Don’t vote for a politician like Obama. Just don’t do it. Ever.

A month ago on Facebook I wrote:

We need to spread the meme that you should never vote for a presidential candidate who thinks the president should have the power to order his own citizens killed or detained forever without trial. Just don’t vote for someone like that. Ever. (And pass on the message if you agree.)

Now I’m going to expand on that. First, what Obama’s done: not only does he claim the power to have US citizens killed without trial, he’s done it, in the case of US-born cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki as well as his 16 year old son (note that while it is known that the Al-Awlaki Sr. was targeted for killing, the Obama administration has refused to say whether the son was also a target or “collateral damage.”)

Ed Brayton’s post “Obama: Liar, Fraud, Disaster” has a good summary of the other problems with Obama on executive power:

His administration has invoked and argued for the broadest possible conception of the SSP in every single case where the government has been challenged for illegal and unconstitutional actions in the war on terror. Every. Single. One. Including cases where the allegedly secret information had already been released. He has not argued for a narrower version in a single case. He has not argued for the use of any of the long-established tools he says he wants but already exist — in camera, ex parte or sealed proceedings, for example — for protecting classified information in court, procedures that have been used in thousands of cases for decades without ever resulting in the release of anything important to the public, in even one case.


The use of the State Secrets Privilege to make the executive branch immune to all legal challenge is not just some minor little issue. It is, quite literally, the end of all practical limits on the power of the executive branch. It is the end of the checks and balances that were intended to protect us from executive omnipotence. It is the end of the separation of powers. If the president can end any legal challenge merely by declaring that it involves a state secret — and that is the case so far, and I have no faith in the Supreme Court to change it — then his power is virtually limitless and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are dead letters.


Let me give you just a list off the top of my head of a few examples of similar problems:


3. After giving grand speeches about the importance of accountability and the rule of law, he has made sure that no one would ever be prosecuted for torture, thus violating our treaty obligations and rendering our signature on the UN Convention on Torture absolutely meaningless. And of course, he’s also made sure that there would be no civil cases to hold them responsible either through the use of the SSP.


5. After declaring the importance of civilian trials for terror suspects, he has actually instituted a three-tiered system that gives civilian trials for some detainees (though none have actually happened), military tribunals for others (tribunals that are a travesty of justice, as declared even by many JAG officers involved in the prosecutions), and indefinite detention without trial for others.


8. Despite his public declarations against torture, there is strong evidence that such abuse continues in detention facilities on military bases.

Then there’s the thing everyone’s been talking about lately, the 2012 NDAA. Greenwald is excellent on this:

It is true, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, that both the Bush and Obama administrations have argued that the 2001 AUMF implicitly (i.e., silently) already vests the power of indefinite detention in the President, and post-9/11 deferential courts have largely accepted that view (just as the Bush DOJ argued that the 2001 AUMF implicitly (i.e., silently) allowed them to eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by law). That’s why the NDAA can state that nothing is intended to expand the 2001 AUMF while achieving exactly that: because the Executive and judicial interpretation being given to the 20o1 AUMF is already so much broader than its language provides.

But this is the first time this power of indefinite detention is being expressly codified by statute (there’s not a word about detention powers in the 2001 AUMF). Indeed, as the ACLU and HRW both pointed out, it’s the first time such powers are being codified in a statute since the McCarthy era Internal Security Act of 1950, about which I wrote yesterday.

This, incidentally, is what’s wrong with Richard Carrier’s argument that the NDAA wasn’t problematic because of the line that says, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities.” That line would be reassuring if only there were a consensus that “existing law” does not allow for indefinite detention. Unfortunately, thanks to Bush and Obama, there’s now something of a bipartisan consensus (at least among those with actual power) pointing in the opposite direction.

So now on not voting for people who do stuff like this: I actually think the “you’re throwing your vote away” argument against voting third party sometimes makes sense. Saith Eliezer Yudkowsky:

“But you can’t always jump from a Nash equilibrium to a Pareto optimum,” meaning roughly, “Unless everyone else has that same idea at the same time, you’ll still be throwing your vote away,” or in other words, “You can make fun all you like, but if you don’t vote for a lizard, the wrong lizard really might get in.”

