The Obama administration is suddenly sunk in scandal. Not just one, but three. The Benghazi cover-up has been brewing since last September, but only recently has burst into the open with whistleblower testimonies before Congress. But the Associated Press scandal, the Justice Department’s widely cast seizure of journalist phone records, and the Internal Revenue Service scandal, the IRS harassment of conservative groups leading up to the last two elections, both came quickly on the tail of those testimonies.
It is quite common for scandals to emerge in a president’s second term. National government in America is a sprawling enterprise and it is easy for some enclave of power to slip beyond the president’s reach and go rogue at the public’s expense. Or a president can fall under the temptation to stretch barriers and perhaps break a few. Scandal can involve a personal or financial indiscretion (Clinton’s Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals) and sometimes political overstepping (Nixon’s Watergate and Reagan’s Iran-Contra).
But what distinguishes these last two Obama scandals is their attack on our fundamental liberties and thus on our form of government itself. Both involve suppression of free speech. (The press is a form of speech.) The IRS, by delaying applications by Tea Party groups for tax-exempt status, burdened the ability of these groups to make their case in the public square. Intrusive personal and political interrogations, and at times personal tax audits, intimidated not only these advocates of lower government spending but also opponents of same-sex marriage or of Obama himself. Do you remember how armed SWAT teams raided Gibson Guitar factories in 2011 to confiscate materials their Democrat-supporting competitors were also using?
The right to freedom of speech is an oddly American political experiment. Canada is a quite free society, but when someone asked a high official with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, “What value do you give freedom of speech when you investigate?” he replied, “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.” Though Britain is the birthplace of modern liberty, notice this line in a BBC report on the anti-Muslim backlash following the butchering of a British soldier in London: “Three men … have been arrested by Northumbria Police on suspicion of posting racist tweets."
If people’s freedom to express political ideas and support a political party puts them in the crosshairs of a powerful government agency, or if people are afraid of talking to the press for fear of discovery by a partisan DOJ, then politically we have become a fundamentally different country. In a free republic, the government is afraid of the people, not the reverse.
President Obama himself said in his first inaugural address, “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because ‘We the People’ have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.” This is a crisis point in the Obama presidency. Will he lead us in a vigorous defense of those ideals and documents or become the founder of a decisively less exceptional country?