Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Real Obama Stands Up

Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope is the kind of book people buy without ever reading.

And there's good reason for that.

Written after Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, The Audacity of Hope is political boilerplate on how Americans can do a better job of "coming together." The 60 or 70 pages I read aren't very insightful. Or very interesting. And I don't particularly regret not getting any further.

Still, there are a lot of progressives who would have done well to read The Audacity of Hope before they endorsed Obama for the Democratic nomination.

Liberal bloggers are up in arms that Barack Obama is supporting the "compromise" bill on wiretapping and telecom immunity that just passed the House of Representatives on Friday and will most likely be passed by the Senate early next week.

There are two major provisions in the bill.

The most important provision in terms of intelligence operations is that the president is required to obtain approval from a special FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court within a week of initiating a wiretap on communications between people in foreign countries and the U. S. They only had 72 hours of leeway under the FISA Act of 1978.

The second provision is probably the more controversial and contentious. The legislation also provides that telecom companies like AT&T that conducted illegal surveillance at the request of the Bush administration will get immunity from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.

Liberal bloggers are outraged because it has become evident that the telecom companies "data mined" the whole American system of telephone communication in search of "suspicious" patterns of phone calls at the request of the Bush administration. And they did so without any kind of warrant. Under the FISA Act of 1978 (which was designed to address the CIA abuses of the 50's and 60's), that kind of surveillance was illegal on the part of both the Bush administration and the telecoms and all parties engaging in such surveillance were subject to criminal penalties.

Even worse, "legal immunity" shields the Bush administration's conduct from scrutiny. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed against the telecoms and progressive activists had hoped that the telecoms would be forced to reveal what the Bush administration actually was doing as they responded to the lawsuits. Without the lawsuits, progressive activists have lost a major vehicle for determing the full criminality of the Bush administration's surveillance program.

To say that liberal bloggers are disappointed, enraged, and dismayed over the legislation and Obama's endorsement is to put the matter mildly. At Daily Kos, Hunter has a long diatribe on how Obama's statement on the legislation shows that he thinks most Americans are stupid. Salon blogging powerhouse Glenn Greenwald can't decide which is the worst thing about the surveillance legislation, the un-American character of the whole warrantless surveillance idea, Democratic leadership's lack of respect for the rule of law, the corruption of the Democrats in saving the bacon of big-time campaign contributors like the telecom companies, or the post hoc bragging by the Republicans that they got a lot more than they thought possible. Greenwald emphasizes that the Democratic Congress still hasn't stood up to President Bush on a major issue and views House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland as the primary agent of Democratic appeasement to the Bush administration and the Republicans.

And as a liberal blogger, I'm just as disgusted with the surveillance legislation as Greenwald and Hunter.

But I wonder how they can be surprised that Obama's supporting the bill.

Obama starts off his statement by saying:
Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people.
This is key. Obama views the Bush administration as addressing a legitimate concern for national security in its surveillance programs. Much of the point of the first few chapters of The Audacity of Hope is to argue that Republicans and Democrats have most of the same values, that the Republicans have legitimate points of view, and that the Democrats need to be less suspicious and more empathetic about Republican intentions. Obama specifically criticizes the harder edge of ideological partisanship represented by The Daily Kos and bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and myself.
I understand the frustration of these activists. The ability of Republicans to repeatedly win on the basis of polarizing campaigns is indeed impressive. I recognize the dangers of subtlety and nuance in the face of the conservative movement's passionate intensity. And in my mind at least, there are a host of Bush administration policies that justify righteous indignation.

Ultimately, though, I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and idological strategy misapprehends the moment we're in. I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. (Audacity of Hope, 40)
In other words, Obama is just like Rep. Steny Hoyer, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and other Democrats who view George Bush and Dick Cheney as having an honest belief that warrantless wiretapping is necessary for American national security. As Democrats, figures like Obama might disagree with Bush about the best way to balance national security and civil liberties and believe that the Bush administration has engaged in a number of abuses.
There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the
Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without
their knowledge or the required court orders.
However, Barack Obama is like Steny Hoyer in believing that the Bush people are decent and being more than willing to compromise some of his values to get important legislation passed. For Obama, this is the only way to get out of what he views as the "either-or" (Audacity, 40) politics of the last eight years and the only way to generate the broad consensus needed for government to better serve the public interest.

That's a long way from my view and the views of the most prominent liberal bloggers. From the liberal blogger point of view, the Bush administration is a criminal enterprise that knowingly and purposefully violated the laws against warrantless wiretapping, crimes against humanity, and politicizing administrative entities like the Justice Department. The major figures in the Bush administration viewed all of these types of laws as "liberal legislation" and saw a willingness to break those laws as a test of political manhood. Likewise, once figures in the Bush administration committed their various crimes, they also engaged in a wholesale cover-up by "misplacing" e-mails, invoking executive privilege, refusing international agencies access to prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc.

While Obama believes that the Bush administration has been sincerely pursuing their ideas of national security even if he disagrees with those ideas, most of the prominent liberal bloggers have concluded that the Bush administration leveraged the national security crisis of 9-11 into the wholesale lawbreaking of laws they didn't like.

I agree with the bloggers and this fundamental disagreement with Obama is the primary reason why I supported Hillary Clinton almost to the bitter end.

Nevertheless, mostly because of their general disgust with the Clinton era and Obama's early opposition to the Iraq War, the activists at Daily Kos and supported Obama.

Now that they can see the real Obama, liberal activists need to form a better understanding of what the Democratic nominee stands for.

They also need to read his book.


jinchi said...

I agree with the bloggers and this fundamental disagreement with Obama is the primary reason why I supported Hillary Clinton almost to the bitter end.

This is where you lost me. How was Clinton better than Obama on this issue?

Neither Clinton nor Obama used their positions as celebrities in the Senate to define and shape the issues of the last few years. I'd have been happier if some solid civil libertarians had been running for president. Dodd came the closest on the FISA issue. Clinton even voiced sympathy for Bush's desire for a stronger executive.

It would have been nice if someone with a record like Russ Feingold had been our nominee, but that wasn't a choice we had.

Ric Caric said...

You're certainly right about neither Obama nor Hillary being forward on this issue.

What I mean was that Hillary is far less likely to view the Bush people or the Republicans in general as "honest opponents who have a legitimate point."

For better or worse, the country was more ready for Obama than Feingold.