Seeing the current situation with Obama, though, has made me realize the best response to this: you can’t always jump from a Nash equilibrium to a Pareto optimum, but sometimes you can, especially if you can talk to other people and persuade them. And while it may not be a realistic goal to try to persuade others to adopt the rule “only vote for candidates Chris thinks are perfect,” I don’t think it’s totally infeasible to get people to adopt the rule I stated at the beginning of this post: never vote for a presidential candidate who thinks the president should have the power to order his own citizens killed or detained forever without trial.

The only question that remains is who I should vote for in 2012. It needs to be someone who is neither Obama nor any of the Republicans other than Ron Paul nor Ron Paul. So what should I do? Vote Green Party? Libertarian? Organize a campaign to draft Al Franken? What?

  • unbound

    I’m old enough to have voted in 6 presidential elections. I have never voted for a candidate in any of those elections per se. I have always had to go down the path of voting against a far more toxic candidate. Sadly enough, that has also been true for me in all the elections at the local and state level too.

    While I see Obama as an average to poor president, he remains the lesser evil to either Romney or Gingrich.

  • Alecthar

    Al Franken supports SOPA/PIPA (I can never remember off the top of my head which was the House bill and which was the Senate) and for that reason alone I wouldn’t support his candidacy for president.

    In fact, I find him generally insufferable. If you’ve read his books, you know that while he sometimes has a good point, or the beginnings of one, it’s often derailed by his desperate need to disagree with everything Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and/or Ann Coulter have ever said. While you could live your life doing the opposite of what those 3 tell you and be entirely correct 99% of the time, his outlook does tend to result in the exact kind of pointless zero-sum thinking that so characterizes the Republican party of our day.

    If we were to dragoon a political candidate into the race it would have to be someone who supported comprehensive reform of our electoral system (among a host of other issues). As much as I care about putting the right policies into place, it’s at least as important to ensure that our system supports the long-term health of our democracy, rather than endangering the rights of its citizens.

    • Chris Hallquist

      In that case, so much for the Al Franken idea.

  • jamessweet

    What state do you live in? If you live in a swing state, you really should vote for Obama anyway. I just don’t see any way to avoid this conclusion. As bad as Obama is on executive privilege and whatnot, he’s still better than eating a muffin made of broken glass.

    If you don’t live in a swing state, though, knock yourself out. Make a statement.

    • rjohnston

      There is no question that Obama would, for four more years, make a better President than any of the republican field, by far. But he’d still be a pretty bad President, and the world doesn’t end in four years.

      Obama is weak on policy and utterly uninterested in putting the boot to the Republican throat. Four more years of President Obama makes the election of a radically crazy Republican President in 2016 and 2020 more likely and makes it less likely that the Democratic party will move in the direction of good policy.

      Depending on how you weigh medium-to-long term interests and on how you project the effect of a second Obama term on the medium-to-long term political landscape it is entirely possible to acknowledge that Obama is the better choice for the next four years and to still conclude that voting for him, even in a swing state, is entirely unjustified.

      • KG

        “But he’d still be a pretty bad President, and the world doesn’t end in four years.”

        But four more years without serious progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may take us past the point of no return, given the enormous inertia in energy producing and consuming systems. Admittedly, the chances of such progress with a re-elected Obama are slim. The chances with any alternative are zero.

        Full disclosure: I’m a non-American, and American Presidents have long considered they have the inherent right to kill foreigners, so Chris’s argument doesn’t resonate with me all that strongly.

        • Bruce Gorton

          That is one of the things that annoys me when it comes to American culture – a lot of Americans are more willing to grant personhood to corporations than foreigners.

  • Chris Hallquist

    @unbound: I believe it, but the candidates seem to be getting more awful with time. The only way to stop that trend is for voters to draw a line, and say they won’t vote for any candidate who steps beyond a certain threshold of horribleness.

    @jamessweet: Thing is, if we could only get voters to hold candidates to some minimal standards, Obama would right now be disgraced and announcing LBJ-style that he’s not running for a second term. Then we could get a minimally decent candidate in office.

    • piero

      Such naïveté…

      Do you really think there is a significant difference between a Democrat and a Republican candidate?

      Do you really believe there could ever be a “good” candidate?

      In the same country where John and Robert Kennedy were murdered by the mafia and “nobody knows” who the real culprit is? In the same country where “nobody knows” where the remains of Jimmy Hoffa ended up?

