What happened to the Barack Obama who made me cry?
Like millions of others, I got a little weepy watching on TV as Election Day ended in Chicago’s Grant Park four years ago. It was easy to fall in love with Obama’s biography, his eloquence, his intelligence, his beautiful family, his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. And it was easy to rejoice that a nation still steeped in racism had somehow elected its first-ever African-American president.
Well, his biography is still powerful, his family still beautiful, and his oratory still soaring, when he needs it. But he has changed in a troubling way: The constitutional law professor who runs never-ending White House seminars to make decisions has also become the Lord High Executioner.
His thumbs-down, he-must-die decisions bring death and destruction raining down from the sky over such nations as Afghanistan and Pakistan, bolts of lightning from high-tech drones. It’s a lethal rain that falls on the good as well as the evil, a destruction that makes as many new enemies as it kills old ones.
And it’s not what I was hoping for when I pulled the lever for Obama, who overcame an absentee father and a nomadic childhood to reach the highest office in the land. What he hasn’t overcome – at least so far – is the powerful force that makes every president want to defend and expand the scope of the job.
It’s an office that the founding generation designed to be tied down by smaller power sources, as the Lilliputians did temporarily to Gulliver. But the fictional Gulliver was too huge for residents of Lilliput to control, just as the presidency has become an office too powerful for lesser powers to rein in.
Yes, Congress can thwart the will of any president on domestic legislation. But in foreign policy and the exercise of military power, the presidency has expanded to uncontrollable dimensions. The drones are a perfect example.
The president himself, the elected representative of all Americans, makes the decision on which “high-value targets” to execute. As far as we know, none of these “targets,” who were all actually people – and at least one was a U.S. citizen – had the benefit of due process before the “made in USA” lightning bolt struck from the sky.
Though recent news stories have begun to probe the inner workings of this kill list, there’s still a dance-of-seven-veils secrecy around it. And the administration is contesting Freedom of Information Act requests for documents on the drone program.
The Obama Justice Department rejects those requests, citing the magic words that serve to blunt any inquiry: “classified” and “national security.” In the process, it doesn’t really acknowledge that the targeted extrajudicial killings are taking place. But you can bet that they are – far more often than before Obama took office. And you can bet that innocent civilians are getting killed in much higher numbers than the administration is willing to let on.
Some of those victims were guilty of nothing more ominous than being part of a wedding party, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The families of those killed won’t forget; many of the survivors will be implacable foes of our nation for as long as they breathe. So this whole cynical exercise is not really making us safer.
But the use of these drones is building up the power of the presidency, even as it degrades the moral authority of the office. That can’t have been what Obama studied – or taught – in constitutional law.
And for many, it’s the most deeply disappointing and demoralizing aspect of a presidency that held out so much promise.