For months now, I’ve been wondering if Barack Obama would turn out to be another FDR – a bold and progressive figure who was the right match to the crises of his time – or another Bill Clinton – a pathetic sell-out who was the right match for little beyond pursuing his personal eight-year joy-ride at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Now I’m wondering if I haven’t been asking the wrong question altogether. Maybe the real mystery is whether Mr. Yes We Can will be another Bill Clinton or, gulp, another George W. Bush.
It’s true, Obama has already made a few quasi-progressive decisions, such as removing some of the insanity from American foreign aid for reproductive health and beginning the process to close down Guantánamo.
That’s well enough, and I give credit where it’s due – though I wouldn’t exactly describe these as bold moves.
I didn’t have high expectations that Obama would turn out to be Eugene Debs, come back from socialist heaven (Stockholm?), and so I can’t say that I’m surprised he’s not. But I am pretty shocked and disgusted at some of the decisions we’ve seen so far, including many that Dick Cheney would have little problem praising (in some cases, because Cheney made them originally).
That’s just too much. And it’s also insulting to progressives who worked hard to put this guy in office, believing – minimally – that he was a better choice than either another Clinton or anything the Neanderthal Party would drag out. I can’t say that I donated a lot of my hours or cash to Obama’s campaign, and yet – just the same – I’m already feeling cheap, dirty and used by what I’m seeing.
The cabinet is a starting place. Like many of the terminally hopeful, I’ve been saying for a while that it doesn’t matter so much who goes in the cabinet, it matters who makes the decisions. This is mostly true, with about one-and-a-half caveats. The half-caveat is that a smart cabinet secretary can take advantage of a president who is out to lunch, like Bush and Reagan were. I suspect Obama won’t often be accused of that during his presidency, though I’ll confess that looking at the rollout of the economic stimulus program, and the rollout of the administration itself, this last month, I am way less impressed with the basic competence of these folks than I expected to be – whatever their politics.
But, the other major caveat is the symbolism of cabinet choices. Why was it necessary to put three Republicans in it? And, so far, not a single confirmed progressive? Cabinet choices are usually as much emblematic as they are truly administrative. We have to assume that real policy decisions come from the White House, and that most fools in the cabinet will at least be able to get through four years of making speeches without completely crashing the department, while their deputy actually runs the show (notable exceptions noted and excepted, of course). So presidents therefore use their cabinet in part to make a statement, pay off some political debts, and placate groups within their coalition. So far, so bad, ‘cause the main statement I’m getting from the picks of this yet-another-nominally-Democratic president is “Hard to starboard, matey”.
But take a look at some of Obama’s policy decisions in his first month in office, and it gets considerably worse from there. Even today, months after the election is done with, Mr. Obama is out on the stump saying things like, “You didn’t send us to Washington because you were hoping for more of the same. You sent us there to change things.”
That’s a big 10-4, good buddy. So how come, then, you keep turning to Wall Street pirates to run your economic program? It was bad enough that you’ve subjected us to Timothy Geithner to run the Treasury and lead your recovery effort. In addition to being a tax cheat and already demonstrably in over his head, this fool is a protégé of both Henry Kissinger and Robert Rubin. In addition to being part of the brain trust that blew the Lehman Brothers rescue decision, he also presided over the original TARP mass looting of the already stinking corpse of the federal treasury. That would be a pretty impressive resume if one intended to earn his living on his back, wearing a coat and tie. However, I thought we were talking about a Treasury Secretary here?
More to the point, though, this guy is the beginning of this particular ugliness, not the end. Last week, the New York Times reported that, “Senior executives at Citigroup’s Alternative Investment division ran up hundreds of millions of dollars in losses last year on their esoteric collection of investments, including real estate funds and private highway construction projects — even as they collected seven-figure salaries and bonuses. Now the Obama administration has turned to that Citigroup division — twice — for high-level advisers.” Oh boy.
What a shock, then, that even while Obama was pretending to show a wee flash of anger at corporate predators partying on the public nickel the other week, his administration was busy eviscerating the pathetic limitations on compensation it was barely applying in the first place. By the time you get through reading all the caveats, you realize that the $500,000 salary limitation applies to almost no one, and means almost nothing when it comes to those it does apply to. But that’s only the third best part of this charade, however. The second best is that even these absolutely paper-thin sanctions on the compensation of executives of failed corporations now sucking the federal teat first have to be approved by a vote of shareholders in order to apply. But – and this is my very favorite part – did I mention that the vote is non-binding?
