Recently, there seems to have been a lot of dissatisfaction among liberals regarding President Obama’s civil liberties policies. Now, believe me, I understand that President Obama’s civil liberties record is really not much different from George W. Bush’s. Being a civil libertarian myself, there are certainly issues like the Patriot Act, phone monitoring, and warrantless wiretapping that I wish he would take different stances on. However, I predicted back in 2008 that Barack Obama would be authoritarian on civil liberties. I based this on the fact that, in 2006, he had voted for the Patriot Act. Not the 2001 version that every Senator but Russ Feingold voted for. The 2006 re-authorization that took place after many people had begun criticizing the Bush Administration’s tactics in the War on Terror. By this point, the post-9/11 surge of trust for the federal government had mostly petered out. But Obama, along with most other Senate Democrats voted to continue the Patriot Act. This was not a secret hidden from voters; it was a matter of public record.
In the 2008 Democratic primaries, I was too young to vote, but I staunchly supported Mike Gravel. Gravel was on record opposing the Patriot Act. My second choice was Dennis Kucinich, who had been in the House of Representatives in 2001 and voted against the Patriot Act then when doing so could have easily ruined his political career. If either of those men had been elected, then continued the civil liberties violations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it would indeed have been fair to say that they had “sold out.” Most of the liberals that I know voted for Obama. A few voted for Hillary Clinton, whose record on civil liberties is more conservative than Obama’s. And as I have mentioned, both had already voted to re-authortize the Patriot Act at this point. I have disclosed that I am a single issue voter, my single issue being gay rights, so President Obama exceeded my expectations, and my attitude toward him went from being tepid in 2008 to quite positive now. But even with that aside, President Obama has not been any worse on civil liberties than I expected based on his record as a Senator. There was no reason to expect a Senator who voted for the Patriot Act in 2006 to govern like an ACLU lawyer while serving as president. It is fine to criticize President Obama’s civil liberties violations. But it is unfair to act as though he double-crossed the civil libertarians who voted for him.
A fact that eludes many on the Right and disgusts many on the Left is that Barack Obama is not running the country as a radical liberal. Make no mistake. He is a liberal. He’s blown any previous American president out of the water on gay rights, he pulled the troops out of Iraq, he instituted national health care, and he’s called for the DREAM Act and higher taxes on the wealthy. But he has also been hawkish in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, generally follows an anti-civil liberties route, is continuing the War on Drugs, has defended the National Day of Prayer, and favors limited use of the death penalty. Barack Obama is a moderate liberal, and that is what he ran as. He never promised military isolationism. He never hid the fact that he voted for the Patriot Act. He never promised to legalize drugs. He never promised to end capital punishment. He never promised a totally secular government. There are hardcore, flaming liberals inside and outside of the Democratic Party. Farther on the left, there are a social democrats and democratic Socialists. But most American liberals did not support any of them for president. They supported Barack Obama, and that is who they got. As the expression goes, do not kick a cat for not being a dog.