Chutzpah at the Ritz-Carlton: Obama Claims Advantage on Civil Liberties

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He's made it much more likely that future presidents will abuse the powers of the office, which he has recklessly expanded.

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Speaking at the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles Sunday, with George Clooney in attendance, President Obama tried to rally 150 donors with remarks that ought to win some sort of Scandinavian-administered prize for chutzpah. "I can't recall an election in my lifetime in which the contrasts are sharper or the stakes are higher," he said, running through a long list of domestic-policy differences.

Then came the part that left me flabbergasted (emphasis added):

We haven't talked about what's at stake with respect to the Supreme Court. We haven't talked about what's at stake with respect to civil liberties.  And obviously there's a lot at stake internationally.  And an opponent who calls me ending the war in Iraq "tragic,"* or suggests that somehow we should stay longer in Afghanistan has a very different world view, different perspective.

And so the question now is, how hard are we willing to fight for the vision that we profess?  How hard am I willing to fight for it, but it's not just me in this thing -- how hard are you guys willing to fight for it?

Yes, let's talk about what's at stake with respect to civil liberties.

If Mitt Romney is elected, he might use the law Obama signed to indefinitely detain American citizens without trial or charges. He might use the precedent Obama set to order the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens. He might continue to spy on millions of Americans without warrants, as the Obama Administration has done. He might prosecute as many whistleblowers as the Obama Justice Department, and continue to advance Obama Administration arguments about state secrets. He might even use the same arguments the Obama Administration invoked in Libya to strike Iran without Congressional permission. And if he wants to torture detainees he need only reverse Obama's executive order since the president never bothered with prosecutions or legislation to ensure the practice would never return.

It's totally possible that Romney would be even worse than Obama on civil liberties, and if he is worse, it'll be partly because rather than reverse various Bush-era abuses, as he promised to do in the last campaign, Obama has paved the way for future presidents to abuse their office more easily. The only silver lining, should this occur, is that partisan Democrats will start objecting again.

If the Ritz-Carlton remarks are a portent of things to come, if Obama starts trying to raise civil liberties in the 11th hour of this campaign, he ought to be laughed off the stage, save in one unlikely circumstance: should he go beyond rhetoric and take significant action to improve his  record, it'll still be opportunistic pandering, but the sort that it is useful to reward regardless of motivation.

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* It's also worth noting that Obama tried to extend America's troop presence in Iraq in violation of another campaign promise, but (thankfully) failed to convince the Iraqis to agree to the extension.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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