On wiretaps and drone strikes, it’s time for liberals to accept that Obama is worse than Bush

On questions of “US national security”, from wiretaps to Gitmo to drone strikes, Barack Obama has shown his thinking is even less unenlightened than that of the junior Bush. And liberals everywhere better accept that.

Barack Obama is not George W Bush,” the liberal French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told me in a recent interview for al-Jazeera. “Everybody knows that.”

Until a few years ago, “everybody” included Edward Snowden. The 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant, responsible for one of the biggest intelligence leaks in US history, first considered “exposing government secrets” back in 2008, according to the Guardian, and then chose not to because “the election of Barack Obama . . . gave him hope that there would be real reforms, rendering disclosures unnecessary”.

But then the intelligence analyst, like the rest of us, “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in” and as a result he “got hardened”.

After the NSA surveillance scandal, which comes hot on the heels of allegations that the Obama administration spied extensively on the Fox News reporter James Rosen and secretly wiretapped the offices of the Associated Press, it isn’t just Snowden who has been “hardened”.

In the US, the Huffington Post splashed on an image of Obama morphing into George W Bush, an image first used on the cover of the New Statesman in 2009. The president “finds himself in Bush territory”, said the Obama-supporting Washington Post. Here in the UK, the Guardian’s Americanophile-in-chief, Jonathan Freedland, labelled the president “George W Obama”.

How times change. “In the field of counterterrorism and on the issue of executive power as a whole, Obama has distressingly begun to resemble George W Bush,” I wrote in this magazine in October 2009 under the headline “Barack W Bush”. Ten months in to the president’s first term, Obamania was still in full flow and my piece was received in liberal circles with a mix of ridicule, scorn and outrage.

Claiming that Obama was “nothing like his predecessor”, Ken Gude, vice-president of the pro-Obama Centre for American Progress, mocked me for having “unrealistic expectations” of the US president. That has been the standard defence from Obama apologists in the past five years. It’s not Barack’s fault that his “fucking retarded” critics on the left (to quote the former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel), who “ought to be drugtested” (to quote the president’s former press spokesman Robert Gibbs), hold him to unfairly high standards.

I guess we shouldn’t have taken it seriously when Senator Obama claimed in 2005 that President Bush’s Patriot Act “seriously jeopardises the rights of all Americans and the ideals America stands for”. We shouldn’t have listened when he pledged to end the “illegal wiretapping of American citizens” in August 2007. We should have put our hands over our ears in November that year when we heard Candidate Obama, on the campaign trail, outlining his plan to “lead by example” on human rights and civil liberties. “That’s easy,” he said. “Close down Guantanamo. Restore habeas corpus. Say no to renditions. Say no to wireless wiretaps.”

Nor should we have expected a professor of constitutional law to respect a constitutional right to privacy (or, for that matter, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize to opt for diplomacy over drones).

These were unrealistic expectations. We should have assumed the worst. We should have predicted that Obama would not just continue where Bush left off but – astonishingly and shamelessly – go far beyond Dubbya in several respects.

Consider the row over mass surveillance. “Any analyst at any time can target anyone,” Snowden told the Guardianon 9 June. “I, sitting at my desk, had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email.” On Fox News on the same day, Bush’s former NSA director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency’s surveillance programme had indeed “expanded” under Obama, adding that “there is incredible continuity between the two presidents”.

Second, Obama authorised six times as many drone strikes in his first term in office as Bush did over two terms. Dubbya had terror suspects detained and even tortured; Barack just has them bumped off.

Third, Obama has sanctioned the extrajudicial killing – again, by drone strike – of four US citizens since 2009. Where is the liberal outcry? The Bush administration killed the Buffalo-born Kamal Derwish in 2002 – but claimed he was collateral damage and, to be fair, never claimed the legal right to assassinate Americans in the way that the Obama administration has done, with its Orwellian “kill lists” and “secret panels”.

Fourth, on war powers. Senator Obama told the Boston Globe in December 2007 that “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorise a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”. Yet President Obama took the United States into war with Libya in 2011 even though Colonel Gaddafi posed zero threat to the security of the US. Despite his imperial pretensions, Bush allowed Congress to vote on the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan; on Libya, Obama didn’t bother to ask.

The US president is cool, calm and mediasavvy. But presidents must be judged by their policies, not their personalities. And, seen from a liberal perspective, US national security policies aren’t pretty. Don’t take my word for it. Just think about the verdict of the former Bush press spokesman Ari Fleischer, who gleefully wrote on Twitter after Snowden’s NSA revelations: “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. [Obama] is carrying out Bush’s 4th term.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crosspostedHis new interview series on Al Jazeera English, "Head To Head", airs on Fridays at 9pm.

Barack Obama and George W Bush at the dedication of the George W Bush Presidential Library in April 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.