Former President Barack Obama is again busy lecturing Americans on politics. His speeches have contained many snappy lines that would deserve attention if they came from an untainted source. But Obama as president was guilty of many of the things against which he now warns his fellow citizens.
Last September, Obama received the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government at the University of Illinois in Champagne/Urbana. Obama told students that “the biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism” and called for “a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.”
Obama flailed cynicism as in the glory days of his 2008 presidential campaign. He declared that “making people cynical about government … always works better for those who don’t believe in the power of collective action.” He also warned that “the more cynical people are about government, the angrier and more dispirited they are about the prospects for change, the more likely the powerful are able to maintain their power.”
But his eight years as president fueled the distrust of Washington that Obama now condemns. How can he blame Americans for being cynical after his dozens of false promises, such as “If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor” despite all the mandates in Obamacare? Millions of Americans got shafted by his bait-and-switch. How can he blame Americans for being cynical after his 2016 assertion that “it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book”? Amazon Prime does not offer to send AK-47s, unlike copies of War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice. Or how about in 2015 when he complained about “neighborhoods where it’s easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable.” Obama never offered any evidence that carrots are rarer than .38 Specials. How can he castigate cynics after he campaigned in 2008 on a peace platform and then proceeded to bomb seven nations?
Obama declared in his Illinois speech that Americans are “supposed to stand up to bullies, not follow them.” But Trump won in 2016 in part because many Americans considered the federal government the biggest bully in the land. Obama relied on “bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency,” according to the New York Times, issuing 50 percent more “major regulations” than the George W. Bush administration. When Congress refused to accede to his demands, he declared that he would use his pen and phone to rule by executive order.
Obama told the student audience, “Most of you don’t remember a time before 9/11, when you didn’t have to take off your shoes at an airport.” Did the students realize that the Transportation Security Administration became far more punitive and intrusive during Obama’s presidency? Obama appointees brought in Whole Body scanners across the nation and entitled TSA agents to aggressively touch travelers’ genitals and breasts. But despite all that additional power and groping, TSA remained the poster boy for incompetence: TSA checkpoints still failed to detect 95 percent of smuggled guns and bombs. But because Obama never went through a TSA checkpoint as president, the abuses didn’t exist — at least not for him.
Information and the press
Obama also told University of Illinois students that “democracy depends on transparency and accountability” and said, “It shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican to say that we don’t threaten the freedom of the press because they say things or publish stories we don’t like.” But despite boasting of “the most transparent administration ever,” Obama expanded federal secrecy and prosecuted more journalists and whistleblowers than any previous administration. Obama appointees helped turn the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into a charade. The Associated Press reported in 2015 that the Obama administration “set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them” under FOIA. The State Department ignored 17 FOIA requests for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails before 2014 and insisted it required 75 years to disclose emails of Clinton’s top aides. When Obama took office, the United States had the 20th-most free press in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. By 2016, it had fallen to 41st — worse than South Africa and barely ahead of Botswana. Obama appointees severely undermined the Freedom of Information Act.
As the audience cheered him on, Obama declared, “It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel.” Trump’s declarations about federal prosecutions are appalling. But while the FBI was investigating the legality of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Obama repeatedly publicly declared that she had committed no crime. The Inspector General report released last June revealed that, after a half-hearted probe, the FBI planned to absolve Clinton unless she openly confessed to wrongdoing when FBI agents finally talked to her. That is not routine FBI procedure though perhaps there is a secret protocol for such cases.
Obama declared in Illinois that “in a government of and by and for the people, there should be no permanent ruling class. There are only citizens, who through their elected and temporary representatives, determine our course and determine our character.” The perception that Obama had designated Hillary Clinton as his successor helped undermine potential Democratic Party challengers to her nomination. If Clinton had been elected, then the United States would have had a stretch of 24 out of 32 years in which two politically connected families stocked the White House — too close for comfort to a “permanent ruling class.” The façade of an FBI investigation of Clinton’s email
shenanigans helped ensure for her the Democratic Party presidential nomination and, indirectly, paved the way to a Trump presidency.
Obama lamented, “Cynicism led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day.” But many Americans boycotted the 2016 election because they believed that the major parties offered them merely a choice of liars and scoundrels. In 2015, Obama offered an easy solution to that problem in another speech in Illinois: make voting mandatory.
And in his January 10, 2017, farewell address, he gibed those who “blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.” But Obama never examined his role in covering up the crimes and other abuses of one of the 2016 candidates. In his Illinois speech, he lamented that the news “makes a lot of people feel like the fix is in and the game is rigged and nobody’s looking out for them.” Legions of Democratic voters felt that way after WikiLeaks exposed the Democratic National Committee’s emails that proved that the 2016 primaries had been rigged in favor of Clinton.
Killing and spying
Obama has gotten an almost free pass from the media on his dubious declarations the past couple years. In that 2017 farewell address, he boasted, “We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists.” Was he counting the wedding parties blown up by drones on his watch?
Obama administration lawyers asserted a right to kill U.S. citizens whom it labeled terrorist suspects without trial, without notice, and without any chance for the marked men to legally object. At least five Americans died in Obama-era drone attacks, including a 16-year-old boy. Drone strikes increased tenfold under Obama, helping fuel anti–U.S. backlashes in several nations. Obama personally chose who would be killed at weekly “Terror Tuesday” White House meetings that featured PowerPoint death parades of potential targets. The CIA often did not know whom it was killing but counted all adult males “in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” the New York Times noted. The Times also revealed that U.S. “counterterrorism officials insist … people in an area of known terrorist activity … are probably up to no good.” The “probably up to no good” standard absolved almost any drone killing within thousands of square miles in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Some Obama defenders may insist that his anti-terrorist policies were necessary to achieve bipartisan political support. But there’s no excuse for his prying into average Americans’ lives. Prior to becoming president, Obama pledged “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.” But after taking his oath of office, he quickly perpetuated and expanded some of the most sweeping and extreme Bush administration surveillance programs. Obama’s Justice Department secretly decreed that all phone records of all Americans were “relevant” to terrorism investigations and thus that the National Security Administration (NSA) could justifiably seize everyone’s personal data.
In 2013, thanks to former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, Americans learned that the NSA can tap almost any cell phone in the world, exploit computer games such as Angry Birds to poach personal data, access anyone’s email and web-browsing history, and crack the vast majority of computer encryption. Obama went on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and ludicrously announced, “There is no spying on Americans,” while his appointees insisted that the NSA targeted only persons linked to terrorism. But the NSA’s definition of “terrorist suspect” was ludicrously broad, including “someone searching the web for suspicious stuff.”
In his farewell address in January 2017, Obama appealed to “the rule of law that holds leaders accountable.” But Obama helped establish an Impunity Democracy in which rulers pay no price for their misdeeds. The Obama “administration fought in court to prevent any ruling that the defunct practices [such as torture and detaining Americans arrested at home as ‘enemy combatants’] had been illegal,” as Charlie Savage noted in the New York Times a week after the 2016 election. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero lamented, “Obama’s failure to rein in George Bush’s national-security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon.”
In his speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Obama declared, “We don’t look to be ruled.” Unfortunately, this lofty sentiment was scorned more than it was heeded during his presidency.
The lies that Obama told while he was president help explain why only 20 percent of Americans trusted the federal government at the end of his presidency. Who cares if an ex-president belatedly cheers for transparency and accountability? Obama has never admitted that his policies made the federal government more dangerous at home and abroad. Nothing that Donald Trump can do or say should be permitted to expunge Obama’s derelictions.
This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.