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Those first acts of that first shining full day in the Oval Office are now so forgotten, but on January 21, 2009, among other things, Barack Obama promised to return America to “the high moral ground,” and then signed a straightforward executive order “requiring that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility be closed within a year.” It was an open-and-shut case, so to speak, part of what CNN called “a clean break from the Bush administration.” On that same day, as part of that same break, the president signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda hailing a “new era of openness,” of sunshine and transparency in government. As the president put it, “Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”
Of course, nothing could have been more Bushian, if you were thinking about “clean breaks,” than America’s wars in the Greater Middle East. When it came to the Iraq War, at least, President Obama arrived in office with another goal and another promise that couldn’t have been more open and shut (or so his supporters thought), not just drawing down Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, but“ending” it “responsibly.” (Admittedly, he was also muttering quietly about “residual forces” there, but who noticed?)
Two and a half years later, Guantanamo remains thrivingly open, while all discussion of ever closing it has long since ended; the administration has, in those same years, gained a fierce reputation as anenforcer of government secrecy and, while it has prosecuted neither torturers, nor financial titans, it has gone after government whistleblowers with a passion. In the meantime, the Iraq War was indeed wound down “responsibly” (which turned out to mean incredibly slowly), but in recent months, as U.S. casualties again rose, the Obama administration and the U.S. military have visibly been in a desperate search for ways to keep sizeable numbers of American forces there as “trainers,” while also militarizing a vast State Department mission in Baghdad and outfitting it for the long haul with more than 5,000 armed mercenaries as well as a mini-air force.
Promises? As Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman used to say: What? Me worry? As it happens, though, David Bromwich, TomDispatch regular (and essayist for the Huffington Post and the New York Review of Books) does worry. In today’s ambitious post, he offers a new yardstick for measuring the promises, the acts, and the nature of the Obama administration — as well as the nature of its “break” with the Bush era. Tom
Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency
The Saved and the Sacked
By David Bromwich
Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?
The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, and nowhere more than in the policy of “force projection” in the Arab world. With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with the repeated invocation of “state secrets” to protect the government from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious provisions left intact — the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.
The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been presented as “sectarian feuding” began to look like a war of national liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon critical acuteness. But Washington’s embrace of “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the front page, and it — along with the Afghan War — has returned only occasionally in the four years since.
This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much; by not talking about them imply that, while “victory” is not in sight, there is something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it “success.”
Meanwhile, back at home…
The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions, however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s “debt deal” — a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.
Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.
One of the last good times that President Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric and now head of the president’s outside panel of economic advisers. At a June 13th meeting of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a questioner said he assumed that President Obama knew about the difficulties caused by the drawn-out process of securing permits for construction jobs. Obama leaned into the microphone and offered a breezy ad-lib: “Shovel ready wasn’t as, uh, shovel-ready as we expected” — and Immelt got off a hearty laugh. An unguarded moment: the president of “hope and change” signifying his solidarity with the big managers whose worldly irony he had adopted.
A certain mystery surrounds Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush’s war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.
Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose hopes once rested with him.
The philosopher William James took as a motto for practical morality: “By their fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots.”
Suppose we test the last two and a half years by the same sensible criterion. Translated into the language of presidential power — the power of a president whose method was to field a “team of rivals” and “lead from behind” — the motto must mean: by their appointments shall ye know them.
Let us examine Obama, then, by the standard of his cabinet members, advisers, and favored influences, and group them by the answers to two questions: Whom has he wanted to stay on longest, in order to profit from their solidity and bask in their influence? Which of them has he discarded fastest or been most eager to shed his association with? Think of them as the saved and the sacked. Obama’s taste in associates at these extremes may tell us something about the moral and political personality in the middle.
Advisers whom the president entrusted with power beyond expectation, and sought to keep in his administration for as long as he could prevail on them to stay:
1. Lawrence Summers: Obama’s chief economic adviser, 2009-2010. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, 1999-2001, Summers arranged the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated the commercial banks — holders of the savings of ordinary people — from the speculative action of the brokerage houses and money firms. The aim of Glass-Steagall was to protect citizens and the economy from a financial bubble and collapse. Demolition of that wall between savings and finance was a large cause of the 2008 meltdown. In the late 1990s, Summers had also pressed for the deregulation of complex derivatives — a dream fully realized under Bush. In the first years of the Obama era, with the ear of the president, he commandeered the bank bailouts and advised against major programs for job creation. He won, and we are living with the results.
In 2009-2010, the critical accessory to Summers’s power was Timothy Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary. Most likely, Geithner was picked for his position by the combined recommendations of Summers and Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The latter once described Geithner as “a very unusually talented young man,” and worked with him closely in 2008 when he was still president of the New York Fed. At that time, he concurred with Paulson on the wisdom of bailing out the insurance giant AIG and not rescuing Lehman Brothers. Obama for his part initiated several phone consultations with Paulson during the 2008 campaign — often holding his plane on the tarmac to talk and listen. This chain is unbroken. Any tremors in the president’s closed world caused by Summers’s early departure from the administration have undoubtedly been offset by Geithner’s recent reassurancethat he will stay at the Treasury beyond 2011.
Postscript: In 2011, Summers has become more reformist than Obama. On The Charlie Rose Show on July 13th, he criticized the president’s dilatoriness in mounting a program to create jobs. Thus he urged the partial abandonment of his own policy, which Obama continues to defend.
