A confession: For all my innumerable policy disagreements with Barack Obama, on election night 2008, I found myself cheering with the rest of the throng on U Street. I fully expected to be appalled by much of his agenda – but I had also spent years covering the Bush administration’s relentless arrogation of power to the executive in the name of the War on Terror, its glib invocation of “national security” to squelch the least gesture toward transparency or accountability, its easy contempt for civil liberties and the rule of law. However fitfully, I thought, we could finally hope to see that appalling legacy reversed. And that seemed worth celebrating even if little else about the declared Obama agenda was.
As you might guess, I had a lot of disappointment coming – and not just with Obama. There were, of course, principled civil libertarians on the left, like Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and Firedoglake’s Marcy Wheeler who kept banging the drum with undiminished fury. But many progressives seemed prepared to assume that Bush’s War-on-Terror policies would be out the door close on the heels of their author – conspicuously muting their outrage even as the reasons for it persisted. Meanwhile, the right – disappointingly if not entirely surprisingly – managed to fuse a penchant for breathless Stalin analogies with an attitude toward expansive surveillance powers and arbitrary detention authority that ranged from indifference to endorsement.
So it’s a little encouraging to see evidence over the last few weeks that burgeoning progressive disenchantment with Obama along a number of dimensions seems to be bringing these issues back into sharper focus. In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame (described by the paper as a “lefty icon”) blasted Obama for “continuing the worst of the Bush administration in terms of civil liberties.” ACLU director Anthony Romero declared himself “disgusted” with the president, and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones catalogued a slew of reasons to agree with that appraisal. The real test of an issue’s salience, however, is whether it makes The Daily Show, and so perhaps the most significant bellwether is Jon Stewart’s decision to devote an unusually long and blistering segment to Obama’s failure to live up to his rhetoric on civil liberties and executive power:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Respect My Authoritah|
Democrats have spent most of the past decade playing defense against “soft on national security” attacks from the right, on the assumption – borne out thus far – that the base wasn’t going to punish them for folding on civil liberties issues. But while many progressive complaints now being aired are themselves the product of an unrealistic view of presidential puissance, this really is one sphere where the president has enormous latitude to unilaterally affect policy. It’s therefore also a set of issues where scant progress can’t easily be blamed on Republican obstructionism.
During the Bush era, we saw the brief emergence of a small but hardy left-right “strange bedfellows” coalition opposed to the FISA Amendments Act. Now I find myself wondering: If progressive grumblings on this front continue and grow louder, will the Tea Party movement that’s sprung up in the intervening years realize that their own rhetoric logically commits them to the same position? And if they do, will civil libertarians on the left be open to resurrecting that odd alliance?