Commentary Magazine


Obama and the “Moral High Ground”

In April 2008, during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama criticized John McCain for seeming to favor economic policies of the Bush administration that McCain had once opposed. “Well, they may have stopped offending John McCain’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, but George Bush’s economic policies still offend my conscience, and they still offend yours,” Obama said.

The Bush tax cuts offended his conscience, and so did the Bush deficits. Well, they may have stopped offending Barack Obama’s conscience somewhere along the road to the White House, you might say, considering the fiscal cliff deal the Obama White House has agreed to. The reason conservatives enjoy pointing things like this out is not to play “gotcha” so much as to remind people why Obama was always so off-putting to non-liberals. To Obama, those who disagreed with him were cast as immoral. They weren’t simply political opponents of Obama’s; they were, to the current president, opponents of all that is good and righteous.

Obama’s “fiscal cliff” deal to extend the Bush tax cuts comes, ironically, the same week he quietly signed an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–another source of controversy during the Bush administration. Bush’s national security policies did not escape Obama’s moral judgment. In a 2007 speech, Obama said Bush “decided to take the low road” in its response to military threats: “We did not reaffirm our basic values, or secure our homeland. Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear.”

The fight over FISA was a minor one in the grand scheme of things, but also a symbolic one. Obama staunchly opposed immunity to telecoms that had cooperated with the government–one Bush-era provision of the law. “I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty. There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people,” Obama had said.

Pretty clear, right? That promise didn’t even make it through to the election.

Immediately upon taking office in 2009, Obama outlined exactly how he would take us from “the low road” to the “moral high ground,” and that included shuttering secret CIA prisons around the globe and ending long-term secret detentions. Upon signing that executive order, the moral preening was rewarded with applause. A new day had dawned. Yet as the Washington Post reported yesterday, Obama has relied on long-term secret detentions “without legal oversight” throughout his first term in office:

Defense attorneys and others familiar with the case, however, said the men were arrested in Djibouti, a close ally of Washington. The tiny African country hosts a major U.S. military base, Camp Lemonnier, that serves as a combat hub for drone flights and counterterrorism operations. Djibouti also has a decade-long history of cooperating with the United States on renditions….

The sequence described by the lawyers matches a pattern from other rendition cases in which U.S. intelligence agents have secretly interrogated suspects for months without legal oversight before handing over the prisoners to the FBI for prosecution.

Perhaps Obama just thinks the “moral high ground” is overrated. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has only the best interests of the country in mind, and that he is not the morally bankrupt, power-hungry, fear-mongering political opportunist he would accuse others of being if they were to follow his path.