Before Barack Obama's election, I wrote an essay suggesting these kinds of problems might be on the horizon. I think it's worth quoting myself at length:
What do we know about Barack Obama and the presidency that makes me fearful for him?
• He’s made compromises already. If our nation’s decision to torture terror suspects ranks as the Bush Administration’s chief betrayal of American values during the last eight years, then the “warrantless wiretapping” program ranks second. The administration decided to ignore existing wiretapping law — scratch that, broke the law — so that it could listen into private telephone conversations involving Americans. And one of the reasons it did so is because it wanted to prove it could, that there was no check or balance provided by Congress and the courts that presidential power couldn’t override.
When it came time to let participants be punished, or give them retroactive immunity and the power to continue the program — well, Barack Obama voted for the second option. It’s easy to understand why: He didn’t want a “soft on terror” vote (which would’ve been a bogus charge) following him around this campaign.
And let’s not forget that Barack Obama promised to take public financing for his campaign, only to back down when it became less advantageous for him to do so. This makes him a smart politician probably, but it also means that Obama is not a being of pure light. Which leads us to point No. 2.
• Presidential power doesn’t contract itself. The last eight years have seen the Bush Administration repeatedly assert its authority to act as it pleases, without limits from Congress and the courts. The courts have been more effective than Congress in pushing back, but the presidency holds more unilateral power in governmental decision-making than it did when Bill Clinton left office.
And here’s something fundamental about human nature: Presidents don’t tend to give power away. Somebody has to take it away. Congress did a lot of this in the post-Vietnam era, and a lot of those safeguards stood (though they eroded a bit) until the current presidency. Barack Obama has promised to live by the older, less dictatorial limits, but he would be an extraordinary president if he didn’t claim some of the authority the Bush Administration has grabbed for itself. Seems unlikely to me.
And, well, it's kind of worked out that way, hasn't it?
Radley Balko at Reason calls Obama's position "tyranny," and I'm not sure I disagree:
If there’s more tyrannical power a president could possibly claim than the power to execute the citizens of his country at his sole discretion, with no oversight, no due process, and no ability for anyone to question the execution even after the fact . . . I can’t think of it. This is horrifying.
The biggest reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was my deep frustration and anger with a Bush Administration that believed in untrammeled, undemocratic assertions of executive authority. And when Obama took office, he gave me hope -- immediately signing a prohibition on torture. I was optimistic, despite my pre-election warnings.
But in court filings since then, it has become clear that the Obama Administration may think that torture is bad -- but it is also willing to defend the president's prerogative to order torture. It's not defending the actions of the Bush Administration, necessarily, but it is defending the (again, undemocratic) underlying theory that made those actions possible.
Tyranny? Not quite. But we may be on the road.
To be clear, though, I'm not about to join the Tea Party. I don't believe that returning to Clinton-era tax rates is tyranny. (Or else Dwight Eisenhower was history's worst monster.) I don't think making sure that many more Americans have health coverage is tyranny -- though the current method of forcing people to buy insurance instead of providing it through a single-payer system will, I think, feel intrusive to people. As I've said before: It embarrasses me for Tea Party folks that they can see tyranny in such actions but remain silent on a president's ability to imprison people without due process.
But just because the Tea Partiers are wrong about why Barack Obama is a danger to our rights doesn't mean they're wrong about the conclusion, I guess. But he represents a bipartisan danger; it's clear now that both Democratic and Republican presidents will defend the idea of unlimited executive power.
And this leaves me wondering about 2012. I think John McCain would've been a much worse president for this country; for all the problems we have now, I do believe that the Obama Administration has actually mitigated them to a great extent. So the question is: Do I vote for the lesser evil in 2012? Or do I decide the whole system is so rotten that neither major party deserves my vote? And if that's the case, what effective action can I take to rein in a runaway government?