In the 2008 campaign season, a young pro-life activist, Gianna Jessen, made a commercial encouraging then-Sen. Barack Obama to reconsider his position on post-birth infant protection. Her ad never mentioned McCain; it was simply a plea from a woman who had survived an abortion to grant other children the same legal protections that enabled her to get medical care. In response, the most well-financed Presidential candidate in the history of America returned fire, tying Jessen to McCain and calling her a liar.
It was deeply disquieting to watch a man, on the verge of becoming the most powerful person in the world, attacking young, relatively obscure woman for having the temerity to ask him to reconsider his position on a political issue. The First Amendment is not merely about political speech: it is about the ability of the people, the citizens, to question their leaders or would-be leaders, engage in debate, and bring their own experiences and opinions into the public sphere. By leveraging his huge campaign fund to attack (but not respond to) Jessen, Obama showed that he doesn’t think that a citizen has the moral right to question him – even as he campaigned to be the President of all such citizens.
It was despicable, authoritarian pandering – steeped in the idea that those who dare to publicly disagree, even mildly and respectfully, are liable to have their reputations dragged through the mud, to have the power of a six hundred million dollar war chest aimed directly at them. The crux of the First Amendment is the right of the relatively powerless to speak out against the powerful, to restrain the exercise of political power – not the right of the powerful to beat down those with the temerity to disagree.
This was not an isolated incident: Obama had the private divorce records of his political opponents unsealed (even after protests by the ex-wife of said opponent; Jeri Ryan emphatically believed that what happened in the courtroom should stay there and not be fodder for discussion), leaving them to step down in disgrace or be creamed at the polls. That repeated itself in 2011, when Herman Cain was destroyed by David Axelrod’s cronies. Again and again, those who dare question Barack Obama’s political positions are mocked, destroyed, and personally attacked.
After the Tea Party held its first rallies, Obama mocked “those tea bag people” and took public aim at citizens who stood in public parks, listening to speeches about limited government and fiscal responsibility. During his infamous State of the Union address, he attacked the members of the Supreme Court who were sitting in front of him – people who were prevented by basic etiquette from defending their honour and integrity. Honour and integrity that suddenly became an issue in what should be a discussion about the First Amendment.
Now we are to believe that the same man knew nothing about the IRS personally attacking those who dared to speak out against the Administration? That the Chief Executive of the United States has no knowledge or control of what happens in one of the most prominent and feared administrative agencies? That he conveniently has nothing to do with the wiretapping of the one news organisation that criticises him? That Obama is suddenly accepting of those who speak out against him, that his thirst for retaliation has been quenched? Obama’s signature piece of legislation allocates billions of dollars to the IRS; the lynchpin of the system is the individual mandate, enforced by the IRS, constitutional only because it is a tax – and now we are to believe that this man has no idea what was happening at the IRS? That he disapproves of such actions?
The First Amendment is not for government officials to browbeat citizens into submission, to retain the right to all the speech they desire while squelching the speech of their opponents and harassing those who dare to speak out. But one would not know that from the history of Obama’s campaigns and Administration, which renders this IRS and Associated Press/Fox News scandals less than surprising – at least, less than surprising for those of us who pay attention.