You probably heard President Obama trying -- a tad clumsily, in my opinion -- to channel Ronald Reagan the other day. It was Reagan who famlous quoted Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and challenged congressional Democrats to, "Go ahead, make my day." The other day, Obama was asked at a news conference about Republicans who accuse him of "appeasement." "Ask Osama bin Laden," the president responded.
I'm sure that boosted his approval rating by a point or two. Indeed, a lot of respectable people say that Obama deserves a lot of credit for the way he handled the killing of bin Laden earlier this year. One of them is Admiral William McRaven, who said this week that Obama was "the smartest guy in the room" in the bin Laden deliberations. That's great.
I have to say, though, that my sense was always that all that presidents I've seen in my lifetime, Democrat or Republican, would have made the exact same decision. Let's be honest, for a president, the most hawkish choice is usually the most "popular" -- even if it fails. This may shock you, but the appoval ratings of Jimmy Carter (Iran hostage rescue) and JFK (Bay of Pigs) rose in both cases after their failed efforts. So Obama ordering the bin Laden raid may have been the right choice, but not a profile in remarkable courage.
No, you know what takes real courage? Of course you do. What's courageous is doing the right thing when it's politically unpopular, when it's going to cost you in the polls and cause a lot of screaming and shouting from all the usual supects but when you've decided that it's better to gamble your presidency on being moral, on returning America to the values that have been exceptional since the Bill of Rights was adopted 220 years ago on this very date.
Barack Obama had a remarkable chance to be that most courageous president in American history. He became the 44th president after a dangerous, generations-long slide of a national security state run amok was punctuated over the last decade by some of the most outrageous abuses in America's long history -- the acceptance and carrying out of unlawful torture and the establishment of a gulag of prisons, some secret and one in Guantanamo Bay that stood for the world as a dark beacon of everything that had gone off the tracks in the 2000s. At the very core was the chucking of the longstanding right of habeas corpus, that anyone suspected of crimes -- no matter how henious -- would get a day inside a court in what was once the world's greatest criminal justice system.
But President Obama was not courageous. He is a coward. He did the easiest, most politically expedient things. He backed down from closing Guantanamo without a fight, asserted a right to hold terror suspects forever without facing trial, ordered and successfully carried out the extra-legal killing of an American citizen, and now he's about to sign a bill that not only ratifies some of those terrible things but broadens his power to hold even citizens indefinitely.
Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and writer who was radicalized by the abuses of the Bush years, warned in the run-up to the 2008 election that the vast expansion of presidential powers could and probably would be just as easily abused by a Democratic president like Obama (or Hillary Clinton) as had been done under Bush. Now he writes:
I need to say that again: long before, and fully independent of, anything Congress did, President Obama made clear that he was going to preserve the indefinite detention system at Guantanamo even once he closed the camp. That's what makes the apologias over Obama and GITMO so misleading: the controversy over Guantanamo was not that about its locale — that it was based in the Caribbean Sea — so that simply closing it and then re-locating it to a different venue would address the problem. The controversy over Guantanamo was that it was a prison camp where people were put in cages indefinitely, for decades or life, without being charged with any crime. And that policy is one that President Obama whole-heartedly embraced from the start.
This morning I wrote that by making the mandatory military detention provisions mandatory in name only, the Senate had offered the administration an opportunity to see how seriously it takes its own rhetoric on civil liberties. The administration had said that the military detention provisions of an earlier version of the NDAA were "inconsistent with the fundamental American principle that our military does not patrol our streets."
The revised NDAA is still inconsistent with that fundamental American principle. But the administration has decided that fundamental American principles aren't actually worth vetoing the bill over.
Or, in the infamous words of Dan Rather...courage.
This is nothing new, sadly -- just an extention of what we've seem startng a couple of months into the Obama administration. I won't belabor the point, but this is why "The Protester" (and yes, I'm including the rank and file of the Tea Party along with Occupy Wall Street) is Time's person of the year. Because there's no other recourse to correct this sad state of affairs other than taking to the streets, when the leaders are so far removed from both the people and from the nation's core values. Look at the Patriot Act -- it's unpopular on both ends of the political spectrum, and yet lawmakers routinely extend it. Look at the 2012 election. Don't like the idea of a president who wants to detain Americans indefinitely or order the assassination of citizens? Sure, you could vote for the only one candidate who opposes that, in Ron Paul, but Paul would carry a ton of awful baggage along with his flouride-frightened pals from the John Birch Society into the White House. Who wants that?