2. Robert Gates: A member of the permanent establishment in Washington, Gates raised to the third power the distinction of massive continuity: First as CIA director under George H.W. Bush, second as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, and third as Obama’s secretary of defense. He remained for 28 months and departed against the wishes of the president. Gates sided with General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 to promote a major (called “moderate”) escalation of the Afghan War; yet he did so without rancor or posturing — a style Obama trusted and in the company of which he did not mind losing. In the Bush years, Gates was certainly a moderate in relation to the extravagant war aims of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative circle. He worked to strengthen U.S. militarism through an ethic of bureaucratic normalization.
His approach has been endorsed and will be continued — though probably with less canniness — by his successor Leon Panetta. Without a career in security to fortify his confidence, Panetta is really a member of a different species: the adaptable choice for “running things” — without regard to the nature of the thing or the competence required. Best known as the chief of staff who reduced to a semblance of order the confusion of the Clinton White House, he is associated in the public mind with no set of views or policies.
3. Rahm Emanuel: As Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel performed much of the hands-on work of legislative bargaining that President Obama himself preferred not to engage in. (Vice President Joe Biden also regularly took on this role.) He thereby incurred a cheerless gratitude, but he is a man willing to be disliked. Obama seems to have held Emanuel’s ability in awe; and such was his power that nothing but the chance of becoming mayor of Chicago would have plucked him from the White House. Emanuel is credited, rightly or not, with the Democratic congressional victory of 2006, and one fact about that success, which was never hidden, has been too quickly forgotten. Rahm Emanuel took pains toweed out anti-war candidates.
Obama would have known this, and admired the man who carried it off. Whether Emanuel pursued a similar strategy in the 2010 midterm elections has never been seriously discussed. The fact that the category “anti-war Democrat” hardly exists in 2011 is, however, an achievement jointly creditable to Emanuel and the president.
4. Cass Sunstein: Widely thought to be the president’s most powerful legal adviser. Sunstein defended and may have advised Obama on his breach of his 2008 promise (as senator) to filibuster any new law that awarded amnesty to the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. This was Obama’s first major reversal in the 2008 presidential campaign: he had previously defended the integrity of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act against the secret encroachment of the National Security Agency (NSA).
At that moment, Obama changed from an accuser to a conditional apologist for the surveillance of Americans: the secret policy advocated by Dick Cheney, approvedby President Bush, executed by NSA Director Michael Hayden, and supplied with a rationale by Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington. In his awkward public defense of the switch, Obama suggested that scrutiny of telecom records and their uses by the inspectors general in the relevant agencies and departments should be enough to restore the rule of law.
When it comes to national security policy, Sunstein is a particularly strong example of Bush-Obama continuity. Though sometimes identified as a liberal, from early on he defended the expansion of the national security state under Cheney’s Office of the Vice President, and he praised the firm restraint with which the Ashcroft Justice Department shouldered its responsibilities. “By historical standards,” he wrote in the fall of 2004, “the Bush administration has acted with considerable restraint and with commendable respect for political liberty. It has not attempted to restrict speech or the democratic process in any way. The much-reviled and poorly understood Patriot Act, at least as administered, has done little to restrict civil liberty as it stood before its enactment.” This seems to have become Obama’s view.
Charity toward the framers of the Patriot Act has, in the Obama administration, been accompanied by a consistent refusal to initiate or support legal action against the “torture lawyers.” Sunstein described the Bush Justice Department memos by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which defended the use of the water torture and other extreme methods, in words that stopped short of legal condemnation: “It’s egregiously bad. It’s very low level, it’s very weak, embarrassingly weak, just short of reckless.” Bad lawyering: a professional fault but not an actionable offense.
The Obama policy of declining to hold any high official or even CIA interrogatorsaccountable for violations of the law by the preceding administration would likely not have survived opposition by Sunstein. A promise not to prosecute, however, has been implicit in the findings by the Obama Justice Department — a promise that was made explicit by Leon Panetta in February 2009 when he had just been named President Obama’s new director of the CIA.
As head of the president’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with an office in the White House, Sunstein adjudicates government policy on issues of worker and consumer safety; yet his title suggests a claim of authority on issues such as the data-mining of information about American citizens and the government’s deployment of a state secrets privilege. He deserves wider attention, too, for his 2008 proposal that the government “cognitively infiltrate” discussion groups on-line and in neighborhoods, paying covert agents to monitor and, if possible, discredit lines of argument which the government judges to be extreme or misleading.
5. Eric Holder: Holder once said that the trial of suspected 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City courtroom would be “the defining event of my time as attorney general.” The decision to make KSM’s a civilian trial was, however, scuttled, thanks to incompetent management at the White House: neither the first nor last failure of its kind. The policy of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts seems to have suffered from never being wholeheartedly embraced by the administration’s inside actors. Local resistance by the New York authorities was the ostensible reason for the failure and the change of venue back to a military tribunal at Guantanamo. No member of the administration besides Holder has been observed to show much regret.
During his 30-month tenure, in keeping with Obama’s willingness to overlook the unpleasant history of CIA renditions and “extreme interrogations,” Holder has made no move to prosecute any upper-level official of any of the big banks and money firms responsible for the financial collapse of 2008. His silence on the subject has been taken as a signal that such prosecutions will never occur. To judge by public statements, the energies of the attorney general, in an administration that arrived under the banner of bringing “sunshine” and “transparency” to Washington, have mainly been dedicated to the prosecution of government whistle-blowers through a uniquely rigorous application of the Espionage Act of 1917. More peoplehave been accused under that law by this attorney general than in the entire preceding 93 years of the law’s existence.
