6) Torture Not Ended – Although President Obama has disavowed the use of torture, it appears, based on Associated Press reporting and that of human rights groups, that the United States is employing torture in Afghanistan. Not only is the U.S. accused of treating detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions, but it is accused of overlooking torture being practiced by the Afghan government.
When the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was amended in 2009 to give detainees more rights, the provision in the 2006 law that permits the president to sanction CIA use of torture — euphemistically termed “enhanced interrogation” — was not removed.
7) Erosion of Civil Liberties – According to Bill Quigley, human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, President Obama privately promised Bush officials that no one would be prosecuted for torture. He also advocated a “just following orders” defense, which the Nuremberg trials had specifically termed invalid as a legal defense.
President Obama has adopted most of the civil liberties positions of George W. Bush: extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention — with periodic review — warrantless wiretapping, telecom immunity, the Patriot Act and Special Security Measures (SAMS), employing extra harsh conditions of confinement increasingly used during Obama’s first term.
Obama has made use of a state secrets legal theory to block dozens of public interest lawsuits; the FBI use of national security letters has increased dramatically; he has cracked down on whistleblowers after saying how valuable they were in an early speech after becoming president; and he has failed to close Guantanamo as promised.
The Bush administration got away with an unconstitutional legislative act of creating a new criminal category: the enemy combatant. President Obama has gone one up on Bush by asserting the power to order the killing of U.S. citizens. He recently signed into law the codification of indefinite detention through the National Defense Authorization Act; morever, he helped create the real possibility that U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.
The Obama administration’s use of military commissions is troublesome due to the lack of legal safeguards found in state and federal courts.
The FBI’s infiltration of Muslim communities is yet another troublesome aspect of President Obama’s civil liberties record. The Associated Press has identified informants called “Mosque crawlers,” who monitor sermons, bookstores and cafes. The FBI has a substantial number of informants who keep especially close watch on the activities of U.S. Muslims. Virtually all of the terrorist plots exposed to public notice since 9/11 were instigated by FBI underground agents targeting those who had come under suspicion of harboring hostile feelings toward the U.S. society or government.
8) Broken Immigration Promises – Barack Obama made two immigrant-related promises during the presidential campaign: he said that immigration reform legislation would be a major priority and he would work to pass the Dream Act, allowing college-entry parity for the children of illegal immigrants. Obama has failed on both promises, although he faced and faces formidable political opposition to do either.
Besides the lack of movement on immigration reform and the Dream Act, immigrant rights groups have faulted Obama for the big increase in illegal immigrants deported south to Mexico. The number deported has now crossed the one million mark and the Obama administration has come under further fire for not taking care to avoid breaking up families in the deportations.
A major scandal is taking place in the detention of illegal immigrants. huge backlogs of cases make due process a mockery and the lack of a reliable database makes it almost impossible to locate many of the facilities and where individual detainees are being held.
9) Housing Crisis Deepened – The Obama administration has been far more concerned with helping bankers avoid the consequences of their bad and even potentially illegal loans, than with rescuing underwater homeowners. The programs set up to help underwater homeowners have been poorly promoted and ineptly administered, so that most underwater homeowners have not taken advantage of them.
Financial experts are saying that it will now be difficult for Obama to shift to a regulatory focus on bankers. No bankers have gone to prison for the major role they played in creating the housing mess.
10) Regulation of Big Business Weakened – It is not likely that big business would face an adverse regulatory climate in a second Obama term. Obama notably wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, in which he warned against placing regulatory controls on business. Probably the main reason that President Obama ignored the unanimous recommendation of the EPA’s independent panel of scientists and rejected the new rules on smog control that the EPA was going to put into effect, was because they would put too heavy a cost burden on the industries chiefly responsible for causing the smog.
One of the reasons that the Dodd-Frank legislation is criticized as being much too weak to control business malpractice is that President Obama did not press for stronger regulation. Even in regard to the new consumer protection agency, Obama reportedly wanted to lodge it in the Federal Reserve, where consumer protection advocates argued it would lose the independence it should have as an stand-alone agency.
11) Taxes and Spending – President Obama has been all over the waterfront in regard to taxes and spending. The best source of his long-term view is the 12- year plan, in which he proposes $4 trillion in deficit reduction, of which only $1 trillion will come from tax increases and only $400 billion will come from military spending cuts. Domestic spending will be hit the hardest. This 3-to-1 ration of spending cuts to increased revenue was widened significantly when Obama put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the table in negotiating on raising the debt ceiling.
President Obama subsequently endorsed other proposed long-term spending and taxation plans, even before the ink was dry on them: the Reid plan and the “Gang of Six” plan were most prominent among them. The “Gang of Six” plan was particularly recklessly and sloppily written. It would have eliminated the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), causing a substantial revenue loss in the future, and it set the top marginal tax rate in the range of 23 to 29 percent. Presumably, a future legislative action could have set the top rate as low as 23 percent. Even at 29 percent it would have been a huge giveaway to the top bracket people now paying 35 percent.
President Obama devoted much of his tax talk in July 2011 to calling for the closing of tax loopholes; in contrast, there was virtually no mention of allowing the Bush tax cut to expire. Of course, Obama’s agreement to a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts caused a big loss in revenue and broke a signature campaign promise not to extend them.
President Obama’s jobs package unveiled in September 2011 changes the tax-spending equation once again by breaking the package into “bite-sized pieces”; dropping the payroll tax cut for employers; and accepting a surcharge on incomes over $1 million — subsequently abandoned by the Democratic legislative leadership.
Given that Obama is arguing that the failure to extend the payroll tax cut is a tax increase for about 160 million wage earners, he will find it hard to argue against another payroll tax cut and even another extension of the Bush tax cuts if economic conditions continue to be dire in late 2012.
12) Renewables Slighted in Energy Policy – During his three years in office, Presient Obama has devoted more resources to fossil fuels than he has to renewable energy. He has opened up the Western states for much more production of coal and he has expanded the number of offshore oil drilling leases. Meanwhile, while he has inveighed against tax breaks for fossil fuel industries, no action has been taken to reduce or eliminate any of them.
President Obama did provide $80 billion for renewable energy in his initial stimulus spending plan. The electric-car industry received $5 billion of funding but much of it has not produced positive results: for instance, in August 2009, Obama announced $2.4 billion in more than 40 grants to car industry firms, much of it going to battery manufacturers. Several of these manufacturers have floundered or failed, laying off large numbers of workers. The Energy Department said in February 2011 that a goal was one million EV’s by 2015. Actual sales now stand at 16,800, or about 2/10 ths of one percent of 2011 domestic car sales.
13) Pluses and Minuses on the Environment – President Obama has has a mixed record on environmental policy. His most notable achievement was was to get an agreement to require passenger cars and light trucks to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Probably his next important achievement was to set a national standard for mercury, a toxic metal. The EPA has also reduced allowable downwind pollution from manufacturing and power plants.
Restrictions have also been placed on mountaintop removal and on the nationwide issuance of coal mining permits by the Corps of Engineers. However, mountaintop removal mining has not been banned and the EPA has issued some mining permits to mining companies blowing off the tops of mountains.
Easily the most controversial environmental decision made by Obama was to block tougher standards on smog creation, even though the EPA’s independent scientific panel was unanimous in supporting the tougher standards. Obama had punted on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, delaying a decision until 2013; however, as part of an agreement to get a two-month extension of the 2011 payroll tax cut, he agreed to make a decision on Keystone in 60 days, so the outcome is up in the air.
The next blog will continue with some more domestic policy considerations.