Is Obama's Civil Liberties Record Understandable?

Earlier this week, Kevin Drum said that "nine times out of ten" Obama's policies are "pretty much what [he] expected" but that "the biggest one-time-out-of-ten where he's not doing what [he] expected is in the area of detainee and civil liberties issues." Similarly, Andrew Sullivan cited "accountability for war crimes and civil

Earlier this week, Kevin Drum said that "nine times out of ten" Obama's policies are "pretty much what [he] expected" but that "the biggest one-time-out-of-ten where he's not doing what [he] expected is in the area of detainee and civil liberties issues." Similarly, Andrew Sullivan cited "accountability for war crimes and civil rights" as among the very few issues on which he finds fault with Obama. Matt Yglesias objects to those observations as follows:

Both Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan say they think most people are too hard on Obama, but express disappointment at his record on civil liberties issues. I agree that the civil liberties record hasn't been exactly what I would have wanted, but I'm continually surprised that people are disappointed in this turn. Of all the things for an incumbent President of the United States to take political risks fighting for, obviously reducing the power of the executive branch is going to be dead last on the list. If you want to see civil liberties championed, that's going to have to come from congress.

It's interesting how what was once lambasted as "Constitution-shredding" under George Bush is now nothing more than: Obama's "civil liberties record hasn't been exactly what I would have wanted." Also, the premise implicitly embedded in Matt's argument is the standard Beltway dogma that there would be serious political costs from reversing the Bush/Cheney abuses of the Constitution and civil liberties. The success of Obama's campaign -- which emphatically and repeatedly vowed to do exactly that -- ought to have permanently retired that excuse.

Even more important, Matt seems to be implying that he knew all along that Obama never really intended to fulfill his multiple campaign promises to restore civil liberties and dismantle the Bush/Cheney war on the Constitution. So all of those righteous speeches and commitments and campaign positions were nothing more than dishonest instruments for manipulating and placating the people who supported his campaign? I don't necessarily disagree with that assessment. I neither believed nor disbelieved what Obama said during the campaign, but instead intended to wait for the evidence before deciding. And particularly once I watched Obama -- once his party's nomination was secure -- flagrantly violate his pledge to filibuster any bill containing telecom immunity, I had no expectations that he'd feel at all compelled to adhere to his other promises.

But is it really that surprising that many people did believe that Obama actually meant what he said, given that the entire campaign was predicated on his self-proclaimed uniqueness as a candidate and his over-arching intent to rid our political culture of corroding cynicism and to restore hope and faith in the political process? If Obama ran a campaign which purposely elevated the hopes of so many people -- particularly younger and new voters -- while secretly harboring the knowledge that he did not feel at all bound by what he was promising, isn't that a fairly serious indictment of his character, as well as a dangerous game to play for the Democratic Party? And during the time he was vigorously supporting Obama's candidacy last year, did Matt ever point out that Obama didn't really mean what he was saying when he spoke about these matters -- a fairly significant point to make when commenting on the election? If Obama had no intention of "reducing the power of the executive branch," why did he repeatedly proclaim that he would?

But what strikes me as the most significant aspect of Matt's commentary is that this mitigating analysis was rarely, if ever, applied to Bush. I've been reading many arguments from Obama supporters over the last couple of weeks insisting that Obama can't possibly give civilian trials to all Terrorism suspects because having to free detainees whom they can't convict in court would be politically catastrophic; but doesn't that same reasoning justify Bush's decision to open Guantanamo and hold terrorist suspects without charges? After all, how could Bush afford to risk acquittals any more than Obama?

Similarly, if Matt's argument is true that it's natural and inevitable that Presidents will try to maximize their own power -- and that it's Congress' responsibility to check that -- doesn't that mean that Bush and Cheney got a bad rap all these years for their so-called "Constitution-shredding," and that the ultimate responsibility for their abuses lies not with Bush, Cheney David Addington and John Yoo, but rather with Tom Daschle, Bill Frist, Harry Reid, Denny Hastert and Nancy Pelosi? If it's the responsibility of Congress to check presidential abuses -- since, as Matt argues, no rational person would ever expect the President to voluntarily impose or even accept limits on his own power -- then the real controversy should be about why Nancy Pelosi and company didn't do more to publicize Bush/Cheney extremism and impose limits on what they were doing. Matt, however, seemed to argue the opposite in the past -- as he when he insisted that the controversy over what Pelosi knew about torture was irrelevant because she was just a "bit player" in the whole affair. If complaints about Obama's civil liberties abuses are overheated because it's unreasonable to expect him to do anything different, shouldn't the same be said of Bush and Cheney?

I agree with Matt's explicit point that Congress has an important role to play in checking presidential abuses -- a role they've clearly abdicated no matter which party was in control. He's also right that Presidents don't easily relinquish power. But it's hardly unreasonable to object when someone runs for high political office based on clear and repeated promises that they have squarely violated. Whatever else is true, watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be "disappointing" even if one isn't surprised that he's doing it. I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama's record if it weren't for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush's use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy -- policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own. One can't help but wonder, at least in some cases, how genuine those objections were, as opposed to their just having been effective tools to discredit a Republican president for partisan and political gain.

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