THE BLOG
11/12/2012 08:55 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2013

Righting Wrongs and Securing the Rights Path

President Obama's reelection provides him with another chance to address pressing human rights challenges and restore our nation's standing as a defender of rights and opportunities for all people. To be clear, he accomplished a significant amount after grappling with the troubling legacy he inherited from George Bush.

Obama prohibited the use of torture, shuttered the disgraceful secret prisons in Europe, embraced the right of same-sex couples to marry, allowed DREAMers to remain in the country, and defended a woman's right to access contraception and reproductive health services. This record, while significant, doesn't go nearly far enough to restore America as a nation committed to human rights and equality for all.

His second term provides him with a new opportunity to make his presidency the human rights presidency. And while he must, and should, reach across the political aisle to find solutions to the economy, the fiscal cliff and the nation's deficit, he must not compromise on the core issues that define us as a nation. Freedom, due process, equality and fairness are not values to be compromised. These are defining values -- American values -- not political chits to be traded away with opponents who lost an election and are grasping at the straws of power now that they lost the levers to the White House.

Beyond the values, there are practical reasons why the president ought to make human rights a top priority for his second term. Most importantly, key constituencies tied to specific issues turned out in record numbers to send him back to the White House. Tea Party constituents and conservative Republicans did nothing to get him elected, and it remains to be seen whether they will do anything to help him govern. Meanwhile, 55 percent of women supported Obama, 71 percent of Latinos voted for him, and 77 percent of LGBT voters voted for the president. An overwhelming 93 percent of African Americans voted for Obama.

For progressives overall, who comprise one quarter of the electorate, 86 percent supported the president. These communities who turned out for Obama believed in him and want him to address the issues that are most pressing to their communities. Delivering on promises to key voting constituencies is what representative democracy is all about. Unlike the quid pro quo expected by power-peddling billionaires who try to buy influence and access through campaign contributions, voting blocs who turn out en masse do not have an articulated list of demands. But, it's not hard to figure out what they want. Or what the president should do.

In yesterday's New York Times, the ACLU called on the president to take three bold actions to fulfill his commitment to equality and justice and to deliver the goods to voting blocs that ultimately delivered the White House. These three asks are bold. They are not incremental. They are not equivocal. They represent the boldness of leadership that is expected of the president. And they represent the boldness that is needed to restore America as a land of freedom and defender of human rights.

First, Obama must close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Progressives care about core American values, and nothing betrays those core values more fundamentally than keeping George Bush's Guantanamo prison open.

Not only did Obama pledge to close Guantanamo during the 2008 campaign, he issued an executive order in his third day in office to close the detention facility within a year so that the U.S. could "restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism." True, it was Congress that imposed restrictions on the ability to transfer detainees. But the president signed those restrictions into law, continued indefinite detention without charge or trial at Guantanamo, and even restarted the military commissions that deny basic due process protections. I'm heartened by the fact that just a few weeks ago on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," he spoke about wanting to close the prison. He can back up those words by standing up to Congressional opposition and vetoing any legislation that would extend the ban on transferring detainees beyond the expiration date of March 27, 2013.

Second, the president must step in and stop abusive and discriminatory deportation practices that have terrorized Latinos and other immigrant communities. If Obama can secure comprehensive immigration reform, that would be a significant deliverable for the Latino community that turned out in such record numbers to support him. Perhaps he can pull the political rabbit out of the hat, but given that the vast majority of House Republicans oppose such efforts, the president would be wise to make change where he has complete control. To that end, he ought to start with his own Department of Homeland Security.

Since 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported more than 1.5 million people - breaking all records for any single presidential term - and would deport more than 3 million people if the pace were to continue through a second term. The way the government portrays its actions, you'd think they were simply shipping criminals and fugitives out of the country. Yet, between January and June last year, the government deported 46,000 parents of children who are citizens. That is why the president must end programs like Secure Communities and 287(g), which allow the federal government to enter into agreements that delegate immigration enforcement powers to local police. Those programs foster racial profiling, tear apart families and harm community policing, while doing nothing to improve public safety.

Finally, the president should act boldly to remove abortion restrictions from federal insurance programs. It's clear that the reactionary views of Republican candidates on abortion heavily affected the presidential election as well as key Senate races. The attack on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy has been bold and direct. These attacks will not relent by discussing contraception or broader reproductive health services. An attack on a woman's right to have an abortion must be met with an unequivocal defense that the decision of when and if to have a child is critical to ensuring women's equality and dignity. And the right to an abortion must be unequivocally asserted.

The president's second inauguration will come the day before the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. With a majority of women, who represent a majority of the electorate, supporting him, Obama should take the next step in his leadership on abortion access by pledging to strike from the administration's FY2014 budget proposal the abortion restrictions contained in federal insurance programs. These bans have severely restricted access to safe abortion care for women who depend on the government for their health care. A budget is a statement of values and priorities. Pledging to send one to Congress without onerous restrictions would signal Obama's commitment to meaningful abortion rights.

As the president said in his victory speech: "The task of perfecting our union moves forward." And forward we should go.

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