It actually gets even worse, yet. Now the AP is reporting that, in the wake of Congress’ stimulus legislation (and you know what bloody socialists those folks are!), the Obama team is looking to play extra-super-double-sweet nicey-nice with the pirates from Corporate Wonderland: “Facing a stricter approach to limiting executive bonuses than it had favored, the Obama administration wants to revise that part of the stimulus package even after it becomes law, White House officials said Sunday”. Obama doesn’t want compensation restrictions to apply to all banks on the government dole. Rather, CEOs who crashed those companies and are now living off the taxpayers they spent decades deriding from the vaunted perch of the free market ideological soapbox can still take all they want, thank you very much, unless they are among the unlucky infinitesimally few getting “exceptional assistance” from Barack, Inc.
Apparently, there is some concern that Obama will take Congress’ bill and just do whatever he wants with it. You know, kinda like what’s-his-name just got done doing for eight years. Never fear, though. Barney “The Enforcer” Frank, and his posse of Democrats led by Sheriff Nancy are on the job. Congressman Frank told CBS the other day: “This is not an option. This is not, frankly, the Bush administration, where they’re going to issue a signing statement and refuse to enforce it.” Given that, seemingly by his own admission, Democrats in Congress will do nothing to reign in imperial presidents, Congressman Frank neglected to mention exactly what would prevent Obama from doing just what Bad Barney had been allowing Belligerent Bush to do for eight years. Call me cynical, but something tells me that a congressman from Massachusetts saying “This is not an option” isn’t going to make the White House tremble in fear, even if they are Democrats there (and only some of them are), and have pretty much long ago gone pro with the whole trembling thing.
Meanwhile, apparently it was young Master Geithner who led the successful battle within the administration not to take away potential third and fourth yachts from the nice men on Wall Street who have caused a global economic holocaust, now reportedly already responsible for 50 million (no, that is not a typo) job losses worldwide. He does make a good point, of course. If you don’t pay these people well, how can you attract such fine talent? Imagine how bad this global depression would be if the average S&P 500 CEO compensation in 2007 had been, say, a mere $12 million, instead of the $14.2 million it actually was! Boy, we’d really have a bad economy now! And don’t you just feel great that Obama is listening to as sharp a mind as Geithner? This is a cat who – in addition to apparently being an arrogant and capricious manager of his staff – opened his mouth for five minutes the other day and caused the stock market’s value to shrink by 4.6 percent. Let’s see here… Arrogance, gross incompetence, flack for the overclass…? Golly, could there actually be four Republicans in the cabinet? Do we actually know for sure that this Geithner guy is a Democrat? Would it matter if he was?
As bad as all this is, I wish I could say that my problem with Obama is just that he is yet another president of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy. Unfortunately, there’s more. There was ol’ Joe Biden, for example, off to Munich for a big security conference, talking about how the Obama administration will continue Ronald Reagan’s dream of missile defense, the ultimate defense industry boondoggle. Never mind that, even if it ever worked, and at astronomical costs which wrecked the lives of tens of millions who didn’t get education or healthcare instead, any terrorist smart enough to build a nuke or determined enough to buy one would also be clever enough to put the thing on a boat and sail it up the Potomac. This is a trillion dollar gift of public funds to the arms industry that just can’t seem to get buried. I think Reagan knew that. But why doesn’t Obama? Or – far worse – likely he does.
Then there’s the undoing of Bush’s faith-based initiative, one of the greatest examples of Constitution shredding out there, from a guy who was the acknowledged master. Obama has now issued new executive rules regarding the relationship between church activities and state money, but declined to actually revoke Bush’s rule, which allows religious organizations to make hiring decisions based on religion, for jobs funded by you and me. I’m not okay with that, and neither is the Constitution. It’s grim enough that we have to endure these assaults when we merely have a reactionary executive and a feeble Congress, especially when the latter is controlled by the alleged opposition party. But must we really put up with more such crimes after sweeping the ‘liberals’ into office?
