Obama and the NDAA
This past weekend, President Barack Obama signed the 2012 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2012) into law, ensuring that for the next 12 months, the US armed forces and all of its personnel can draw pay. This is a good thing, if you like the idea of people being able to pay their bills and buy food. Usually the signing of such a law isn’t controversial; the armed forces need to be paid after all. But included in this year’s bill are a number of odd and rather alarming sections that seem to indicate a radical expansion in the power of the executive branch of the United States Government. The Executive Branch, for those of you not well versed in American Politics, is the office of the President (The legislative branch is Congress – both houses – and the judicial branch is the Supreme Court of the United States [SCOTUS]). These sections have been tossed around all over the internet in recent weeks, appearing on Infowars, NaturalNews, CNN, Huffington Post, and a host of other sites and blogs. The general gist of the articles featured on these sites is ‘ZOMG THE PRESIDENT IS DECLARING MARTIAL LAW WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE DERRRRRRRP’. Essentially, these sites argue that certain sections of the bill allow the president to detain without charge or warrant anyone, anywhere in the US; in other words, the US would be declared a battlefield and the army could round up whoever the president decided to label a ‘threat’.
That’s really scary. Good thing for Americans it’s not true. As in false or a lie. The bill does not affect American citizens in any way that is not already authorized by the PATRIOT ACT – in fact if you read the signing statement included in the Think Progress link from above, you’ll see that Obama makes specific note of that and calls the related sections of the new bill ‘pointless’.
After the bill was passed, the internets were all a tizzy about it. Ron Paul supporters, arguably the most vocal and rabid of the bunch, immediately began towing their guy’s line about martial law and other associated nonsense, while liberals and other Obama supporters began weeping and gnashing teeth over this ‘betrayal’ by the man they voted for. But it’s not that simple. It never is. There was a political game being played in Congress, and one of its primary goals was to force Obama to sign into law a bill that he - and his base – had serious reservations about. The bill was designed to seriously burn some of Obama’s remaining political capital and undermine his support before the 2012 elections. This point was lost in some corners of the internets, where rage and recriminations were the order of the day. Over at the hivemind that is Reddit, the politics tab showcased an internet shitstorm of epic proportions. And, because I can’t keep my mouth shut, I waded in. My user name is Mauve_Cubedweller. This was my response:
TL;DR The President’s opponents played the electorate like a fiddle and will get away with it because people don’t seem to realize they’ve been tricked into being angry at the wrong person.
He signed it because if he didn’t, defense spending including benefits to veterans and their families would not have been authorized. The sections of NDAA that many people here seem to have a problem with are sections that were added into the document by primarily Republican legislators and which the President adamantly opposes but was powerless to stop. I’ll repeat that: the parts of this bill that many people here hate were included against the President’s wishes and in a way that he is powerless to stop. The only way he could have stopped these sections from being included would have been to try to veto the bill in its entirety, a move that would have been both political suicide as well as being futile, as Congress would simply have overridden him. He is explicit in his opposition to exactly the parts of the bill everyone here hates, going so far as to detail exactly which sections he opposes and why.
You’ll notice that the bill also restricts his ability to close Guantanamo Bay; this isn’t coincidence. These sections are openly hostile to the President’s stated mandate – they are effectively a giant ‘fuck you’ to the President, as well as a nasty way of eroding the President’s support with his own base. Observe:
- Draft legislation that is almost guaranteed to piss of the President but more importantly piss of his base.
- Attach said legislation to another piece of larger, more important legislation like, say, the Defense Spending budget for the entire year so that any attempt to dislodge the offensive legislation will result in a political shitstorm, as well as place the larger legislation in jeopardy.
- Once attached, begin a PR campaign that highlights the offending legislation and brings it to the attention of as many media outlets as possible – not just the traditional media, but alternative media outlets as well (Fox news, MSNBC, Media Matters, Huff-Po, Infowars, etc.)
- Here’s where it gets tricky: Simultaneously, speak to both your party’s base and the opposition’s. To your base, argue that the legislation is necessary to ‘Keep America safe’ and that the President, by opposing it, is clearly soft of terrorism and endangering the military by trying to strip the legislation out. At the same time, sit back and watch your opponent’s liberal supporters tear into the offending legislation as being dangerous, anti-democratic, and a threat to civil liberties. You know they will; that’s what they care about most. You’ve designed legislation that will make them froth at the mouth. You don’t even have to keep flogging the message; one look at the legislation will be enough to convince most people that it is anathema to everything they hold dear. Because it is.
- Pass the ‘parent’ legislation. Doing so forces the President to sign it or attempt to veto it. Since the legislation in question just so happens to be the military’s operating budget, a veto is out of the question. The President must sign the bill, you get the legislation you wanted, but you also practically guarantee that your opponent’s base will be furious at him for passing a bill they see as evil. Even if he tries to explain in detail why he had to sign it and what he hates about it, it won’t matter; ignorance of the American political process, coupled with an almost militant indifference to subtle explanations will almost ensure that most people will only remember that the President passed a bill they hate.
- Profit. you get the legislation you want, while the President has to contend with a furious base that feels he betrayed them – even though he agrees with their position but simply lacked the legislative tools to stop this from happening. It’s a classic piece of misdirection that needs only two things to work: A lack of principles (or a partisan ideology that is willing to say anything – do anything – to win), and an electorate that is easy to fool.
People can disagree with me on this, and that’s awesome. I feel that I should clarify a few things however, to forestall some of the more predictible complaints that I encountered on Reddit.
1. Why didn’t Obama veto it anyways? If he did, Congress could override him and if they did, he would have literally no say in how the bill was implemented. By signing the bill and attaching a Signing Statement to it, Obama essentially dictates how the laws will be enforced by his administration. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.
2. Shouldn’t he have have vetoed it on principle? Hell no. Vetoing the bill on principle would be equally futile and, contrary to the assertions of some, would do more harm than good. It’s all well and good to stand on principle, but if doing so gives your opponents massive amounts of ammunition to come after you later (like during an election), you could end up out of office – replaced by a Republican almost guaranteed to be an extremist. A person of principle might instead take a lesser political beating by signing the bill in order to avoid a greater political beatdown later.
3. Better that the bill die than American liberties dwindle. Should have thought of that before re-electing Bush in 2004. The curtailing of civil liberties in the United States stem from the provisions of the PATRIOT ACT and PATRIOT II. The current NDAA does not expand on these restrictions, it merely reiterates them. Killing this bill would have halted paycheques for hundreds of thousands of American service men and women. What would that do to the economy? How would that look for Obama? Standing on principle is nice and idealistic, but it’s also naive when your opponents have no principles to speak of.
That’s about all I have to say on the matter right now. If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.
Obama and the NDAA | Skeptical Cubefarm