Turley: Obama Worst Civil Liberties President Ever


Jonathan Turley writes in the LA Times that Obama may prove to be the worst president ever for civil liberties:

Civil libertarians have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party, which treats them as a captive voting bloc with nowhere else to turn in elections. Not even this history, however, prepared civil libertarians for Obama. After the George W. Bush years, they were ready to fight to regain ground lost after Sept. 11. Historically, this country has tended to correct periods of heightened police powers with a pendulum swing back toward greater individual rights. Many were questioning the extreme measures taken by the Bush administration, especially after the disclosure of abuses and illegalities. Candidate Obama capitalized on this swing and portrayed himself as the champion of civil liberties.


True so far.

However, President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them. The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly. Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture. In his first year, Obama made good on that promise, announcing that no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture. Later, his administration refused to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the “just following orders” defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

But perhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama’s personality and his symbolic importance as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured.

I don’t agree with that last part. He is conflating civil libertarians with Democrats. It’s certainly true that many Democrats have quietly acquiesced to Obama’s anti-constitution agenda but I don’t see civil libertarians doing that. The ACLU certainly hasn’t done that, they’ve continued to blast him on those issues and continued filing lawsuit after lawsuit over the expansion of executive power, the lack of transparency, torture, rendition and the national surveillance state. Likewise for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the EFF and every other serious civil libertarian group I can think of. Let’s not confuse them with the Democratic leadership, which has been both cowardly and hypocritical on all of these issues.

Then he makes this argument:

Ironically, had Obama been defeated in 2008, it is likely that an alliance for civil liberties might have coalesced and effectively fought the government’s burgeoning police powers. A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms.” Yet the Obama administration long ago made a cynical calculation that it already had such voters in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not “soft” on terror. He assumed that, yet again, civil libertarians might grumble and gripe but, come election day, they would not dare stay home.

I think he’s absolutely right about Democrats being more likely to join with libertarians in opposing the same actions Obama has taken if another Republican was in the White House, but that doesn’t actually mean that the country would be better off in regard to civil liberties. Had McCain won, he would have been the one to replace Souter and Stevens on the Supreme Court and there is no doubt that his nominees would have been far worse on these issues than Kagan and Sotomayor have been or will be in the future. There would now be a 7-2 conservative majority on the Supreme Court that would be in place for the next 20-30 years, with devastating consequences for the Bill of Rights.

That doesn’t mean Obama hasn’t been a disaster on constitutional issues; he has been, as I’ve been arguing from the very start of his administration. But with both parties cravenly supporting the same unconstitutional polices at this point, the federal courts are our only realistic hope for limiting those abuses. And despite his own failures in this regard, the people he’s put not only on the Supreme Court but on the entire federal bench have been immensely preferable to almost anyone the Republicans would have put in those positions.

Comments

  1. VeritasKnight says

    My only thought is that Souter and Stevens would have tried to hold on through the 2012 election to retire. It’s possible the court would have stayed the same if those two liberals hadn’t taken the Obama opportunity to retire.

    That being said, it’s entirely possible either or both gentlemen may die before the end of Obama’s term (or another justice, here’s looking at you Ginsburg). The threat of a McCain-appointed judiciary was very real.

  2. says

    I remember when Obama announced that he wasn’t going after the Bush administration’s abuses. That was when my disapproval truly began. My first thought was that maybe there was some rationale, given the enormous undertaking it probably would be to investigate everyone. I was grudgingly willing to let the past go if and only if Obama took an absolute hard line against any of those abuses continuing. Naturally, his inaction followed by his expansion of those powers destroyed my illusions that the pendulum would swing back.

    I don’t have anyone to vote for.

  3. says

    On Turley and the idea that Democrats give Obama a pass because he’s a Democrat:

    Turley makes the insider mistake of thinking that his fellow insiders are “The Party”. That, and refusing to admit that Democratic D.C. insiders are all classic conservatives on everything except maybe a couple of social issues, so many of them really didn’t have a problem with Bush either.

  4. says

    Ironically, had Obama been defeated in 2008, it is likely that an alliance for civil liberties might have coalesced and effectively fought the government’s burgeoning police powers.

    Well, amongst the Democrats maybe, but there is not a chance that Republicans would have joined in, so how would it have been any more effective than today under Obama, or during Bush’s tenure.

    Turley is engaging in wishful thinking.

  5. slc1 says

    Re Bronze Dog @ #4

    The reason that the Obama administration hasn’t gone after Bush officials is very simple. They are well aware that if they did, the next Rethuglican administration would go after them to get even. Anyone who doubts this should realize that one of the reasons the Rethuglicans went after Clinton was to get even for the Democrats forcing Nixon out of office. As a stated on a previous thread on this blog, the Werner Klemperer character in the movie, “Judgement at Nuremberg,” says before sentence is passed on him, “today you try us, tomorrow, the Russians may try you.”

  6. D. C. Sessions says

    A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms.”

    How many of them are only worried about their rights to keep all of their money without paying taxes, pollute without restriction, or impose their religions on the rest of the country?

  7. says

    You make a valid point about the SCOTUS issue, but that assumes that the Justices would have retired at the same time. Souter at least had some years left in him.

