Don't be a dictator: Obama edition


US President Barack Obama laughs during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner April 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama attended the yearly dinner which is attended by journalists, celebrities and politicians.



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This is the second edition of an ongoing series that looks at the autocratic leanings of some of the world's most important leaders. Read the first edition about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan here.

Voters twice elected US President Barack Obama — who promised to roll back key policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush — to much fanfare and optimism. But the president has continued, or even expanded, some of Bush's most controversial directives, disappointing many of his supporters.

1. He has expanded domestic surveillance

Last week news broke that the Obama administration monitored the phone records and internet habits of millions of US (and foreign) citizens, pointing to a major breach of personal privacy. The programs revealed the kind of imperious behavior expected from countries that, say, have no Fourth Amendment. But Obama defended the measures on Friday, saying they are necessary to prevent acts of terrorism. Bush once made similar claims; Benjamin Franklin, for the record, said the opposite. While such measures began under Bush after his administration passed the Patriot Act — much of which was actually drafted under President Bill Clinton, by current Vice President Joe Biden — critics argue that Obama has taken certain clauses of the act and related legislation too far.


2. His commitment to freedom of the press is questionable

US Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on oversight of the US Department of Justice May 15, 2013. ALEX WONG AFP/Getty.

In May, the Associated Press shocked the journalism community when it revealed the US Justice Department had seized phone records from 20 of the company's phone lines, including the home and cell numbers of individual journalists. Though the Justice Department didn’t give a reason for the records seizure, the time period of collection — April and May of 2012 — suggested it was related to an official investigation into leaks about a CIA counterterrorism operation in Yemen. AP officials said they weren’t given notice and were therefore unable to appeal the action, which they said could greatly damage their relationships with sources and their ability to report. The press is supposed to be the government’s “watchdog,” but it seems the government is watching them instead.


3. He doesn't support whistleblowers

People gather on June 1, 2013 during a demonstration in support of Wikileaks whistleblower US Army Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade in Maryland. NICHOLAS KAMM AFP/Getty.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama praised whistleblowing as “acts of courage and patriotism” to be “encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” But five years later, Obama continues to prosecute those who spoke out during the Bush era, including former NSA official Thomas Drake. Drake spoke to the press about overspending in an intelligence program. Obama also sought the prosecution of former CIA analyst John Kiriakou, who advocated against the use of torture on suspected terrorists. Drake pled guilty and received a single misdemeanor, while Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison. More recently, Pvt. Bradley Manning was brought to trial for leaking classified government documents to Wikileaks. That trial, which began after a long detention for Manning, is ongoing. According to The New York Times: “.... Under President Obama, six current and former government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases so far, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined.” Now he's going after Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong after exposing the extent of the NSA's surveillance program.


4. He still hasn't closed Guantanamo Bay

A Guantanamo detainee's feet are shackled to the floor as he attends a 'Life Skills' class at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba, on April 27, 2009. MICHELLE SHEPHARD AFP/Getty Images.

Okay, so, Congress isn't making it easy for Obama. But we're not sure the president has made his best effort. Obama has so far failed to shut down Guantanamo Bay, despite passionate campaign promises to do so. Guantanamo still houses 166 inmates, many of whom don't face specific charges and have not been tried in any court. Even some prisoners who have been cleared for release continue to wait for permission to leave. Many prisoners have recently gone on hunger strike at the facility. In response, the US has force-fed the inmates, a practice that is illegal under international law.


5. He has approved the killing of Americans without due process

Due process for American citizens apparently does not extend to suspected terrorists on foreign soil: The Obama administration has approved the assassination of at least four American citizens abroad.

Sen. Rand Paul’s calls to reform drone targeting was highly publicized in February and March, culminating in a 13-hour filibuster against Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan.

Attorney General Eric Holder finally met Paul’s demands in early March, issuing a letter that stated, “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on US soil? The answer to that is no.” 

The ensuing debate about the use of drones around the world changed the American public’s perception. Before the filibuster, a Fox News poll found a majority approved of using drones to kill Americans suspected of terrorism overseas. After, however, only 41 percent approved, according to a Gallup poll.


6. He's accused of using state agencies to impose his political agenda

A US Marine holds an umbrella for US President Barack Obama as he holds a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC May 16, 2013. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.

A report by the inspector general released in May said the Internal Revenue Service applied special scrutiny to certain political groups who applied for tax-exempt status. Obama seemed as surprised as any of us. “I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this,” he said.

So far, there’s been no evidence that Obama ordered the targeting. But the buck stops with the president, and the news irked even his most steadfast supporters. Comedian Jon Stewart mockingly imitated him on the Daily Show: “‘What was that day when I found out that an incredibly powerful arm of the government may be using its power for coercive political purposes? I think it was Friday.’”


7. He makes key appointments when the Senate is in recess

President Obama's use of recess appointments has drawn criticism from political opponents. BRENDAN HOFFMAN AFP/Getty Images.

Playing the political game is part and parcel of working on Capitol Hill. But some of Obama's attempts to get around his political adversaries have drawn criticism from opponents who say he is overstepping his bounds. Obama, for instance, used recess appointments to install political allies into the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while much of the Senate was away from the Hill. Though Democratic supporters say Republican filibustering forced him to do so, political opponents claim this kind of maneuvering constitutes a grave violation of his constitutional purview. Recently, a second appeals court joined a Washington, DC circuit court in ruling that Obama's appointments to the labor board were unconstitutional.