Again, this is a focus that Bush-era attorney generals John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey might have relished, but on which none would have dared to act so boldly. Extraordinary delays in grand jury proceedings on Army Private Bradley Manning, suspected of providing government secrets to WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, who ran that website, are said to have come from a protracted attempt to secure a legal hold against one or both potential defendants within the limits of a barbarous and almost dormant law.
6. Dennis Ross: Earlier in his career, Obama seems to have cherished an interest in the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In Chicago, he was a friend of the dissident Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi; during his 2007 primary campaign, he sought and received advice from Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Both were “realist” opponents of the expansionist policy of Israel’s right-wing coalition government, which subsidizes and affords military protection to Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.
Under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, Obama dissociated himself from all three chosen advisers.
Ross, as surely as Gates, is a member of Washington’s permanent establishment. Recruited for the Carter Defense Department by Paul Wolfowitz, he started out as a Soviet specialist, but his expertise migrated with a commission to undertake a Limited Contingency Study on the need for American defense of the Persian Gulf. An American negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit, Ross was accused of being an unfair broker, having always “started from the Israeli bottom line.”
He entered the Obama administration as a special adviser to Hillary Clinton on the Persian Gulf, but was moved into the White House on June 25, 2009, and outfitted with an elaborate title and comprehensive duties: Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, including all of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Ross has cautioned Obama to be “sensitive” to domestic Israeli concerns.
In retrospect, his installation in the White House looks like the first step in a pattern of concessions to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that undid Obama’s hopes for an agreement in the region. Here, caution precluded all inventiveness. It could have been predicted that the ascendancy of Ross would render void the two-state solution Obama anticipated in his carefully prepared and broadly advertised speech to the Arab world from Cairo University in June 2009.
7. Peter Orszag: Director of the Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to August 2010, Orszag was charged with bringing in the big health insurers to lay out what it would take for them to support the president’s health-care law. In this way, Orszag — along with the companies — exerted a decisive influence on the final shape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. In January 2011, he left the administration to become vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup. A few days out of the White House, he published an op-ed in theNew York Times advising the president to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans — adding that Obama should indicate that the cuts would continue in force only through 2012. Obama took the advice.
8. Thomas Donilon: National Security Adviser and (after the departure of Gates) Obama’s closest consultant on foreign policy. Donilon supported the 34,000 troop-escalation order that followed the president’s inconclusive 2009 Afghanistan War review. He encouraged and warmly applauded Obama’s non-binding “final orders” on Afghanistan, which all the participants in the 2009 review were asked formally to approve. (The final orders speak of “a prioritized comprehensive approach” by which the U.S. will “work with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai when we can” to set “the conditions for an accelerated transition,” to bring about “effective sub-national governance,” and to “transfer” the responsibility for fighting the war while continuing to “degrade” enemy forces.)
Donilon comes from the worlds of business, the law, and government in about equal measure: a versatile career spanning many orthodoxies. His open and unreserved admiration for President Obama seems to have counted more heavily in his appointment than the low opinion of his qualifications apparently held by several associates. As Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton administration, he helped arrange the eastward expansion of NATO after the Cold War: perhaps the most pointless and destructive bipartisan project of the epoch. He was Executive Vice President for Law and Policy at Fannie Mae, 1999-2005.
Advisers and nominees with views that were in line with Obama’s 2008 election campaign or his professed goals in 2009, but who have since been fired, asked to resign or step down, or seen their nominations dropped:
1. General James Jones: Former Marine Corps Commandant and a skeptic of the Afghanistan escalation, Jones became the president’s first National Security Adviser. He was, however, often denied meetings with Obama, who seems to have looked on Gates as a superior technocrat, Petraeus as a more prestigious officer, and Donilon as a more fervent believer in the split-the-difference war and diplomatic policies Obama elected to pursue. Jones resigned in October 2010,under pressure.
A curious point: Obama had spoken to Jones only twice before appointing him to so high a post and seems hardly to have come to know him by the time he resigned.
2. Karl Eikenberry: Commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan before he was made ambassador, Eikenberry, a retired Lieutenant General, had seniority over both Petraeus and then war commander General Stanley McChrystal when it came to experience in that country and theater of war. He was the author of cables to the State Department in late 2009, which carried a stinging rebuke to the conduct of the war and unconcealed hostility toward any new policy of escalation. The Eikenberry cables were drafted in order to influence the White House review that fall; they advised that the Afghan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of U.S. troops.
Petraeus, then Centcom commander, and McChrystal were both disturbed by the cables — startled when they arrived unbidden and intimidated by their authority. Obama, astonishingly, chose to ignore them. This may be the single most baffling occasion of the many when fate dealt a winning card to the president and yet he folded. Among other such occasions: the 2008-2009 bank bailouts and the opening for financial regulation; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the opportunity for a revised environmental policy; the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns and a revised policy toward nuclear energy; the Goldstone Report and the chance for an end to the Gaza blockade. But of all these as well as other cases that might be mentioned, the Eikenberry cables offer the clearest instance of persisting in a discredited policy against the weight of impressive evidence.
