Legacy of "what works": why they can't put the civil liberties genie back in the bottle

Legacy of "what works"

by digby

Jeffrey Rosen thinks the president could redeem himself on civil liberties in the second term:

During the last presidential campaign, I swooningly predicted that Barack Obama would be our first civil libertarian president. Of course, I was wrong, and the last three years have offered plenty of disappointments in the president’s record on privacy and national security. But if Obama wins a second term, I hope reelection gives him the freedom to redeem that unfulfilled promise.

Isn't it pretty to think so? I've made the point in the past that presidents do care about their legacy, so it's not completely impossible to believe that President Obama could be pressured into taking more liberal positions in order to secure his place in history as a Great President on the terms that Democrats tend to want to be remembered. And who knows, maybe that's even right.

But to believe what Jeffrey Rosen suggests, you would then have to believe that the administration's hardcore national security and civil liberties policies have been nothing more than rank political pandering --- and that would denote a very serious lack of integrity on a scale that automatically precludes presidential greatness. No, I have to give the president enough credit to think that he sincerely believes that the civil liberties and national security policies he's followed and enacted are the right ones. They reflect the bipartisan political establishment agreement that America must remain a global military hegemon at all costs and that these encroachments on privacy and due process are a necessary part of that policy. And he hasn't really been inconsistent. After all, he campaigned the first time as a pragmatist on these issues:

"[E]ven when you discuss war, the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works." Even when I first opposed the war in Iraq, my first line was I don't oppose all wars, specifically to make clear that this is not an anti-military, you know, 70's love-in kind of approach."

I think you have to take him at his word and accept that what he's done in this realm in the past three years was done because he believes they are "what works." The problem is that "what works" doesn't always comport with our values and our beliefs. (And none of this is to say that any of it necessarily "works" either, simply that the government obviously believes it does.)

That's one of the reasons we have a constitution and a set of ideals to guide us. Solely depending on "what works" naturally leads to authoritarianism (not that it can't be achieved through other means as well.) Brute force can certainly be effective and nobody says that a police state isn't efficient at capturing the bad guys. The problem is that it doesn't care about the good guys it sweeps up in the process.

So yes, the President could change gears in his second term in a number of ways. Depending on the make-up of the congress, he could work hard to secure his health care reform's provisions for poor people, which would go a long way toward making it a real legacy achievement. He could stand up to the right wing on the culture war in a consistent manner instead of using it as a convenient bargaining chip. He could defend labor, particularly public employees. He could become a reformer in the Teddy Roosevelt vein and demand banking and housing policy changes (although I suspect that falls in the same "pragmatic" realm as civil liberties, unfortunately.)

But after the policies of this first term, making respect for civil liberties and a lasting humane national security policy part of his legacy is going to be a very tough row to hoe because they reflect values of such transcendent importance. "What works" is very often the opposite of the values we supposedly hold dear --- you either believe in them or you don't. And for the last three years, it's been the latter.