As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in The New Republic:
If Barack Obama were to win the Democratic nomination and the White
House, he would be, among other things, our first civil libertarian
president. This is clear not just from his lifetime rating on the ACLU's
scorecard (82 percent compared to John McCain's 25 percent).
clear from the fact that civil liberties have been among his most
passionate interests -- as a constitutional law professor, state
legislator, and senator. On the campaign trail, he has been unapologetic
about these enthusiasms. In New Hampshire, I heard him end a rousing
stump speech by promising the cheering crowd, "We will close Guantanamo,
we will restore habeas corpus, we will have a president who will
respect and obey the Constitution."
Has a political consultant ever
urged a candidate to brandish habeas corpus?
It was as if events conspired so that Healy and Rosen could settle the disagreement implicit in their respective work. Did a "cult of the presidency" practically guarantee dangerous excesses? Or would the excesses of the Bush White House be reined in by the declared civil libertarian Obama, who would be "likely to articulate constitutional positions and then conform his presidential actions to them, rather than take positions and then rely on lawyers to justify them"?
History hasn't been kind to Jeffrey Rosen's analysis.
"During the last presidential campaign, I swooningly predicted that Barack Obama would be our first civil libertarian president," he admits.
"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." He goes on to say something that suggests he still hasn't bought Healy's thesis. "If Obama wins a second term, I hope reelection gives him
the freedom to redeem that unfulfilled promise."
As if too little freedom is Obama's problem?
It's no wonder that Healy felt the need to restate his thesis, applying arguments developed during the Bush years to a successor who has continued so many of his controversial policies (and gone farther in areas like extrajudicial assassinations and waging war without Congressional approval). The title is False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (it's e-book in format, length, and price). It won't surprise regular readers to hear that I am very sympathetic to its arguments. One of my favorite passages actually defends the president:
On April 20, an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon platform, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, led to the largest marine oil leak in history. The "blowout preventer" designed to seal the drill site in case of emergency failed, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. As successive attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon leak failed, Republicans who'd thrilled to Sarah Palin's cry of "Drill, baby, drill!" at the 2008 GOP Convention assailed President Obama for letting the private sector take the lead in the well- capping operation. In May, Palin herself wailed that it was "taking so doggone long" for Obama "to dive in there." From the other side of the aisle, James Carville screeched, "Man, you got to get down here and take control! Tell BP, 'I'm your daddy!'"
What, exactly, did Palin, Carville, et al. want? A government takeover of the spill site? "To push BP out of the way would raise the question: replace them with what?" Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government's national incident commander for the Deepwater Horizon spill, said at a White House briefing. The federal government didn't have a Delta Force squad of well-capping specialists at the ready for the sort of disasters that happen every decade or so, and BP had superior technology and a compelling financial incentive to stop hemorrhaging market value along with oil. BP was "exhausting every technical means possible," Allen explained, and those were the best means available. Most of the complaints dominating the airwaves and the op-ed pages smacked of a quasi-religious conception of the presidency. If only Obama would manifest himself at the afflicted area, shed his aura of cool reserve, and exercise the magical powers of presidential concern, perhaps the slick would recede.
It's easy to laugh at Palin and Carville. But are the American people really so different? Voters expect the president to keep gas prices low, to prevent all terrorist attacks in a continent-sized country, to "create jobs," to render cheaper labor costs in Asia a comparative advantage without consequence, to improve public schools, to cut taxes, to reduce the deficit, and to preserve all current entitlement spending. Our presidents pretend that they're up to the challenge, knowingly make promises that they can't keep, and overstep their constitutional authority trying, as if the burdens placed upon them justify overstepping laws meant to constrain them.