Ambassador Eikenberry retired in 2011, and Obama replaced him with Ryan Crocker, the Foreign Service officer brought into Iraq by Bush to help General Petraeus manage the details and publicity around the Iraq surge of 2007-2008.
3. Paul Volcker: Head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, Volker had a record (not necessarily common among upper-echelon workers in finance) entirely free of the reproach of venality. A steady adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, he lent gravity to the young candidate’s professions of competence in financial matters. He also counseled Obama against the one-sidedness of a recovery policy founded on repayment guarantees to financial outfits such as Citigroup and Bank of America: the policy, that is, favored by Summers and Geithner in preference to massive job creation and a major investment in infrastructure. “If you want to be a bank,” he said, “follow the bank rules. If Goldman Sachs and the others want to do proprietary trading, then they shouldn’t be banks.” His advice — to tighten regulation in order to curb speculative trading — was adopted late and in diluted form. In January 2010, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, which paid no federal taxes that year, replaced him.
4. Dennis Blair: As Director of National Intelligence, Blair sought to limit the expansion of covert operations by the CIA. In this quest he was defeated by CIA Director Leon Panetta — a seasoned infighter, though without any experience in intelligence, who successfully enlarged the Agency’s prerogatives and limited oversight of its activities during his tenure. Blair refused to resign when Obama asked him to, and demanded to be fired. He finally stepped down on May 21, 2010.
Doubtless Blair hurt his prospects irreparably by making clear to the president his skepticism regarding the usefulness of drone warfare: a form of killing Obama favors as the most politic and antiseptic available to the U.S. Since being sacked, Blair has come out publicly against the broad use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
On his way out, he was retrospectively made a scapegoat for the November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree by Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan; for the “underwear” bomber’s attempt to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit on Christmas day 2009; and for the failed Times Square car bombing of May 2010 — all attacks (it was implied) that Blair should have found the missing key to avert, even though the Army, the FBI, and the CIA were unable to do so.
5. James Cartwright: As vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright passed on to Obama, and interpreted for him, a good deal of information that proved useful in the Afghanistan War review. Their friendship outlasted the process and he came to be known as Obama’s “favorite general,” but Cartwright stirred the resentment from both Petraeus and Mullen for establishing a separate channel of influence with the president. Like Eikenberry, he had been a skeptic on the question of further escalation in Afghanistan. His name was floated by the White House as the front-runner to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs after the retirement of Mullen. Informed of the military opposition to the appointment, Obama reversed field and chose Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, a figure more agreeable to Petraeus and Mullen.
6. Dawn Johnsen: Obama’s first choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel, a choice generally praised and closely watched by constitutional lawyers and civil libertarians. Her name was withdrawn after a 14-month wait, and she was denied a confirmation process. The cause: Republican objections to her writings and her public statements against the practice of torture and legal justifications for torture.
This reversal falls in with a larger pattern: the putting forward of candidates for government positions whose views are straightforward, publicly available, and consistent with the pre-2009 principles of Barack Obama — followed by Obama’s withdrawal of support for the same candidates. A more recent instance was the naming (after considerable delay) of Elizabeth Warren as a special advisor to organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, followed by the decision in July not to nominate her as the first director of the bureau.
Avoidance of a drag-out fight in confirmation hearings seems to be the recurrent motive here. Of course, the advantage of such a fight, given an articulate and willing nominee, is the education of public opinion. But in every possible instance, President Obama has been averse to any public engagement in the clash of ideas. “Bottom line is that it was going to be close,” a Senate Democratic source toldABC’s Jake Tapper when Johnsen’s name was withdrawn. “If they wanted to, the White House could have pushed for a vote. But they didn’t want to ’cause they didn’t have the stomach for the debate.”
Where the nomination of an “extreme” candidate might have hardened the impression of Obama as an extremist, might not a public hearing have helped eradicate the very preconception that a frightened withdrawal tends to confirm? This question is not asked.
7. Greg Craig: For two years special counsel in the Clinton White House, he led the team defending the president in the impeachment proceedings in Congress. Craig’s declaration of support for Obama in March 2007 was vital to the insurgent candidate, because of his well-known loyalty to the Clintons. Obama made him White House Counsel, and his initial task was to draw up plans for the closing of Guantanamo, a promise made by the president on his first day in the Oval Office. But once the paper was signed, Obama showed little interest in the developing plans. Others were more passionate. Dick Cheney worked on a susceptible populace to resurrect old fears. The forces against closure rallied and spread panic, while the president said nothing. Craig was defeated inside the White Houseby the “realist” Rahm Emanuel, and sacked.
8. Carol Browner: A leading environmentalist in the Clinton administration, Browner was given a second shot by Obama as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. She found her efforts thwarted within the administration as well as in Congress: in mid-2010 Obama decided that — as a way to deal with global warming — cap-and-trade legislation was a loser for the midterm elections. Pressure on Obama from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to heed business interests served as a strong incitement in forcing Browner’s resignation after the Democratic “shellacking” in midterm elections, a result that his quiet abandonment of cap-and-trade had failed to prevent. The White House had no backup plan for addressing the disaster of global warming. After Browner’s resignation in March 2011, her position was abolished. Since then, Obama has seldom spoken of global warming or climate change.