    That being said, I don’t think you’re fully appreciating the legitimizing effect that Obama has had on Bush’s civil liberties atrocities and overstate the resistance Obama has faced. A Republican President in 2008 would have also faced a Congress entirely controlled by Democrats, and you’d still have highly principled people like Obama in the Senate to criticize to President. Obama has been able to expand on Bush’s policies of unilateral executive authority, and that has been met with a whimper of public resistance compared to the international criticism that Bush faced. There was some small chance of pulling back after Bush’s administration. Is there any such hope now?

    Long term, I think Obama has done more harm for civil liberties than Bush did (though certainly it would not have been possible without the Bush-era abuses in the first place).

  8. says

    Wesley wrote:

    A Republican President in 2008 would have also faced a Congress entirely controlled by Democrats, and you’d still have highly principled people like Obama in the Senate to criticize to President. Obama has been able to expand on Bush’s policies of unilateral executive authority, and that has been met with a whimper of public resistance compared to the international criticism that Bush faced. There was some small chance of pulling back after Bush’s administration. Is there any such hope now?

    I think the notion that Obama is “highly principled” in this area is patently absurd. If he was highly principled he would not be doing what he is doing. And this didn’t start after he became president, it was evident when he was still in the Senate. Despite lots of lofty rhetoric, he ended up voting both for the FISA reauthorization and the Patriot Act extension. After declaring that he would filibuster any bill that contained telecom immunity, he voted for the bill that included it. He was never principled on these issues except in his rhetoric; his actions always said otherwise.

  9. says

    Ed: Yeah, the “highly principled” part was sarcasm haha. I thought it’d be more obvious than it sounded, considering I’m largely agreeing with Turley that Obama is one of the worst Presidents ever for civil liberties.

  10. says

    I should add: my point is not that a Republican would have faced staunch or intellectually consistent opposition… but that there would have been some opposition, even if those in Congress who did so would be hypocrites. And I think there would have been a more active public debate on the issue, while at the moment both parties are content to ignore any and all civil liberties issues in the public arena.

  11. Michael Heath says

    slc1:

    The reason that the Obama administration hasn’t gone after Bush officials is very simple. They are well aware that if they did, the next Rethuglican administration would go after them to get even.

    This is speculation.

    As I noted the last time you posted this, the Adler and Wolfe books on Obama’s early presidency both noted an intelligence community which implied a passive-aggressive form of mutiny if Obama went after those who committed torture. That was their way of introducing themselves to him. Not aggressively investigating those involved in torture seemed to be Obama’s compromise where the intelligence community’s compromise was not reacting after Obama quickly signed three executive orders ending nearly all of the torture still being done when he was inaugurated (we’ve had a few instances crop up torture is occassionally done, but its not nearly as systemic or voluminous as it was under Bush prior to the Senate voting 90 – 6 against torture after that vote given the Haden led CIA continued most “enhanced interrogation techniques” even after that vote until President Obama ended them via executive orders.

    From this perspective we have no evidence Obama feared tit-for-tat investigations as the party’s rotated power, but instead Obama that he would fail in the so-called war on terror during his tenure as president where it would all be blamed on him. It would also be naive for the president to assume Republicans would play nice with him when they re-gained power ; Republicans aggressively pursue the Democrats from the investigative angle no matter how the Democrats behaved previously.

  12. Nentuaby says

    And yet, I’m going to vote for this fucker again next year. Because the only alternative to the man who’s lying through his teeth when he says he wants to help me, is going to be a man who’s utterly sincere when he says he wants to destroy me.

    *Sigh*

  13. slc1 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #14

    Given the example of the Rethuglican attack on Clinton, which was, at least in part, payback for the impeachment of Nixon, President Obama would have had to be an idiot not to expect similar payback in the next Rethuglican administration if he launched investigations of Cheney and Bush.

  14. Michael Heath says

    slc1:

    Given the example of the Rethuglican attack on Clinton, which was, at least in part, payback for the impeachment of Nixon, President Obama would have had to be an idiot not to expect similar payback in the next Rethuglican administration if he launched investigations of Cheney and Bush.

    Which avoids my previous point and misrepresents history. It doesn’t matter what Obama does, the Republicans will pursue him however they can. It doesn’t matter if he goes after their past principles or not, they are coming after him regardless. So I’d argue it’s naivety on your part to argue that Obama is motivated by the threat of payback given that Republicans aren’t out for revenge, they’re out to destroy him regardless of his behavior towards them.

  15. acroyear says

    The problem with the phrase “the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms” is that people seem to have a different idea of what that means.

    The Tea Party’s claims that Obama is a Fascist has nothing to do with his real civil rights issues as described above. It is only about the money, and always has been. You can torture, you can kill, you can arrest indefinitely, you can effectively pardon those who do such things, and that isn’t a problem.

    But you can’t take rich people’s money and give it to the poor for health care (even though that isn’t the bill that passed). All the “Obama is evil” rhetoric is all about the money…the worst thing being, of course, that the rural people who most would benefit from it (besides the inner-city poor) are the ones most vocal against all this.

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