Continuing his lonely quest to get liberals to pay attention to President Obama’s horrendous record on civil liberties, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald today challenges ThinkProgress’ Matt Yglesias, who excuses Obama’s actions on the grounds that the president is just following public opinion. Greenwald has the better case.

But the more I watch Obama endorse and expand the Bush administration’s claims of essentially unlimited presidential power, the more I conclude that we have essentially one hope at this point.

Civil libertarians should hope, perversely, that Obama will abuse the powers he’s claimed — and which, given Congress’ craven acceptance, appear to be a bipartisan Washington consensus. Moreover, we have to hope that he’ll abuse them broadly, against people who support him as well as those who don’t. 

In the Clinton years, a significant number of Republicans hammered what they believed (accurately in many cases) was the White House’s tendency to claim executive powers that they were certain would be abused. For a time it was the GOP that defended civil liberties — hypocritical in the extreme in many cases, as it was mostly reflexive anti-Clinton paranoia, but useful nonetheless for those of us who were glad to see someone, anyone, pushing back.

Republicans and Democrats alike seem to have concluded that Obama won’t abuse his power, at least in ways they or their major supporters will find objectionable. In the case of Republicans, it’s unclear whether they figure he’s a wimp or naive about the “real world,” but the taunting by the right-wing pols and people like Limbaugh about “the regime,” and all the other alarm-ringing, is hollow at its core. Sure, it’s demagogic fear mongering, but I don’t believe most of these people really want their gun-laden supporters to actually use their weapons; that would harm their cause. Rather, they want these folks to get organized at protests and political meetings and ultimately in voting booths. Their goal is for Obama to fail, in ways that have historically led to right-wing surges, so they can get back all three branches of government again. Actual violence by their supporters would make that much more difficult.

If the Republicans don’t really fear Obama, the Democrats, have turned cowardice into an art form, seem to figure it’s okay to pander to fear and expand presidential power because a good person is in charge at the moment — and, as many have suggested, because lots of Democrats have deeply authoritarian impulses as well. The latter may actually be the more important motivation. But the Democrats’ hypocrisy — Patrick Leahy’s beyond-craven performance as one of Obama’s chief enablers in Congress is especially shameful, given his rhetoric during the Bush years — should surprise no one at this point. They demonstrated their total spinelessness during the Bush years. Why should we have expected them to change now?

But the political right is surely licking its chops, confident that when it returns to power there will be absolutely no constraints on their pro-authority (except for the 2nd Amendment) agenda. And Obama will have given them cover. He, as much as George Bush and Dick Cheney, will have laid the groundwork for a regime that goes all the way to the edge, if not over it.

Most depressing of all, the majority of the American people would probably welcome such a government. Our preference for the illusion of safety over the recognition and acceptance of risk has only grown. We are a society too afraid of our own shadows to confront reality, I fear. Someday, perhaps as soon as the next successful terrorist attack, we’ll get what we seem to want. 

Which is why I come back to my perverse hope that Obama will abuse his powers enough to pull enough scales from enough eyes, especially in Washington, that people understand what history teaches again and again: Untrammeled executive authority only seems like the easier road — until you’re in the way of the bulldozer.

3 thoughts on “Dear Mr. President: Please Abuse Your Powers

  1. The sooner people realize that there is no fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats, the sooner they’ll see the scam that is American politics. Political parties are a distraction meant to keep us from seeing what’s really happening. Republicans will screw you over when they’re in power and Democrats will do it just as quickly. The only difference is the rhetoric they use to get elected and the rhetoric they use, once elected, to explain why they’re screwing you. In the end, you’re still getting screwed.

    It’s time to walk away from this false paradigm and wake up. The Constitution won’t save you, that guy running for office won’t save you, and whomever your favorite jackass in D.C. is won’t save you either. Only YOU can save you! DUMP DC and work locally. Make Washington totally irrelevant. Make it so worthless that it becomes a non-issue. Take the power away from the Whores of the Potomac and stick with your local and state governments. They’re made up of people who live next door to you and are much less likely to want pissed off neighbors. Make them make D.C. irrelevant.

  2. There are very many libertarians in the GOP. I am one of them.

    Obama has abused his power: firing two CEOs of GM, changing the loan terms before Chrysler went bankrupt, treating TARP like a slush fund, outlawing drilling, lying about the healthcare bill, etc.

    To be fair, some of what Obama has done was quite reasonable. He criticized the Bush admin on civil liberties issues, just like he criticized him on Iraq, because it was cheap political points. Some politicians will say anything to get elected, and the rude stuff Obama said to Petraeus in 2007 is a great example of that.

    In a war, many of the things Bush did are reasonable, and when your job is to protect the American people from terrorists rather than just complain about it, you gain a different perspective. There is a big disconnect between being a journalist, and being responsible for the lives of others. There is a famous line that the Bill of Right is not a suicide pact. If we are dead, our civil rights don’t matter.

    Many left-wingers called it the Bush “regime” when he was in power. And if it was true for Bush, it is even more true for Obama. Obama believes government is the answer, and that he can decide best. Look at the way the healthcare bill was rammed through via reconciliation and without going to conference and with the arm-twisting and judgeships offered and fake executive orders.

    Republicans want Obama to fail because they view his ideas as bad for the country. They view his healthcare bill as making the situation worse. That his stimulus bill wouldn’t fix the economy and would add $800B to the national debt and just prolong the bloated state governments and the day of reckoning.

    As Milton Friedman wrote, the government solution to a problem can easily be worse than the problem. The Republicans disagree with Obama on principle. Congressman Paul Ryan has good legislation for healthcare reform. Obama ignored the Republican ideas and has less bipartisanship than what Bush had. Whereas the Democrats criticized Bush not based on policies but based on politics. They criticized him for the Patriot Act yet voted for it. They criticized him for interrogation and yet Obama of course reserves that right. The Democrats criticized Bush for social security, but didn’t have a plan of their own. That is the biggest difference between the two situations. The Republicans have better ideas, but the Democrats don’t and just criticize to score political points.

    There is a backlash against Obama’s policies, civil liberties and otherwise. The Tea Party movement is about all kinds of smaller government. Join up!

  3. One could make a very strong argument, only 18 months in, that Obama is much more of an authoritarian president than Bush.

    The thing is that when Obama does something, it isn’t a scandal. Look at the way Bush was treated for Katrina compared to Obama with BP. Bush was criticized for being like Herbert Hoover when he had 6.6% unemployment. Rahm Emmanuel has committed a felony, yet he is treated differently from Rove, who was never indicted or convicted of anything. Obama just stole money from preferred Chrysler bond-holders without it being a scandal. The media never criticize his Rube Goldberg healthcare reform legislation, which arrogantly attempts to reform 1/6 of the US economy. Obama has also told many lies about the healthcare legislation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-bY92mcOdk

    The problem is that the storylines in the media versus what actually happen are very different. You could call it Orwellian.

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