Not What Obama Promised

By David Swanson

In six months as president, Barack Obama has aggressively done the opposite of many specific things he explicitly and unequivocally promised as a candidate. A lot of these were things Obama’s fiercest opponents never wanted. And Obama’s fiercest supporters favor censoring this information. But if we expect public servants to be public servants, the public must know the facts, make of them what it will.

Here’s a video of candidate Obama promising not to change laws with signing statements and denouncing that practice as unconstitutional. In 2007, Obama filled out a questionnaire for the Boston Globe in which he said “It is a clear abuse of power to use such statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like or as an end-run around provisions designed to foster accountability. I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.” Obama now does this routinely. His nominee for the Supreme Court (verbosely) refused to answer a question on the constitutionality of signing statements. She should have asked pre-election Obama to share with her his clear and compelling analysis.

Candidate Obama went beyond promising to sign and enforce laws as written (or veto them). He also promised to take each new bill that reached his desk and post it online for five days before signing or vetoing it, to give the public a chance to review it and weigh in (video). This promise was posted on Obama’s campaign website. Of course, it would make far more sense for Congress to take this step before voting on legislation, but the president’s doing it would be a good thing. Obama hasn’t taken this step with a single bill and has tended to sign them within hours. In the same video, you can watch candidate Obama promise that when a tax bill is debated he will post online the corporations that would benefit. He promised to post online every corporate tax break and every pork barrel project contained in new legislation. He has not done so.

Bush did not just ignore long-standing laws and treaties and rewrite new ones with signing statements. He also invented law out of whole cloth, publicly and privately, through executive orders, alteration of existing executive orders, memos drafted by the Office of Legal Counsel, and the creation of secret programs. Candidate Obama promised to thoroughly review Bush’s executive orders immediately upon taking office. Obama promised to swiftly undo all of Bush’s executive orders that “trampled on liberty.” Obama has had six months and has failed to produce any review of Bush’s hundreds of executive orders and signing statements. Obama has overturned a handful of Bush’s executive orders, not on the grounds that a president cannot make law, but on the grounds that the new president disagrees with those particular orders. Obama has instructed government employees to ask his new Justice Department before complying with Bush’s signing statements, but not rejected those statements publicly on the grounds that a president cannot rewrite laws. And, just as he has written his own law-altering signing statements, Obama has routinely written his own law-making executive orders. He’s even floated the idea of using an executive order to create a formal program of preventive detention (thus eliminating both the legislative branch and habeas corpus in one stroke).

Candidate Obama’s website defined Bush’s use of “state secrets” claims as a problem that Obama’s election would solve. Asked about claims of “executive privilege” to keep secret activities of government employees that did not involve the president, candidate Obama told the Boston Globe “My view is that executive privilege generally depends on the involvement of the President and the White House.” President Obama has used “state secrets” claims more broadly than did President Bush, and used them repeatedly to keep secret the rendition, torture, and warrantless spying programs created by Bush, including by re-asserting the same “state secret” claims made by Bush. Obama’s White House has used “executive privilege” claims to block full compliance with a congressional subpoena by Karl Rove despite Rove’s claim that the President was not involved in the crimes and abuses under investigation.

Candidate Obama told the Boston Globe, “I believe the Administration’s use of executive authority to over-classify information is a bad idea. We need to restore the balance between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in our democracy – which is why I have called for a National Declassification Center.” President Obama continues to propose this idea, while failing to act on it, and while classifying information left public by Bush.

Obama’s campaign promised: “Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government.” President Obama has signing statemented away constraints on his power to retaliate against whistleblowers by firing them.

The St. Petersburg Times (Florida, not Russia) maintains a list of Obama’s promises and tracks those kept and broken. While this newspaper lists some important promises that have indeed been kept, I don’t share all of the same priorities (or care that Obama promised to get his daughters a puppy and followed through). And I do not want to hold a president to promises to do things only Congress can constitutionally do. The St. Petersburg Times ignores important issues that I discuss here, but I give them credit for doing more than any other media outlet I’ve seen. They list seven broken promises (as well as many compromised or partially fulfilled), and this is one of the broken ones: Candidate Obama promised not to hire lobbyists, saying, “I don’t take a dime of their [lobbyist] money, and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House.” Candidate Obama’s website said: “No political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.” This promise has been tossed in the trash.

