President Barack Obama tours tornado damage in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 26, 2013. The giant tornado represented the kind of extreme weather that scientists say the world can expect as human activity continues to heat up the planet. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama, known for preferring thoughtful accommodation to tough-minded confrontation, finds himself caught in a political quandary that could have dire consequences for the world's future.
His dangerous dilemma is this: the planet is facing a rising tide of existential threats -- from widening income inequality to life-threatening global warming -- that require coordinated and aggressive responses from nation states and particularly the United States. But, simultaneously, his support for expanded government surveillance and national security secrecy are undermining trust in government.
If he doesn't move quickly and decisively to let American citizens in on as many of the government surveillance secrets as reasonably possible -- and dial back the dragnet on people's personal information -- he risks playing into the hands of anti-government extremists like the Tea Party who are now casting themselves as the protectors of America's constitutional rights.
That is as much a masquerade as the Tea Party's Revolutionary War costumes, since Tea Partiers voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush and other Republican officeholders who were instrumental in vastly expanding the surveillance state.
It was Bush who presided over the 9/11 intelligence catastrophe and then over-reacted by launching ill-conceived wars overseas and authorizing a massive expansion of government surveillance against the U.S. population. Indeed, the current law, which is facing criticism for allowing the storage of huge amounts of data on phone calls, represented an intervention against Bush's even more breathtaking intrusion on civil liberties, the notion that a President could order wiretaps on electronic communications without a warrant.
Though many Tea Partiers now criticize Bush as a big-government Republican, very few voted for Al Gore or John Kerry, both of whom have a much greater respect for constitutional rights than Bush ever did. The Tea Partiers' new-found love of American "liberties" arose at a politically convenient moment, after the first African-American president took office.
Since its emergence in 2009 -- to demand "our country back" -- the Tea Party has represented just the latest branding of the white supremacist wing of U.S. politics, one that traces back to the nation's Founding when Anti-Federalists feared that the Constitution's concentration of power in the federal government would ultimately doom the South's lucrative industry of slavery.
Phases of "Confederacy"
The United States has lived with different phases of this white supremacist movement, from the pre-Confederates (opposing federal power from the Constitution's ratification in 1788 to the start of the Civil War in 1860) to the actual Confederates (during the Civil War) to the post-Confederates (from after the Civil War through the decades of Jim Crow and racial segregation) to today's neo-Confederates with their racially tinged insults directed at Obama, their attempts to restrict voting rights of minorities and their angry opposition to immigration reform.
The common thread of this movement has been racism and the parallel fear that the federal government, when representing the nobler instincts of the American people, would act against slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
This historic distrust of the federal government also runs parallel to the ideological interests of the libertarians who favor laissez-faire economics, i.e., letting the corporations operate free of government regulation. True libertarians also would eliminate government programs from Social Security and Medicare to environmental protections and mass transit. Some libertarians object as well to laws requiring white restaurant owners to serve blacks as an intrusion on the "liberty" of the white restaurant owners.
While libertarian extremism, if ever made national policy, would lead to economic, environmental and social disasters, libertarians have struck a chord, especially among young Americans, in also opposing government intrusions on personal freedoms. Libertarians reject laws against drug use; they object to national security surveillance; and they criticize excessive U.S. spending on the military and warfare.
Thus, Obama's failure to significantly roll back Bush's national security excesses -- and indeed his expansion of some such as the use of lethal drones -- has played into the hands of his libertarian critics, including Tea Party favorite, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Obama may think that he has charted the reasonable middle course between security and privacy, but his moderation is alienating and annoying many voters, especially the idealistic young.
Granted, Obama has faced a difficult set of choices. Even his rather modest steps during his first weeks in office, such as banning torture and releasing some of Bush's legal memos that had justified torture, drew sharp criticism from Official Washington's neoconservatives and right-wing pundits who had marched in lock-step with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during their "war on terror."
Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison elicited more vociferous opposition in Congress and on the Right, with the House and the Senate restricting the President's range of action. Obama also gets blamed whenever a terrorist strike occurs, even if the death toll is a small fraction of the carnage of 9/11, such as the attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Boston Marathon bombings. Plus, the Right's sudden ardor for civil liberties only has emerged as those values have achieved some partisan value.