Most voters prioritize the economy and far behind that comes foreign policy, where both major presidential candidates offer more of the same. One can make arguments that on these important issues, one side is worse than the other. But another important set of issues, those of civil liberties, has gotten much less attention than jobs, health care, or war. This is unfortunate because precedents set today on questions of law enforcement, presidential power, detention policy, surveillance, and the relationship between national-security approaches and due process will forever affect the character of American political culture and its governing institutions. In the very long term, civil liberties issues are as important as any, and in the very short term, they often mean life or death, torture or humane treatment, imprisonment or freedom, for flesh-and-blood individuals.
Focusing on civil liberties issues, one could make a strong case that a second Obama term would be even worse than a Romney presidency. This prospect hinges on two basic factors: what Obama has done so far in the areas of civil liberties, and, just as important, what Obama has done to national discourse.
In practice, Obama has for the most part solidified Bush’s extremist detention policies and in some respects gone further. He did officially repudiate torture, but with enough loopholes that the abuses have continued – the beatings and forced feedings at Guantánamo and limited use of renditioning and black sites. The ad hoc Bush policy of indefinite detention became formalized by Obama in May 2009 whe he unveiled his new doctrine of “prolonged detention,” and was codified, even for American citizens, in the NDAA he signed this last New Year’s eve.
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