      Do you still believe the USA is a democracy? Do you really think the White House has more power than Goldman Sachs?

      Do you really think the war on drugs is a war between the “good” guys (the police) and the “bad” guys (the dealers)?

      I wish Americans could one day realise their country is in fact a dictatorship, and their rulers are the corporations and the drug barons.

      This is not in any way an attempt to disparage the USA; it is just the conclusion I’m forced to reach given the available evidence.

      • Alecthar


        I mean, in all seriousness, your comments regarding the Kennedys and Jimmy Hoffa are some of the most genuinely ludicrous conspiracy mongering I’ve seen anywhere on this site.

        I won’t deny that corporate interests play too big a role in our democracy, which is why I would love for us to have an administration/congress that steps up and deals with electoral reform. Keeping money 100% out of politics is a pipe dream, but there are real steps we can take to address the issues in our process.

        As for the War on Drugs, I imagine Mr. Hallquist shares the view of many (including myself) that it’s a losing battle that we shouldn’t be fighting, at least not the way we are. If he doesn’t, I’m sure he has his reasons.

        Do I think there’s a certain “naïveté” to his post? Maybe, but I have to agree with him that relatively reasonable voters have long been content with the “least bad” candidate, and that we should find a way to elect a candidate who actually values our civil rights.

        Whatever the case, you’re ascribing a series of positions to Mr. Hallquist, then ridiculing him based on that, despite the fact that you (obviously) have no idea how he actually thinks on those issues.

        • piero


          I wasn’t actually accusing Chris exclusively. Most people in my country (Chile) believe their vote has some significant impact on the way the country is actually run. That’s nonsense, of course. We had 17 years of dictatorship, and after that five different presidents, four of them centre-left and one centre-right. Nothing has changed in the least. Income inequality has grown steadily over the past 30 years. A CEO in Chile now earns on average 250 times what a cleaner earns. 250 times. Not twice, not 10 times as much, but 250 times. And this after four centre-left and one centre-right government.

          A country like the USA where the president is murdered and nobody really knows who did it 50 years after the fact is not a democracy, but a sham. Admit it: the USA is a country governed by corporations, criminal cartels and lobbies, not by the people. I admit as much for my country: it is not my fault, so I feel neither shame nor guilt in admitting it. I just see what the evidence shows, not what wishful thinking would lead me to see.

          • piero

            Oh, and I have no intention at all of ridiculing Chris Hallquist. I fact I read this blog because I find what he has to say very interesting, and I learn from him. But I am allowed to disagree evry now and then, aren’t I?

  • sailor1031

    Yeah well, if you expect nature or luck or baby jesus to give you a slate of super candidates, each a paragon of civic, personal and administrative virtues, so you can come awake for just long enough to get your fat ass down to the polling booth before you go back to sleep for four more years…..

    If you don’t like what you see, if you don’t like your options, get involved and do something about it! But don’t moan in your sleep please!

    • piero

      I do something about it. Just not in the USA, because I don’t live there. But I do think doing something must start from the realisation that something has to be done.

      It is not the candidates that are the main problem. The main problem is how the political machinery gets oiled in order to ensure that all candidates step the line.

      No democratically elected government has ever managed to effectively solve the problem of inequality, for example. Those which have tried have been brought down quickly enough either through media campaigns or by force.

  • blindrobin

    Never say never.
    Obama is flawed.
    Any Republican choice is unthinkable. (He would most likely be much worse on your issue than Obama anyway.)
    No other candidate has any chance.
    Hold nose and vote for Obama.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Would Romney really be that much worse? Probably not any better, but I’m not seeing “much worse” there either.

      Gingrich would very likely be worse, and there have been times in recent months where Gingrich has had me scared enough to think I might have to end up voting for Obama anyways. But (aside from the fact that Gingrich probably won’t be the nominee) we wouldn’t be in the position of having to make such an awful choice of more voters were willing to draw the line at voting for someone like Obama.

  • lcaution

    In 1968 enough liberals decided to vote for somebody else rather than support LBJ’s VP Hubert Humphrey. So we got Nixon and the Southern strategy and the complete and continuing disintegration of FDR liberals (once known as the Democratic Party). It was the one unforgivable liberal sin.
    I’ve never had the chance to vote FOR a presidential candidate – but I remember Nixon and hold my nose and choose the lesser evil.