You might not have noticed, but back in 2008, Barack Obama used the word “change” several times in his speeches. It was easy to believe that the landslide of Democrats to the House, Senate and Oval Office would bring about radical improvements in the way America governs its citizens. In the realm of civil liberties, Obama promised to reject the “false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”
It has been two years and Obama has not fully delivered on his promise to strengthen civil liberties. So far as anyone can see, the 45th President of the United States is a moderate liberal on matters dealing with government intervention in the lives of private citizens. A left-wing president creates social change to promote a more egalitarian society. In terms of civil liberties and governmental control, being liberal means things like giving voice to the common man, protecting individual privacy and broadening reproductive/marriage rights. A reactionary president like George W. Bush acts to limit those types of civil liberties.
Obama has made progress in many areas of civil liberties. One of the President’s victories was in the area of reproductive rights. During his first 100 days in office, Obama struck down a Bush-era rule that prohibited federal money from funding family-planning clinics that provided information or referrals to abortion services. This move will promote maternal safety, decrease infant mortality and support healthy family dynamics in the future.
President Obama has taken a firm stance supporting the rights of gays and lesbians, but only up to a point. He has expressed a firm disapproval of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and issued statements in support of gay and lesbian adoptions. On the other hand, Obama supports the separate institution of civil unions, with the same rights as marriage, instead of fully legalizing gay marriage as part of the same legal institution as heterosexual marriage.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated that education is the “civil rights issue of our time.” In the past two years, the education department has been making great progress for civil liberties in the nation’s school systems. Problems that are being addressed include minorities representing a disproportionate number of suspensions, unequal access for women to athletics resources, and a lack of availability of college preparatory classes to poor or minority students. The federal government’s first initiatives have been an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind act. Changes to the act aim to streamline school-ranking mechanisms, evaluate teacher ability and bring in new governance to the lowest five percent of schools.
Most recently, Barack Obama fielded criticism for supporting continued use of warrantless wiretaps when he approved the democrat-controlled Congress’s decision to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. No further limits have been placed on National Security Letters, the documents that allow federal investigators access to citizens’ phone records, bank statements and web histories without a warrant. Obama’s unwillingness to revert to pre-Bush-era government accountability is disturbing to say the least.
This criticism of the Democrats should not be taken as an endorsement of the reactionaries in the Republican Party. Civil liberties limitations enacted by the Republicans have been difficult for the Democrats to erase because the fear that caused them to be enacted still exists. Racism, paranoia and economic insecurity continue to run high in this time of economic crisis. Nevertheless, strengthening individual freedoms and increasing privacy and equality can only strengthen this country. Civil liberties should be an imperative of the Democratic Party while their majority lasts. The Democrats under Barack Obama have been slow to institute major reforms that will influence American civil liberties, but with the improving economy and health care finally signed, it is time to hope for significant change.