The Obama Administration and the Bill of Rights
For a long while last year, I flirted with the idea of voting for Obama. But after he showed a lack of backbone on warrantless wiretapping and the Libertarian Party nominated a reasonably serious candidate, I found myself voting for Bob Barr. Still, I had passionately backed Obama during the primaries and thought he was the most promising major-party Presidential nominee on civil liberties issues in a very, very long time. As between Obama and McCain, there was no contest that Obama was the far preferable candidate.
Sadly, I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the Obama Administration has an extraordinarily low regard for some of our most fundamental freedoms. This conclusion is not based on any one incident, but on the accumulation of many small incidents. This is also not to suggest that the Obama Administration is on the verge of creating a secret police or anything resembling the totalitarian visions of our nightmares. But there comes a point where it becomes clear that concerns for certain freedoms simply are not entering into the decisionmaking process.
To be sure, Obama’s been better than Bush on Guantanamo Bay, torture, the Fourth Amendment, and medical marijuana raids. Then again, “better than Bush” is a low bar on these issues, especially when you consider that these are issues that by and large played a key role in his getting the nomination and eventually winning office. What has frustrated me far more about the Obama Administration, however, has been its performance on civil liberties issues that are less important to the liberal base of the Democratic Party. This performance suggests that the Obama Administration’s interest in Constitutional liberties goes little further than is needed to keep the liberal base happy.
What are these small incidents? In no particular order:
1. The NEA political art hubub. The Right’s reaction to this largely seemed to me to be making a mountain out of a molehill – we’re talking after all about a conference call orchestrated by a very minor government agency primarily dedicated to soliciting artwork for a National Day of Service. Still, there is something at least unseemly about the government telling artists to make more art similar to the “Hope” campaign poster.
2. The war on Fox News. Yes, we all know that Fox News is hopelessly biased and pushes the envelope. Yes, Presidents have been using access as a way of influencing news coverage from time immemorial. Still, there is something at least unseemly about using the authority of the Presidency to tell people where they should get their news, while denying one of the most widely-used media outlets access to pool resources.
3. The use of official government websites to promote grassroots lobbying on healthcare reform. Sure, government agencies lobby Congress all the time, and sure we have a long history of government agencies trying to mobilize support for things like the Drug War. Still, there is something at least unseemly about using a bureaucratic agency’s resources to mobilize support for a political agenda as if it were a non-profit advocacy group.
4. The request for reports of “misinformation” on health care reform on the White House Blog. Sure, this was just intended as a successor to the “Fight the Smears” site from the campaign. Still there is something at least unseemly about the use of a government website for reports of “misinformation” about a proposed policy.
5. The bizarre decision to prohibit a town in North Carolina from conducting non-partisan elections. Perhaps this is a bit of a low-level action, but it is at a minimum unseemly to be prohibiting a non-partisan ballot on civil rights grounds in a town that is well over 50% African-American.
6. The continued reliance upon signing statements. Sure, Bush did it too, but if you were hopeful that the Obama Administration would signal a scaleback of Executive Power, this is not exactly an encouraging sign.
7. Lobbying restrictions severely limiting the ability of interest groups to petition the government on stimulus funds.
8. Perhaps most significantly – the co-sponsoring of a UN Commission on Human Rights resolution (via Radley Balko) with Egypt. On this, Professor Turley writes:
The Egyptian ambassador to the U.N., Hisham Badr, wasted no time in heralding the new consensus with the U.S. that “freedom of expression has been sometimes misused” and showing that the “true nature of this right” must yield government limitations.
His U.S. counterpart, Douglas Griffiths, heralded “this joint project with Egypt” and supported the resolution to achieve “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” While not expressly endorsing blasphemy prosecutions, the administration departed from other Western allies in supporting efforts to balance free speech against the protecting of religious groups.
True, this resolution is non-binding. As such, I’d be willing to downplay it if this were just a case of the Administration taking a “go along to get along” attitude in being willing to allow this resolution to pass. But that is not, apparently, what happened here – as the excerpt above makes clear, the Obama Administration played an active role in working with Egypt to craft the resolution. There is at the very least, something very unseemly about the United States government working with Egypt to pass a resolution that seeks to limit the definition of freedom of speech based on whether speech offends religious sensibilities.
The point here isn’t that the Obama Administration is waging some kind of covert war on the Bill of Rights. To the contrary – only a handful of the above are even constitutional violations. The problem, instead, is that the above show a pattern of acting as if the job of running the government is little different from the job of running a campaign, just with the muscle of the government backing it. They show that respect for dissent and pluralism take a backseat to political concerns.
Again, though, no one of the above events is catastrophic, and for the most part there are completely legitimate arguments for each. But at some point the events build up enough that it becomes difficult to justify the overall pattern even as you may be able to justify the individual occurences.
The Executive Power of the United States government is vested solely in Barack Obama under the Constitution. This is an increasingly awesome power which he holds on behalf not only of the people who voted for him, but also those that didn’t, and even people who watch Glenn Beck religiously. Such power must be exercised cautiously, with a deep and abiding respect for the meaning that every Executive action carries with it.
It may be completely desirous for artists to support Presidential initiatives, for Fox News to be more responsible in its journalistic practices, for Americans to get more involved in lobbying for health care reform, for falsehoods about reform to be corrected, for lobbyists to keep their paws off the stimulus package, and for us to achieve a better standing in the Muslim world. But those goals should be accomplished with not only the letter, but also the spirit of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in mind, not merely based on what is politically most expedient or effective.