President-elect Barack Obama will become chief executive of a nation that has been greatly weakened — in particular, our freedoms, our values, and our international reputation have been significantly undermined by the policies of the past eight years. Presidents have enormous power not only to set the legislative agenda, but also to establish policy by executive order, federal regulation, or simply by refocusing the efforts and emphases of the executive agencies. President-elect Obama must use all of these tools to restore our freedoms and move the country forward.
In preparation for the transition to a new presidential administration next year, I asked my staff to look at what a new president could do to begin to reverse the damage that has been done in the past 8 years to this great nation. What I got back — from experts on a wide variety of subjects from throughout the ACLU — was very revealing. And it brought home just how off-track our presidential campaigns have become.
As you can see here: www.aclu.org/transition, some of the items were self evident for us: stop torture, close Guantanamo, shut down the military commissions, end "extraordinary renditions" in which suspects are kidnapped by the CIA and sent to countries where they are tortured. All of these practices are abominations — violations of our nation's dearest principles and a blotch on America's good name. Those are actions the next president, whoever he turns out to be, should take on his first day in office.
Our other priorities are nearly as clear: steps such as ending warrantless spying on Americans, fixing the nation's broken watch list system, banning discrimination against sexual minorities in federal employment, stopping the monitoring of peaceful political activists, and restoring the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division as a meaningful body.
But what is really striking is when you move down to the next level. I received dozens and dozens of action items from throughout our broad, multi-issue organization — issues that are never going to make the front page of the newspaper, but which can have a dramatic effect on the lives of Americans.
Let me give you just one example. Until recently, residents of public housing were to be evicted from their homes whenever criminal activity took place in those units — without exception. But one result of this "get tough" law was that women who were victims of domestic violence were being evicted from their units because of the crime that took place there — the domestic violence — even though they were the victim of the crime!
Congress fixed this absurdity in the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). But today, more than two years after enactment, the Bush Administration has still not acted to implement the fix. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has not issued regulations interpreting and explaining the law, and has distributed inaccurate information about how it applies. As a result, many public housing authorities remain unaware of the new law and have not trained their staff on the new protections.
It's a fair bet you're never going to see that issue raised in a presidential debate, or read about it on a bumper sticker, or on the front page of your newspaper. Probably not in the back pages either. I worry that even the "big" issues like closing Guantánamo, shutting down the military commissions, and prohibiting torture and rendition will literally be thrown under the bus in a new administration. As I read over the list of requests our staff has compiled, it is striking how many issues are like this — vital, important issues that affect many lives, but which we have a dim hope of ever setting directly before the American people.
The country's civil liberties "to do" list really brings home just how sweeping the power of the president of the United States is. The often obscure actions of various deputy assistant secretaries will together probably make as much difference to Americans as the new president's actions on the headline issues of our times. We need leadership at the top. And President Obama ought to act swiftly on day one by picking up his pen and signing executive orders that shut down Guantánamo and the military commissions and ban torture and rendition. Once he crosses those off of his "to do" list, we can pick up on the many other things that need to get done. But leadership needs to start on day one.