Moral and Political Limbo
The Obama presidency has been characterized by a refined sense of impossibility. A kind of suffocation sets in when a man of power floats carefully clear of all unorthodox stimuli and resorts to official comforters of the sort exemplified by Panetta. As the above partial list of the saved and the sacked shows, the president lives now in a world in which he is certain never to be told he is wrong when he happens to be on the wrong track. It is a world where the unconventionality of an opinion, or the existence of a possible majority against it somewhere, counts asprima facie evidence against its soundness.
So alternative ideas vanish — along with the people who represent them. What, then, does President Obama imagine he is doing as he backs into one weak appointment after another, and purges all signs of thought and independence around him? We have a few dim clues.
A popular book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, seems to have prompted Obama to suppose that Lincoln himself “led from behind” and was committed to bipartisanship not only as a tactic but as an always necessary means to the highest good of democracy. A more wishful conceit was never conceived; but Obama hastalked of the book easily and often to support a “pragmatic” instinct for constant compromise that he believes himself to share with the American people and with Lincoln.
A larger hint may come from Obama’s recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism, where a sentence in the president’s own voice asserts: “We face the world as it is, but we will also pursue a strategy for the world we seek.” If the words “I face the world as it is” have a familiar sound, the reason is that they received a trial run in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize speech. Those words were the bridge across which an ambivalent peacemaker walked to confront the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King with the realities of power as experienced by the leader of the only superpower in the world.
Indeed, Obama’s understanding of international morality seems to be largely expressed by the proposition that “there’s serious evil in the world” — a truth he confided in 2007 to the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, and attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — combined with the assertion that he is ready to “face the world as it is.” The world we seek is, of course, the better world of high morality. But morality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals. Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.
This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase. It explains, as nothing else does, Obama’s enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.
Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order — any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on “seeking.” Therefore, in “the world as it is,” you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.
David Bromwich writes on civil liberties and America’s wars for theHuffington Post. A TomDispatch regular, as well as contributor to the New York Review of Books, his latest essay, “How Lincoln Explained Democracy,” appeared recently in the Yale Review.
Copyright 2011 David Bromwich
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“A consciously Black opposition to the First Black President, on issues of peace and economic justice, is taking shape.” Some of the players “on tour”: Cynthia McKinney’s “Eyewitness Libya” tour; Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s “Poverty Tour”; and Congressional Black Caucus efforts to put distance between themselves and Obama on their “Job Fair/Town Hall” tour. Meanwhile, Obama’s minions attempt to maintain a “Black Wall” around the president, with diminishing results. “The realization that the dream was a chimera is one thing, but to awaken to a catastrophe in which the Great Black Hope is revealed as the Great Black Betrayer, is another magnitude of pain.”
Obama Slipping: Black America Waking Up – To the Nightmare
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“A distinctive, Black-led anti-war movement is emerging, one that is radical, anti-imperial and, specifically, anti-Obama.”
The final unraveling of Obamaism – at root, a kind of delirium centered on a corporate-crafted Great Black Hope – will be nowhere near complete until the hallucinogen is substantially purged from the psyche of its core constituency, Black America. Tentative moves by outfits like the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party to explore the possibility of a primary challenge  to Obama are encouraging, to be sure. But Obama’s awesome power to neutralize and disfigure progressive politics in the United States owes its potency to the First Black President’s psychological hold on African Americans, historically the nation’s most Left constituency. As long as Obama’s very presence in the White House continues to mangle African American political perceptions, effectively neutering Blacks as a social force, the chances of a progressive revival are nil.
Therefore, probably the most important political developments of the late summer are taking place in Black America – some of them “on tour.” Among activists, at least, Obama’s “Black Wall” finally cracked with the Euro-American assault on Libya. It was the straw that broke the bonds between Obama and Black nationalists and leftists, who were forced to choose between icons: the heady symbolism of a Black President versus Mother Africa. Spurred by former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s ongoing “Eyewitness Libya” tour, a distinctive, Black-led anti-war movement is emerging, one that is radical, anti-imperial and, specifically, anti-Obama.
On the mass level, the Black break with the president will be wrenchingly painful and drawn-out. Obama-ism, like other theatrical products, requires the suspension of disbelief, a willed walling off of reality. Had it not been so, the poseur from Illinois could never have caused the vast majority of African Americans – the group most suspicious of the workings of power – to conflate the fate of The Race with a center-right, corporate politician.
“It is inevitable that Black folks undergo the harshest ‘withdrawal’ experience imaginable.”
Having invested so much in the Obama persona – and endlessly reaffirmed that commitment in countless settings with fellow African Americans – it is inevitable that Black folks undergo the harshest “withdrawal” experience imaginable. The realization that the dream was a chimera is one thing, but to awaken to a catastrophe in which the Great Black Hope is revealed as the Great Black Betrayer, is another magnitude of pain. It will be an ugly – and uneven – spectacle.
The unevenness is seen in the results of an ABC-Washington Post poll that shows only 54 percent of Blacks agree with Obama’s handling of the economy – down from 77 percent in previous polling – while 86 percent approve of his presidency, in general. (The survey was taken before the climax of the debt ceiling fiasco.) By any rational measure, Obama’s economic approval among Blacks – who were hardest hit by the Great Recession and have the most to lose from the Obama/Republican cuts – should be in the basement. However, a near even split among African Americans on any Obama-related question is highly significant.