Candidate Obama’s war related promises is a muddy area. Many Americans heard Obama promise to “end the war” at rallies and interpreted that to mean something similar to what it sounds like it means. But candidate Obama told reporters fairly consistently that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan. And, while he denied that a president had the power to strike another nation (such as Pakistan) he also proposed doing just that. And on Iraq, candidate Obama said he would withdraw all the troops over a period of 16 months, with the exception of what he called “non-combat troops” and possibly mercenaries and other contractors. Obama’s campaign website said that he would “remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.” But candidate Obama did not make these promises in terms of fulfilling the requirements of the treaty made between Bush and Maliki, misleadingly often called a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Obama was promising a speedier withdrawal than the treaty required, and his position as a candidate was that the U.S. Senate should review the treaty. Our Constitution makes invalid any treaty not consented to by the Senate. With this one, Congress was not even consulted.

As president, Obama has indeed struck Pakistan repeatedly and escalated the war in Afghanistan. It would be difficult to argue that the former is constitutional, and the constitutionality of the latter depends on the disputed claim that when Congress funds war it thereby declares war as well. It is on Iraq, however, that President Obama differs most from candidate Obama. President Obama no longer wants Congress to approve the Bush-Maliki treaty, but frames his own plans in its terms. At the same time, Obama has violated the treaty’s requirement that all troops leave localities by June 2009 by reclassifying troops and redrawing urban boundaries. The U.S. military commanded by Obama is opposing allowing the Iraqi people to vote the treaty up or down by the end of July 2009, which was a condition of the treaty’s ratification by the Iraqi Parliament. And top U.S. generals have openly stated their intention to violate the requirement of complete withdrawal by the end of 2011, without any retraction of those statements being issued by the White House. Meanwhile, Obama quickly extended his partial-withdrawal timetable from 16 to 19 months and made it subject to the wishes of the generals he supposedly commands. Yet, even that slowed withdrawal is not happening, and the Pentagon is maintaining troop levels in Iraq at their current numbers into 2010.

Candidate Obama promised to “end the abuse of the supplemental budgets, where much of the money has been lost, by creating [a] system of oversight for war funds as stringent as in the regular budget.” President Obama then proposed a regular budget that included war funds and set the record as the largest budget for military-war spending in the history of the planet. Shortly thereafter, Obama requested a war supplemental bill, which some congress members said they were voting for to please the president and others said they were voting for because it was the last such supplemental. Immediately after it passed, Congressman John Murtha revealed that another supplemental was planned for later this year. The White House did not dispute that statement.

Candidate Obama did not oppose striking Pakistan without congressional authorization, but did make statements on the idea of attacking Iran that showed his understanding that such strikes were unconstitutional. He told the Boston Globe:

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action. As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. 23, which states in part that ‘any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.’ The recent NIE tells us that Iran in 2003 halted its effort to design a nuclear weapon. While this does not mean that Iran is no longer a threat to the United States or its allies, it does give us time to conduct aggressive and principled personal diplomacy aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

The Boston Globe asked candidate Obama “Do you agree or disagree with the statement made by former Attorney General Gonzales in January 2007 that nothing in the Constitution confers an affirmative right to habeas corpus, separate from any statutory habeas rights Congress might grant or take away?” and Obama replied: “Disagree strongly.” Obama’s campaign statement was this:

“The right of habeas corpus allows prisoners to ask a court to determine whether they are being lawfully imprisoned. Recently, this right has been denied to those deemed enemy combatants. Barack Obama strongly supports bipartisan efforts to restore habeas rights. He firmly believes that those who pose a danger to this country should be swiftly tried and brought to justice, but those who do not should have sufficient due process to ensure that we are not wrongfully denying them their liberty.”

President Obama has fought in court and made a speech in front of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives asserting the power to do exactly what candidate Obama said was unconstitutional. Obama is imprisoning people outside of any rule of law in Bagram and Guantanamo, and proposing to keep some of them in prison indefinitely without ever bringing them to trial. He is proposing to formalize such a system and dress it up in “due process” reviews. He asserts the power to render prisoners to other nations, as well. Having promised not to render prisoners for the purpose of having them tortured, Obama now claims the power to render prisoners while promising not to use it for torture, yet failing — in the view of many human rights advocates — to justify the practice.

The Boston Globe asked candidate Obama: “If Congress defines a specific interrogation technique as prohibited under all circumstances, does the president’s authority as commander in chief ever permit him to instruct his subordinates to employ that technique despite the statute?” And Obama replied:

“No. The President is not above the law, and the Commander-in-Chief power does not entitle him to use techniques that Congress has specifically banned as torture. We must send a message to the world that America is a nation of laws, and a nation that stands against torture. As President I will abide by statutory prohibitions, and have the Army Field Manual govern interrogation techniques for all United States Government personnel and contractors.”

