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February, 23rd 2009

"Change?"

– Liz Mair

As someone who actively worked to defeat President Obama last year when he was just plain old Senator/Barack Obama, it will surprise no one to know that I was never quite sold on his candidacy, well-defined by its "change" theme, with which we are now all so well-accustomed. 

Watch this space for a couple of longer posts, which I hope will be forthcoming, about my experiences of working at the RNC, to elect John McCain (a man I still very much admire) President, and some more detailed thoughts about the campaign. 

For now, let me put this brief missive live: For as much as Obama campaigned on the notion of "change," when it came to matters I consider extremely linked to civil liberties issues (many of which really arose because of the Bush administration's perceived disinterest in protecting said liberties), I never bought what he was selling.  The executive branch (and would-be heads of it) tend to want to maintain and, if possible, expand executive power; Presidents tend to consistently treat security as a top concern, often ahead of rights and liberties (not necessarily rightly, but perhaps understandably, given that everyone gets to vote them into, or out of, office and it's easy for the populace to get its head around voting someone out of office who may have been "on guard," so to speak, when lives were lost).  As it happens, I'm still not buying what Obama sold, though-- and here's why. [intro]

Last year, in full campaign mode, Obama switched his vote on FISA reform legislation such that he voted for a bill which provided cause for concern for (mainly) libertarians worried about the conduct of surveillance activities and (mainly) liberals dedicated to ensuring the ability of those who might have been targeted by arguably illegal surveillance activities carried out by the Bush administration to sue telecom companies. Obama had previously committed to filibustering a bill of this type and had voted in favor of an amendment to strip retroactive immunity from FISA reform legislation.

Now, Reason's Michael Moynihan points out that we're seeing new example of, er, non-change:

More continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations, writes Charlie Savage in the New York Times. Obama will close Guantanamo sometime in the next year (after they figure out what to do with the remaining detainee), but what happens to those imprisoned at the Bagram base in Afghanistan? Same as before, it seems

Here's what Moynihan means, specifically:

The Obama administration has told a federal judge that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush's legal team.

But that's not all.

A Pentagon report requested by President Obama on the conditions at the Guantánamo Bay detention center concluded that the prison complies with the humane-treatment requirements of the Geneva Conventions.

Then, there's this business about the Obama administration acting in a way that some would deem "Bush-like" with regard to the issue of state secrets.  And this story detailing how "recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing theC.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone."  That story also underlines that "the nominee for C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, opened a loophole in Mr. Obama’s interrogation restrictions. At his hearing, Mr. Panetta said that if the approved techniques were 'not sufficient' to get a detainee to divulge details he was suspected of knowing about an imminent attack, he would ask for 'additional authority.'”

I don't think it bears spelling out at this point, but this is not really what I think a lot of people who bought into Obama's notion of "change" thought they'd be getting.  Yes, Obama may be better than Bush was on this stuff.  But I would argue that his administration is taking positions that are probably not any different from those that McCain might have taken with regard to individual war on terror policies, and which would have been at the "bad" end of his personal scale from a civil liberties perspective.  This is more or less, then, as I suspected, and it's hard not to feel that it would have been far preferable, as such, had the country voted for the guy who wasn't pledging something in the range of a trillion dollars in new spending over just one four year term-- even when our current economic troubles were not evident-- or the guy who didn't torpedo (but rather championed) immigration reform, or the guy who wanted to incentivize green technology by offering a $300 million prize for a better car battery, or the guy who actually led on climate change (garnering praise, in fact, from Obama himself).

But enough that reads as carping about the election result... that's not the point here.  The point is that Obama, unfortunately, is proving already that he just doesn't represent the kind of "change" he wanted us to believe, at least where a lot of these issues are concerned-- and that is something that some of us are taking note of.

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