Brazil’s finest beaches right now.)

Comments are closed.