Still, perhaps the most galling example of Obushism occurred last week in a San Francisco courtroom, where a lawyer from the new (or is it?) Justice Department was asked by the presiding judge whether the government’s position might have changed for any particular reason (wink, wink, nod, nod) since the last time the court was last convened to take up this particular case on the question of extraordinary rendition. Bush’s Justice Department had argued that the state secrets doctrine required the court to dismiss the case without even hearing evidence, effectively giving the president the right to do anything to anybody, without judicial protection or remedy of any sort. You know – kinda like the script for a Dick Cheney porno film. Since candidate Obama had severely criticized such patently and fundamentally unconstitutional concepts, the judges on the Ninth Circuit had good reason to expect that President Obama might reverse the government’s position in this case. They even asked the government’s lawyer a second time, in semi-astonishment, to be sure they were hearing him right. All to no avail. The position of the Obama administration is identical to that of Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and Yoo. The president can order you to be captured, stripped down to diapers, bagged up, tossed on a CIA plane, delivered to Egypt, Bulgaria or Tajikstan, tortured and maybe even killed. All without any scrutiny by anyone.
Maybe it’s just my weak vision, but when I pulled out my copy of the Constitution and pored over it carefully once again, I couldn’t find any language of that sort anywhere. In fact, it almost seemed like that document, and the Declaration of Independence, were written by a bunch of angry patriots pissed off at exactly such behaviors on the part of the British crown. Could President Obama, the former constitutional law professor, really be espousing the same civil liberties policies – hardly exceeded in egregiousness – as those of George III and Bush II? I guess I better re-read those documents yet once more.
Especially since another New York Times article, under the happy title of “Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble Bush’s in Some Areas”, just noted that, “In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone”. And, just in case the sum of the above still hasn’t depressed you enough, the piece goes on to remind us of how the new administration recently offered its thanks to the British government when a UK court deferred to American pressure in refusing to release information about the torture of a detainee held by the US. Wow.
If this was just another president doing what presidents do, these developments would merely be disappointing. In fact, they are nearly devastating when considered in context. This is the president who follows the one sure to be known as The Great Trampler, and this is the president who heartily criticized his predecessor’s constitutional calamities just months ago on the campaign trail, and this is the president only weeks in office, finally revealing his policies, not just his promises. If you care about equality, justice and freedom, there is good reason here, one month into the Obama reign, to be heartbroken already.
Look, I don’t expect any president to be one hundred percent in agreement with my positions, brilliant as they universally are on all issues. And least of all did I expect that Barack Obama would be a full-blown lefty, though I still think events might push him in that direction, as they did Franklin Roosevelt. But here’s the thing I’m wondering right now, strictly from the perspective of Obama’s own self-interest: Who’s gonna be there for him when the floor drops out, as it inevitably will at some point? Just who does he think will rally to his support if, for example, a year from now unemployment is up to 15 percent and he has shown no sign of abating this devastating depression?
Will it be the centrist middle class? At some point, they may run well out of patience, their jobs gone, their homes foreclosed upon, their health deteriorating, their hope sagging, and right-wing freaks incessantly screaming in their ears the pounding drumbeat of failed ‘liberal’ policies.
Does he think it will be those very regressives, who one might have expected to be somewhat chastened by their trouncing in two consecutive election cycles? Because when I look at how John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Rush Limbaugh are reacting to the bipartisan olive branch that Obama extended to them, I kinda don’t think so. When I see how many Republicans (three) in both houses of the entire Congress voted for his stimulus bill, I kinda don’t think so.
Does he think it will be progressives? Well, I can only speak for myself, but one month in and I’m already feeling burned by this guy. If he continues to cater to the predatory rich in this country, leaving the rest of us holding the bag, and if he continues to shred the Constitution as if he were George Bush’s kid brother, and if he is nearly as militaristic as the Strangeloves he just ejected from office, then I really won’t care a bit if he gets smashed halfway through his first term. In fact, I might even be happy to see it happen.
So, if it ain’t the right and it ain’t the center and it ain’t the left, just who does Obama think will be there standing with him should his presidency hits the rocks?
When you take away all those folks, just who does he think will have his back in tough times?
The Aryan Nation?
[David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.]
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