The gap between Black general approval of Obama – which is both a function of the Black unity imperative and a reaction to raging racism on the white Right – and revulsion at the president’s economic agenda, will grow. However, it is not to be expected that a majority of Blacks will register a general rejection of Obama to pollsters (perceived as “white folks”), barring an unforeseen calamity. (Which, in this age of accelerating decline and overlapping crises, may happen sooner than we think.)
“A near even split among African Americans on any Obama-related question is highly significant.”
Regarding the ugly side of Black withdrawal from Obama-mania: Al Sharpton and radio’s Tom Joyner have colluded to keep Black folks corralled and harmless with a phony “Jobs and Justice” rally on the Washington Mall, August 27, the day before dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. On Sharpton’s MSNBC talk show, the “Have-Mouth, Will Get Paid” preacher and the Obama-worshipping DJ barked the word “jobs!”  at each other for an eternity without putting forward a single proposal to boost employment. How could they, without embarrassing Obama, who has no jobs-creation plan worthy of the name?
Joyner, the DJ, gets down and dirty attempting to maintain the defensive “Black Wall” around his leader. He recently castigated former friends Cornel West and Tavis Smiley for daring to criticize the president, claiming their breach of Obamite discipline emboldened Mark Halperin, a (white) senior political analyst on MSNBC, to refer to Obama as a “dick” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. That kind of bullying was very effective during the presidential campaign, when lists were made and asses threatened to be kicked. But, those times are over, especially since the Libya attack.
The two heretics, now partnered on the Smiley & West  radio show and in the midst of a 16-city “Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience ,” have made Black opposition to Obama more broadly acceptable, by virtue of their celebrity.
Smiley, the television host, said the “wretched debt-ceiling legislation signed by the president is a declaration of war on the poor.” Obama’s last State of the Union Address, he says, was the first one since 1948 in which the word “poverty” did not appear.
West, the Princeton professor, asks: “Is Barack Obama actually who he says he was when he used the democratic rhetoric of King, or is he in fact the technocratic, pro-business acting president who gives lip service to the condition of poor people but no serious focus, lip service to working people but no jobs bill, lip service to fairness but policies that reinforce the kind of wealth inequality that already ravages the landscape of our society. That’s the fundamental question. And that’s far beyond polls.”
“Smiley and West have made Black opposition to Obama more broadly acceptable, by virtue of their celebrity.”
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan appeared as a guest speaker at the tour’s stop in Chicago, warning, “There will be blood on the streets” when the poor of the U.S. revolt. Farrakhan, who pulled off the “Million Man March” in 1995, is also a featured speaker, along with Cynthia McKinney, at the “Harlem Millions March,” August 13. A consciously Black opposition to the First Black President, on issues of peace and economic justice, is taking shape.
In this ferment, the Congressional Black Caucus struggles to find its own mission and identity, apart from the White House. Twenty-four of 40 CBC members voted against the Obama/Republican debt ceiling bill. Now, the Caucus is on a five-city, combination jobs fair/town hall tour, calling for targeted job creation programs and offering on-the-spot opportunities. More than 200 companies are said to be represented on the CBC tour, offering 10,000 positions.
“We want [Obama] to know that from this day forward . . . we’ve had it,” said the Dean of the Caucus, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, at a press conference during the debt ceiling debate. “We want him to come out on our side and advocate, not to watch and wait.”
“What the president is doing is not the same as what we’re doing,” said caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II, of Kansas City, referring to Obama’s current “jobs” tour. “We have real jobs to give real people who are unemployed.”
Obama has nothing to offer but austerity, suffering and war. Thus, his current “listening tour” of the Midwest. Former presidential booster Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, advised the White House that it is better to keep silent than to offer minor jobs measures that would “just make President Obama look ridiculous.”
For Obama, this is turning into a long, hot summer, from which he may not recover. The final denouement of the Age of Obama will arrive when substantial portions of Black America reject him. For many, the process will be excruciating, and majorities of African Americans may never fully relinquish the illusion. But, the Obamite grip on Black political activity is already being broken.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com .
It’s the Not Caring About the Economy, Stupid
As a pundit it’s my job to explain why politicians do the things they do. Every now and then, however, a pol behaves so irrationally that I have to throw up my arms and ask:
What the hell is this guy thinking?
That’s what Obama has me doing. For over two years. Why isn’t he worried about unemployment?
Thomas Frank wondered in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” why Americans don’t vote their (liberal) self-interest. What I can’t figure out is why President Obama isn’t following his self-interest.
Obama says he wants a second term. I believe him. Every president wants one.
Americans vote their pocketbooks. Not exclusively—they care about a candidate’s values—but no president has ever been reelected with an unemployment rate over 7.2 percent. Right now it’s 9.1 percent. Unless there’s an unexpected reversal, it will still be way high by Election Day 2012.
Economists surveyed by USA Today predict that the jobless rate will be pretty much the same, 8.8 percent, at this time next year. Goldman Sachs is even more pessimistic. They think it will be 9.25 percent by the end of 2012—with a “meaningful downside risk” that it will be even worse.
Polls indicate that economic insecurity, specifically high unemployment, has been the biggest issue on voters’ minds since Obama took over in 2009.
77 percent of Americans tell Gallup the economy is getting worse. That’s up from 62 percent a month ago.