Obama also told the Globe: “It is illegal and unwise for the President to disregard international human rights treaties that have been ratified by the United States Senate, including and especially the Geneva Conventions. The Commander-in-Chief power does not allow the President to defy those treaties. The detention of American citizens, without access to counsel, fair procedure, or pursuant to judicial authorization, as enemy combatants is unconstitutional. Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional. The violation of international treaties that have been ratified by the Senate, specifically the Geneva Conventions, was illegal (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.”

But, of course, President Obama has declared his predecessor and his predecessors’ lawyers to be above the law and forbidden the Attorney General of the United States to prosecute lawyers who facilitated torture or torturers who claimed to rely on those lawyers’ memos. When candidate Obama went back on a promise to filibuster immunity for telecoms that violated FISA and the Fourth Amendment, many believed he would reverse his position once elected president. He has not done so, and has gone out of his way to continue protecting the secrecy and immunity given to such crimes. Numerous reports find torture to be ongoing (as might easily be predicted for a crime not being punished), the new director of the CIA has stated that the new president maintains the power to torture, and presidential advisor David Axelrod refuses to dispute that assertion.

Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo was always a dubious promise, because Guantanamo was never the only location where the United States was holding prisoners outside the rule of law and abusing them. Candidate Obama called closing Guantanamo the first step he would need to take. The St. Petersburg Times classifies this promise as stalled. In Obama’s defense, Congress is resisting this move. Against that defense, Obama is not trying very hard and refuses to counter some of the key lies used by fear-mongers to keep Guantanamo open. Another promise that the Times considers stalled is Obama’s promise to “reject the Military Commissions Act.” Obama now supports the use of military commissions.

Candidate Obama promised to immediately have his attorney general review whether his predecessors had committed any crimes. This promise ignored the then public knowledge of indisputable crimes awaiting prosecution, and ignored the fact that an attorney general has this responsibility with or without a presidential directive. But it was a promise that went in the direction of upholding the rule of law, something President Obama has run from, while Attorney General Eric Holder has told the media he might consider it but would have to overcome pressure from the President not to.

While my own work is focused on ending abuses of power through accountability and systemic reforms, there are many other areas in which President Obama has broken his campaign promises. Obama promised that he would work to renegotiate NAFTA to respect the rights of workers and to protect the environment. He opposed “free-trade” agreements with Colombia and South Korea. Now the President supports such new agreements and has shown no interest in renegotiating NAFTA. Candidate Obama promised to support the Employee Free Choice Act, and while he has not explicitly opposed it he has not as president made a priority of passing it the way he has done with healthcare, and economic stimulus, and other pieces of legislation. With Congress working to pass a healthcare bill that the president approves of but working to gut the Employee Free Choice Act, President Obama’s public statements are focused on healthcare. However, meetings on healthcare organized by the White House have generally been behind closed doors rather than televised on C-Span as candidate Obama promised.

Candidate Obama promised to support eliminating capital gains taxes for small businesses, providing a refundable tax credit to businesses that hire new employees, suspending 401(k) withdrawal penalties, ending income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000, creating a $4,000 college credit, allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of a home mortgage, enacting a windfall profits tax for oil companies, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and recognizing the Armenian genocide. None of these promises have been kept. Obama has not supported these steps as president. While candidate Obama promised to end unconstitutional violations in Bush’s “faith-based” programs, president Obama has moved in the opposite direction.

I voted for Barack Obama for president with my eyes wide open. He refused to promise most of what I wanted. His best promises at rallies were hedged and minimized in interviews. And when he promised specific positive actions, I didn’t believe him. But a lot of people did. And a lot of people believed the vague, soaring promises at the rallies as well. A lot of people even just assumed he’d promised things he never had, because he intentionally avoided taking any position. He’s even made wonderful remarks as president while simultaneously taking quite different actions. It’s worth focusing, however, on the key promises that candidate Obama actually did unequivocally make, and how they compare to six months of Obama’s presidency. And, as always, it’s worth quoting Willie Nelson:

“And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liars word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth”

The lesson is not that you voted for the wrong guy, given the choices. The lesson is not that rightwingers who hate Obama are right about anything. The lesson is not even that Obama has betrayed you. The key lesson should be that change does not come from electing someone. Change comes from forcing our culture to change, creating better communications systems, and disrupting the pleasant existence of our representatives in Congress. But we’ll never stop cheering for nonviolent activists in other countries and become them ourselves as long as we believe our role consists of loving or hating an elected official, and one whose job was supposed to consist of merely executing the will of the legislative branch.

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