In the national security speech Obama delivered this afternoon, the President himself defined the challenge we face as this: How do we balance the need to do all we can to protect our citizens with the need to adhere to our values and ideals as a free society? The speech was the most ambitious and detailed effort to answer this question that he has yet attempted.
His answer to the question was that, at a time when the nature of the terror threat is changing — over a decade after the 9/11 attacks led to a massive buildup of our national security apparatus that strayed into massive overreach – we must acknowledge the cost of all of that excess, and give more priority to American values and the rule of law than we have been giving. However, in policy terms, he offered mainly incremental, though welcome, moves in that direction.
Indeed, the upshot of the speech is that Obama defined his own role — that of commander in chief — as one that requires him to ultimately compromise core values and principles if he deems it necessary to maintain security. While the speech did offer some steps that civil libertarians will welcome, it also fell short of the wholesale commitment to rule of law they had hoped for — indeed, forthrightly so.
And that bolded point is the most important. There are times where national security issues arise, where the loud purity pundits are not going to have all the information. President Obama admits that this will always be true.
“The president is clearly aware that his current policies are falling short of the mark constitutionally,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told me. “While these are important and welcome steps, they are incremental changes that pale in the face of the constitutional questions confronting the administration.”
Obama might agree to some degree with that assessment, with a qualifier. Indeed, the speech seemed quite forthright in defining the role of commander in chief as one that requires him to ultimately prioritize security over strict rule of law where he deems it necessary — even as he implicitly asked us to trust that he’s doing his best to get the balance as close to right as he can.
So now, we've moved the goalposts again, from "You need to explain yourself" to "This is unconstitutional!" That's a pretty nice excuse, because now we've moved responsibility from the legislative and executive to the judicial. There's literally nothing POTUS can do to satisfy the purity patrol because what's constitutional or not cannot be determined by the executive, only the judicial.
Conveniently, this goalpost shuffling extends the argument against Obama infinitely, so the cottage industry of fundraising while attacking Obama from the left can keep going in perpetuity. How convenient...