If Obama wants to get reelected he has to do something about jobs. Something BIG. Failing that—and that’s an epic fail—he has to at least be perceived as trying to do something about jobs. But he hasn’t done squat so far. And his job approval rating, now at an all-time low of 39 percent, reflects that.
I don’t like admitting this, but I’m mystified. Why isn’t Obama even trying to look like he cares about the one issue that could make or break his reelection chances?
What’s up? Are he and his advisors morons, or just out of touch? Do they have some secret jobs-related October Surprise that will magically reemploy the 22 percent of Americans who are out of work during the last few weeks of the election? Are they the Chicago Black Sox of politics, determined to throw the race to the Republicans? Psychologist Drew Westen can’t figure it out either, wondering aloud if Obama is sick in the head.
Some ask: Is Obama a Republican?
“Government doesn’t create jobs,” tweeted GOP candidate Herman Cain recently. “Businesses create jobs. Government needs to get out of the way.” Obama and his fellow fake Democrats never challenge this right-wing framing.
Maybe they believe it. “The White House doesn’t create jobs,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said August 5th.
But the meme is wrong. In the real world where flesh-and-blood American workers have been living since 2000, businesses haven’t created any jobs. Instead, they’ve eliminated millions of them. And shipped millions more overseas.
Those job-killing trends—eliminating workers, increased automation and globalization—won’t change soon. “Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people,” Catherine Rampell recently reported for The New York Times.
There’s also a death-spiral effect. Elena Semuels of The Los Angeles Times sums it up: “Economists say the nation is stuck in a Catch-22 scenario: The economy won’t improve until businesses hire, but many won’t hire without consumer demand, which is weak because of the current state of the job market and concerns about the future.”
“Everyone says, ‘How can we have a recovery without jobs?’ [But] until I start seeing my competitors add jobs, I’m not going to do it,” Loren Carlson of the CEO Roundtable tells MSNBC.
Recovery won’t come from business. The scope of the post-2008 meltdown is too vast.
On the other hand, government can and does create jobs. Indirectly, it creates the veneer of law and order that permits commerce. Government can also employ people directly.
FDR orchestrated the direct hiring of 9 million Americans as government employees for the WPA and other programs. The federal government even hired writers and artists. Adjusted for population growth, that’s the same as 22 million people today. Obama could have done something like that in early 2009.
Too late now, of course. Obama’s inaction on the economy prompted a Republican sweep in the 2010 midterms. They won’t go along.
Keynes 101: the time for austerity is during a boom, when you can afford to save up for a rainy day. Governments are supposed to spend their way out of a recession or depression. The GOP-conceived debt ceiling deal is 200-proof insanity.
“An anti-Keynesian, budget-balancing immediacy imparts a constrictive noose around whatever demand remains alive and kicking,” wrote Bill Gross of the bond-trading firm Pimco in The Washington Post. “Washington hassles over debt ceilings instead of job creation in the mistaken belief that a balanced budget will produce a balanced economy. It will not.”
Rather than criticize this austerity lunacy, Obama is still going along. “Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact,” reports the New York Times.
“We’re at a loss to figure out a way to articulate the argument in a way that doesn’t get us pegged as tax-and-spenders,” admits a Democratic Congressional advisor. For God’s sake, grow a pair! Make your case to the public.
Anything that doesn’t have “much economic impact” isn’t going to have much electoral impact either. And neither are token gestures like a three-day bus tour, revamping the patent process, or another overhyped speech. (Scheduled for September. Because, why rush?)
As you read this Obama is off to Martha’s Vineyard, hanging out with millionaires.
Really—what’s going on? Can Obama really be that stupid? Can anyone?
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL
from Glenn Greenwald by Glenn Greenwald
(updated below – Update II – Update III)
Scott Lemieux hauls out the presidency-is-weak excuse to explain away some of Obama’s failures; I’ve addressed that theory many times at length before and won’t repeat those points here, but this bit of historical revisionism, made in service of that excuse-making, merits a response:
I’ve asked this before, but since I’ve never received a decent answer let me ask again: for people who believe in the Green Lantern theory of domestic presidential power, how do you explain thenear-total lack of major legislation passed during George W. Bush’s second term, including a failure to even get a congressional vote on his signature initiative to privatize Social Security? He didn’t give enough speeches? He wasn’t ruthless enough? Help me out here.
Lemieux’s strangely selective focus on Bush’s second rather than first term is worth a brief comment. After all, the current President in question is in his first term, which would seem to make that period (when Bush dictated to a submissive Congress at will, including when Democrats controlled the Senate) the better point of comparison; moreover, by his second term, Bush was plagued by a deeply unpopular war, fatigue over his voice after so many years, and collapsed approval ratings, which explains his weakness relative to his first term. None of that has been true of Obama over the last two years. And Bush never enjoyed Congressional majorities as large as Obama had for his first two years.
