November’s presidential election was doubly historic: Not only did it ensure Barack Obama a second term, it ensured George W. Bush a fourth.
This flies in the face of Obama’s rhetoric, which repudiated everything the Bush administration supposedly stood for. But Obama’s record repudiates much of his rhetoric.
Consider the deal to avert the fiscal cliff. Although it raises taxes on the top 1 percent of Americans, it extends the Bush tax cuts for the great mass of lower-income earners—as Obama repeatedly insisted it should do. What’s more, it contains almost zero spending cuts. Thus it largely sustains the fiscal trajectory set by Bush, who increased domestic spending at a faster pace than any president since Lyndon Johnson.
The signature domestic accomplishment of Obama’s first term was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It represents the largest expansion of government involvement in health care since the signature domestic accomplishment of Bush’s first term, the Medicare Part D prescription-drug benefit. That in turn was the largest expansion of government involvement in health care since, again, Johnson.
Yet these parallels pale in comparison to those concerning national security—where, for instance, the president has embraced the unilateral use of military force he once disdained. Moreover, on Dec. 30 Obama signed into law the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012—more succinctly known as the warrantless-wiretapping law. Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the measure gives government agents almost carte blanche to eavesdrop on the domestic communications of American citizens. It permits the NSA to scrutinize your emails (for example) so long as (a) it claims to be looking for information about a broadly defined foreign target, and (b) it can claim not to have been aware at the moment of interception that the communication was purely domestic.
A proposed amendment would have required federal authorities to estimate the number of Americans subject to secret wiretaps. It failed. In 2007, candidate Obama promised “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.” The FISA reauthorization keeps that promise only by making legal what once was not. In addition, as the ACLU reported last year, other forms of electronic eavesdropping have skyrocketed under Obama. More people were subject to warrantless “pen register” and “trap-and-trace” surveillance in the previous two years, the group reported, “than in the entire previous decade.”
It’s not clear whether renditions have risen or fallen since Obama took office. But, reported The Washington Post a few days ago, “Renditions Continue Under Obama, Despite Due-Process Concerns.” The administration also has gone to court—successfully—to shroud the details of rendition practices behind the cloak of state secrecy. (No word yet on whether Hollywood is planning a sequel to “Rendition.”)
Obama also signed into law a defense reauthorization bill allowing for the indefinite detention of American citizens, without charge or trial, by the military. The Bush administration had claimed such authority, and had even exercised it. Obama, emulating a frequent Bush practice, issued a signing statement promising not to use that authority. The signing statement does not bind future presidents—or, for that matter, him.
Candidate Obama promised to reform the Patriot Act. President Obama signed a three-year extension of its most controversial provisions, such as the one allowing federal agents to examine your library and medical records.
Still, it would be wrong to suggest this administrations is a carbon copy of the last. Obama favors sharply higher taxes on the rich, for example. He has expanded the welfare state by relaxing eligibility requirements and weakening work requirements. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, he also has vowed to pursue more stringent gun-control laws.
A fourth big difference shows up in regulation: According to Forbes, the number of "economically significant" new rules—i.e., those costing more than $100 million—has spiked under Obama, as has the number of rules affecting small businesses.
And we should not forget the insurance mandate in Obamacare. With the complicity of the Supreme Court, it has inaugurated an unprecedented new federal power to make individuals buy specific consumer goods as a condition of being alive. The only thing preventing further mandates to purchase other goods is that most insubstantial of political qualities: forbearance.
The upshot, then, is that the Obama administration has carried forward those Bush policies most expansive of government power—and where it differs from past policy, it deviates in the direction of more government still. To political partisans, elections can look like wrenching transitions in which power whipsaws back and forth. Take a step or two back, though, and the effect begins to look like a one-way government ratchet, tightening click by click.