Like most liberals, I’m disappointed by Barack Obama’s early track record on civil liberties issues — disappointed, yes, but not all that surprised. He isn’t, after all, the same person he was as a candidate a year ago. And he certainly isn’t the same person he was as a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator or even a US senator from a fairly bluish state.
No, he’s now the man. And since when do we look to the man to go to the wall on civil liberties issues? Isn’t that a job that more often falls to outsiders, to “ugly” people who offend polite company — you know, the damn pointy-headed liberal intellectuals, sipping their lattes, and those beer guzzling libertarians with the Live Free or Die bumper stickers on the back of their pickup trucks?
Sure, Obama needs to be held accountable for his constitutional failings. Accountability goes with the territory, or at least it’s supposed to. He took the oath of office, after all — placed his hand on the bible — Abraham Lincoln’s bible no less — and swore to uphold the constitution. But he’s also the man. And it’s worth remembering that it was Abraham Lincoln himself, back when he was the man, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. And he stretched the constitution in other ways as well. He had a war to win and a union to save, and if that required cutting a few corners so be it.
Like most things in life, it comes down to perspective. And being the man changes your perspective. High minded civil liberty concerns seem less important: keeping America safe more so. Is that an excuse for ignoring the constitution? Of course not. But the reality is that it’s naïve to expect the man to be the person leading the charge in the defense of civil liberties. That’s just not how it works.
Franklin Roosevelt, for example, the ultimate liberal hero, committed one of the worst civil liberties offenses in the nation’s history, the internment of Japanese Americans. How could he have done it? How could the great man have stooped so low? Beyond question, it was an unforgivable act — one of the most shameful moments in American history. But the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. FDR was the man. Protecting civil liberties wasn’t his highest priority at the time.
Rocket ahead 60 plus years. Barack Obama, who wants more than anything to concentrate on issues like finally bringing the United States into the 20th century (one century too late) by adopting universal health insurance, finds himself facing a God awful mess not of his own making. The gulag at Guantanamo Bay has to be shut down. But what to do with the prisoners still held there, many of whom are extremely dangerous people — folks who really do want to kill us in our sleep — or in our wakefulness, for that matter (they’re not that picky)?
And that’s only the beginning of his troubles. It turns out that due to the incompetence and misconduct of the preceding administration some of these presumptive bad guys can’t be convicted in a court of law. So what to do? Let them go free. That’s certainly the correct answer legally, at least if viewed from the perspective of criminal justice: if you don’t have evidence to prove guilt they’re presumed innocent, right? That sounds fine, or at least unavoidable, to a civil libertarian. It might even have sounded fine to a liberal law professor in Chicago a few years back. But to the man? Not so much.
The man looks past the principles to the consequences, for the nation and, yes, for himself as well. What would it mean if a terrorism suspect released by the Obama Administration led a successful attack against the United States? The damage that would do the nation, to our cohesion as a society, would be immeasurable. And for Obama and the Democratic Party it would likely become a political apocalypse. It might be enough to return the torturers to office. God knows that’s what they’re counting on.
When you’re the man you think about things like that. The man always will.
I have no doubt Barack Obama will be a much more law abiding president than was George W. Bush, and one much more respectful of constitutional rights. Liberals who have given up on him are jumping way too quickly. But he’s not going to push the envelope in protecting civil liberties. He’s the man. That isn’t what the man does.
So sometimes we’ll have to fight him. That’s our job — every latte sipping and pickup truck driving one of us.