If observers want to criticize the President, they should challenge his derogation in practice of the same values he professes.
Critics of Mr. Obama have described his inaugural address as radical. But insisting on values as fundamental as "equality before the law" and the "enduring strength of our Constitution" are hardly radical. Indeed, they are simply restatements of principles that have long united America.
If observers want to criticize the President, they should instead challenge his derogation in practice of the same values he professes in lofty speeches. Rhetoric is no substitute for reality, and given the President’s unfortunate extension of the Bush-Cheney assault on civil liberties, his administration deserves criticism.
The President seems no more inclined than his neo-con predecessors to heed longstanding constitutional limits on executive power. Indeed, his first term witnessed several extensions of the Bush-Cheney legacy.
Extrajudicial assassination using armed drone aircraft, the use of unmanned aerial drones for unwarranted domestic spying, the NSA's dragnet domestic wiretapping, the FBI's resurrection of COINTELPRO, the unprecedented crackdown on immigrants under President Obama, the use of immigration enforcement as a pretext to create a national biometric identification scheme for all Americans (including citizens), continued racial profiling in the drug war, and the new threat of military detention within the US, all reflect a dark side of President Obama's legacy.
I’ve written at length about the secrecy pervading the administration’s national security efforts, which butcher constitutional rights in many ways that are unfortunately even worse than the sum of their parts.
If President Obama wants to leave a legacy in his second term, he need cite no transformative agenda. He need merely remember his own campaign promises from 2008, or the need to ensure accountability for documented recent violations by federal agencies, or alternatively the oath of office he adopted again this week.
Several looming policy issues offer opportunities for the administration to finally walk the President’s talk in its second term.
Comprehensive immigration reform looms large on the federal agenda. But what might “comprehensive” come to mean?
The starting point for debates on immigration reform could reflect the right wing emphasis on enforcement, leaving untouched the biometric data tracking scheme that the FBI secretly launched under the guise of enabling local support for federal enforcement.
If the immigration reform process either entrenches local enforcement, or allows the FBI’s Next Generation Initiative to continue using immigration as a pretext, the administration will have failed to fix a problem that plagued its first term.
Rather than defer to a dysfunctional Congress, the president should propose legislation that would allow a pathway to citizenship, remove local police from enforcing immigration laws so they can better fight crime, and stop biometric data collection until Congress first addresses the profound privacy issues facing citizens and immigrants alike.
After unprecedented rates of deportations in his first term, squandering the opportunity to reform enforcement could not only stain Obama’s legacy, but also shift the electoral map. Now that the GOP has finally realized its interest in representing Latinos, rather than demonizing them, the President has a narrow window to retain their political allegiance.
Human rights: torture
The President could also unilaterally change another debate, not by proposing legislation to shift a skewed congressional debate, but simply by allowing the public to see an object of rare bipartisan consensus.
Specifically, the administration could easily declassify an extensive bipartisan report on torture recently approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would finally expose some of the long rumored--but never officially acknowledged--facts about US human rights abuses.
Everyone involved in crafting the report (including the Chairs of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, a recent GOP presidential candidate, and the acting head of the CIA) has agreed that torture under the Bush administration did not help US national security.
Many forget that torture actively undermined national security, and that because no one has ever been held accountable for it, it remains available as a policy option.
Meanwhile, because official secrecy has kept the public in the dark, Hollywood’s depictions of torture have set false impressions of the utility of torture, overlooking its universal status as a crime. Allowing a transparent debate about our nation's human rights abuses is the only way to stop them from recurring.
Does the President listen?
Unfortunately, the President already doubled down on secrecy since winning the election, pushing through an extension of dragnet domestic wiretapping, even as the NSA stonewalled Congress. Undeterred by the secrecy surrounding so crucial a policy extension, the President signed a 5 year blank check for the NSA to continue assaulting the privacy of law-abiding Americans en masse, and then tried to hide that decision from the public by announcing it over the holidays.
Which is to say, the president is not likely to walk his talk unless pushed by the American people. Here's where it gets tricky.
The president has proven his willingness to follow the lead of grassroots movements, but only after they successfully change the public conversation. The long overdue decision to allow deferred action on immigration enforcement for students is one example; the president's escalated rhetoric on tax policy after the rise of the Occupy movement in fall 2011 is another.
But what about issues where a grassroots consensus has emerged, without media coverage to depict it? The domestic use of surveillance drones, or the domestic military detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are perfect examples: diverse coalitions have emerged from the left and right across the country, but the President seems to heed only the intelligence establishment.
Nor is the problem of media ignoring grassroots movements new: the NY Times ignored the Occupy movement for weeks, before finally giving it international visibility that ultimately prompted the President to reconsider his fiscal policy.
The administration is letting corporate media determine which movements are political winners for the president. But why should mass media be a gatekeeper?
Even beyond those areas where the press ignores grassroots consensus, what about issues that the press can't cover due to the administration’s secrecy?
That's why transparency matters: by releasing the Senate’s torture report, for instance, the administration can enable a public conversation that will create political space for the administration’s stated goals. If the President wants to end torture, letting the public finally see the facts would help embolden the Justice Department to finally enforce the law equally, instead of placing former officials above the law.
Racial profiling: a test of the President’s will
Despite the secrecy that insulates national security abuses, mass incarceration is already in the news, as are countless examples of police profiling. It seems like a no-brainer, especially for a President whose signature accomplishments as a state senator included passing a bill to address racial profiling, to finally support the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) that Congress has ignored for a decade.
ERPA was never closely considered under Obama's first term because the administration refused to even engage the issue, actively skirting potential controversies and going so far as to invite an unapologetic cop to the White House for a congratulatory beer after he harassed and arrested a black Harvard professor at his own house despite breaking no law.
Obama's tone deafness on ERPA is hard to explain.
In championing measures to relieve the student loan debt crisis, the administration was responding to the Occupy movement, which reportedly included about 250,000 people at its height. Mass incarceration directly impacts more than 10 times that number, revealing a massive constituency to end racial profiling.
That constituency is even bigger than the millions directly impacted: family members of prisoners number in the tens of millions; and the electoral majority supporting the President abhors prison gerrymandering, which inflates the congressional representation of rural counties at the cost of urban enclaves.
Supporting ERPA therefore should be an easy decision to make--if the administration has learned the lessons of its first term. Given its weak showing on FISA and the NDAA, however, and the President mouthing values in his inauguration address that he actively impedes, we may have to continue waiting for change we can believe in.