The Republican convention in Tampa was a bit like an outsized town hall meeting compared to the Democrats' mega-convention in Charlotte. The DNC audience was like a sea with no horizon... a microcosm of America. Speech after barnburner speech electrified the audience with high minded talk of values, calls to action and chants of "four more years." But behind the fine words and noble sentiments lurked shadows that not even the power of rhetoric, the chants and the cheers could entirely exorcise.
The DNC spectacle rang a little hollow to those of us who have watched the administration embark on actions that call into question its claims to be upholders of the Constitution and civil liberties.
After the 2008 election there was genuine hope (that word again) for a new direction - one that marked a departure from the policies of George W. Bush. Not just symbolic change or a change in messaging, but something substantive. Instead it became increasingly clear that in certain key respects the more things changed, the more they remained the same.
In the 2012 Democratic platform pledge we read:
Advancing our interests may involve new actions and policies to confront threats like terrorism, but the president and the Democratic Party believe these practices must always be in line with our Constitution, preserve our people’s privacy and civil liberties, and withstand the checks and balances that have served us so well.
During a speech at Chicago's Northwestern School of Law, US Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed the mantra: "Our actions must always be grounded on the bedrock of the Constitution.”
The facts tell another story. Obama has in certain respects continued with the Bush agenda, even in the most controversial respects. Guantánamo Bay remains open and indefinite detentions will almost certainly continue for years to come.
Obama publicly applauded the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki - an American citizen executed by Hellfire drone in Yemen - a man never tried for any crime. How exactly was the extra-judicial killing of al-Awlaki in line with the Constitution and civil liberties? In other drone attacks targeting alleged 'militants' many civilians have lost their lives, including women and children.
How does the pre-trial punishment of Bradley Manning who stands accused of WikiLeaks transgressions go along with the above claim? What about militarized policing and the tactics used against Occupy activists? What about the ever-increasing powers of the surveillance state?
A Guardian article - "Drone wars and state secrecy - how Barack Obama became a hardliner" - points out the ways:
Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the controversial Guantánamo Bay prison and pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts. He has preserved renditions. He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process.
Back in 2008 there were those who saw where things were headed. Jack M. Balkin - a Yale law professor - wrote the following in a law review article:
The question is not whether we will have a surveillance state in the years to come, but what sort of state we will have. The National Surveillance State poses three major dangers for our freedom. The first danger is that government will create a parallel track of preventative law enforcement that routes around the traditional guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The second danger is that traditional law enforcement and social services will increasingly resemble the parallel track. Once governments have access to powerful surveillance and data mining technologies, there will be enormous political pressure to use them in everyday law enforcement and for delivery of government services. Private power and public-private cooperation pose a third danger. Because the Constitution does not reach private parties, government has increasing incentives to rely on private enterprise to collect and generate information for it, thus circumventing constitutional guarantees.
Obama the president is a far cry from Obama the candidate. Which is what you would expect, to a degree. He hasn't had an easy ride. No doubt he has been affected by the harsh realities of power, by the negativity and obstructionism of detractors who have worked overtime to tear him down. Perhaps that in part explains the shift in priorities. Survival by another name.
Part of the deal in the making of US presidents includes the requirement to be war-ready, with a willingness to shore up American interests by whatever means necessary - even if the means do happen to skirt around or undercut claimed values. Applause from heavy hitters with connections to former administrations perhaps resonates more than kudos from 'idealists' on the left. Even Dick Cheney - chief among early detractors - sounded approving: “He [Obama] has learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate.”
To many supporters the last four years seemed more like betrayal, especially in the light of key commitments in the 2008 Dem platform:
We support constitutional protections and judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans. We will review the current Administration's warrantless wiretapping program. We reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens, wherever they live. We reject the use of national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. We reject the tracking of citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war…We will revisit the Patriot Act and overturn unconstitutional executive decisions issued during the past eight years.
We will respect the time-honored principle of habeas corpus, the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention that was recently reaffirmed by our supreme court.
We will close the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years.
During his speech at this year's DNC, Obama made a point of saying "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the President." Maybe that should include living up to the pledge, in particular claims of transparency included in the 2012 platform, starting with the claim to be “the most open, efficient and accountable government in history.”