This has been a disappointing year for President Obama and the Democrats. One would think that a year that featured a medley of Republican self-inflicted wounds culminating in the pointless government shutdown would end with the Democrats heading into the midterm election year with the wind in their sails. Instead, thanks to missteps on issues like the NSA scandal and the rollout of Obamacare, Republicans are boasting a five-point edge in the generic Congressional ballot and Barack Obama's approval rating has fallen to 40 percent (compared to 56 percent for Clinton and 42 percent for George W. Bush at the end of their fifth years).
A Freedom Agenda
At his second inaugural, President Obama told supporters that the past election was about:
"[W]ho we are as a nation, what values we cherish [and] how hard we're willing to fight to make sure those values live not just for today but for future generations."
The road to redemption for President Obama in 2014 may very well be in pursuing a freedom agenda that ensures that we preserve our freedoms for future generations. As Nelson Mandela said, freedom is not merely casting "off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
From the moment in June when the name Edward Snowden was first published in print around the world, President Obama has acted in a reactive mode as unsettling detail after unsettling detail dripped out from the National Security Agency (NSA) and Snowden. The scandal has come at a great price to U.S. prestige, has hurt U.S. tech companies operating abroad, undermined cyber security since hackers can now exploit NSA mandated backdoors, and led to an erosion of the President's support among the millennials who helped elect him. You know it is a serious problem when both the left and right agree that the NSA is "out of control."
President Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies has called for reforming NSA operations. As the report explained:
"[E]xcessive surveillance and unjustified secrecy can threaten civil liberties, public trust and core processes of democratic self-government."
President Obama must embrace the review group's recommendations and take the lead in the fight against "big brother" for the simple reason that it is not who we are as a nation and is precisely the type of government intrusion the Bill of Rights was designed to prevent.
Voting Rights Act
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in reaction to "Bloody Sunday" when voting rights marchers were blocked and clubbed by the state police on Selma, Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge. This Act requires jurisdictions having a history of voting discrimination to submit election law changes for pre-clearance review by the Justice Department pursuant to authority granted Congress under the 15th amendment (providing that the right of citizens of the United States to vote "shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race"). The law was last reauthorized in 2006 by a vote of 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Roberts Supreme Court ignored a legislative record that exceeded 15,000 pages and included 21 hearings to invalidate the law by finding that the Congress failed to make the requisite finding that voter protection was still needed. Within hours of the announcement of the Supreme Court decision, Texas and Mississippi pledged to move forward with controversial voter identification requirements.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has responded to the Supreme Court decision by vowing to restore the Voting Rights Act "as an effective tool to prevent discrimination."
President Obama and the Democrats must work with Sensenbrenner and get this done first thing in 2014. As President Clinton said in response to the decision, a "great democracy doesn't make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon."
The President's immigration reform package has passed the Senate and is being blocked by the House where hardliners oppose any path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented aliens in the United States today.
One Republican House member said he would do "anything short of shooting illegal immigrants" while a Republican state legislator in Kansas has advocated shooting immigrants from helicopters like "feral hogs."
These are working members of our society who pay taxes and we cannot pretend they do not exist and perpetuate a multi-generational subclass. The President's proposal creates a procedure by which the aspirations of law-abiding aliens to be part of the American dream can be recognized.
The pursuit of a freedom agenda makes sense politically. Each of these proposals are important to key elements of the Democratic constituency, have widespread support, and Republicans would be venturing into perilous waters should they block any of them. In pursuing a freedom agenda, President Obama would not merely be answering the call of history, but also reasserting himself as a leader.
More importantly, however, each of these proposals is the right thing to do because it calls upon us to act consistent with who we are as a nation. Pericles once said, "[F]reedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it." And in 2014, President Obama must summon us to do just that.