But more to the point, to claim that there was a “near-total lack of major legislation passed during George W. Bush’s second term” means Lemieux has either forgotten about numerous events during that period or has a very narrow definition of the word “major.” There was, for instance, this:
That bill — passed with substantial Democratic support — basically legalized Bush’s previously illegal warrantless domestic spying program and bestowed retroactive immunity on the entire telecom industry, which seems pretty “major” to me. So does this:
That bill, a huge boon to the credit card industry, strangled the ability of ordinary Americans to work their way out of debt, which also strikes me as quite “major.” Then there’s this:
That’s referring to the Military Commissions Act, enacted upon the demands of the Bush administration with substantial Democratic support; I trust I don’t need to explain how “major” that was. There was also this:
Democrats babbled about the evils of the Patriot Act for years and then meekly submitted to Bush’s demands that its key and most controversial provisions be renewed; that also seems “major.” Just as significant was the legislation Bush prevented the Congress from passing, even when both houses were controlled by Democrats, such as this:
Given that the Democrats in the 2006 midterm election convinced the American people to hand them control of the Senate and House by promising to end the deeply unpopular war in Iraq, Bush’s repeated success in blocking any such efforts — accomplished by things such as steadfast, serious veto threats — strikes me as a very “major” victory.
Granted, Bush’s success on Iraq falls into the foreign rather than domestic realm, and some of the other examples are hybrids (Patriot Act and domestic spying), but they illustrate the real power Presidents can exert over Congress. Moreover, this presidency-is-weak excuse is often invoked to justify Obama’s failures in all contexts beyond purely domestic policy (e.g., closing Guantanamo and the war in Libya). And all this is to say nothing of the panoply of domestic legislation — including Bush tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, and the Medicare D prescription drug entitlement — that Bush pushed through Congress in his first term, or his virtually unrestrained ability to force Congress to confirm even his most controversial nominees, including when Democrats were in control of Congress.
That doesn’t seem too weak or ineffectual to me: quite the opposite. In fact, so dominant was the Bush White House over Congress that Dan Froomkin, in 2007 — when Democrats controlled both houses — memorably observed: “Historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed.” In sum, nobody — and I mean nobody — was talking about how weak the presidency supposedly is before Barack Obama was inaugurated: neither in the domestic nor foreign policy realm. To the contrary, just a few years ago, the power of the Presidency was typically conceived of as far too robust, not too limited.
It is true, as Lemieux suggests, that Bush suffered some legislative defeats in his second term (three in particular), but even those defeats highlight critical points about Obama. Two of those defeats — failure of immigration reform and the forced withdrawal of the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination — happened not because a powerful Congress overrode him, but rather because his own right-wing base rose up and refused to accept those proposals on the ground that they so violently conflicted with their political values: imagine that! The other defeat — Social Security privatization — was a real defeat because that’s a very difficult goal to achieve in American politics (The Third Rail), but Bush did everything possible to succeed (including frenzily touring the country for months with speeches making his case), which is how one knew that he really wanted that to happen. That’s what Presidents do when they’re genuinely committed to a goal rather than pretending to be.
In that regard, Lemieux, ironically, claims to be burning down a strawman even as he props up his own: a very common one among those making this weak-presidency excuse. Nobody — and I mean nobody — argues that Obama can impose without constraints whatever policy outcomes he wants (what Lemieux and many others deride as the “Green Lantern Theory”). That viewpoint is a non-existent caricature. Of course it’s the case that Presidents sometimes fail even when they use all the weapons in their arsenal (as Bush did with Social Security privatization).
The critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success. Nobody believes he’s omnipotent. The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he usesto ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here). That evidence leads to the rational conclusion that he is not actually committed to (or, worse, outright opposes) many of the outcomes which progressive pundits assume he desires.
That’s why Paul Krugman has been pointing out over and over that Obama wasn’t helplessly forced into an austerity mindset by an intransigent Congress but actually believes in it, that he wants severe cuts. Identically, the evidence is now overwhelming that the public option was excluded from the health care bill because Obama wanted that outcome and thus secretly negotiated it away with the insurance industry, not because Congress or the 60-vote requirement prevented it. Similarly, while Congress did enact legislation preventing the closing of Guantanamo, Obama never wanted to shut it down in any meaningful way, but simply move it (and its defining abuse: indefinite detention) a few thousand miles North to Illinois.
The criticism isn’t that Obama tried but failed to stave off austerity policies, a public-option-free entrenchment of the private health insurance industry, the preservation of indefinite detention or similar “centrist”/right/corporatist policies; it’s that his lack of fight against them (or his affirmative fight for them) shows he craves those outcomes (just as nobody forced him to continue the vast bulk of the Bush/Cheney Terrorism approach he (and most Democrats) once so vehemently denounced). And whatever else is true, claiming that George Bush was similarly “weak” in the face of Congress is revisionist in the extreme.
* * * * *
One last point: Lemieux’s very literalist criticism of Vast Left’s cartoon isn’t exactly wrong — it’s a two-line cartoon that relies on caricature — but its central point is accurate: there is a serious, obvious tension between, on the one hand, saying things like this to explain away Obama’s failures, and then turning around and announcing that his re-election must be the overarching, supreme priority that outweighs and subordinates all other political concerns, both short- and long-term.
Bailing out Wall Street with $700 billion seems to be yet another “major” legislative accomplishment no matter how one might define that term.
UPDATE II: In comments, dgt004 notes another irony: “Bush’s major failure during his second term was the inability to gut social security. However, Obama appears to be on the verge of doing so successfully.” If that happens — and it is a prime purpose of the Super Committee, since those eager to cut Social Security have long said it can happen only with a bipartisan, fast-tracked Commission — we will undoubtedly hear the same claim: that a helpless Obama was tragically forced into accepting it by Congress. That Obama has said over and over — in public — that he desires and is fighting for exactly this outcome will not deter the proffering of that “weakness” excuse. It is strange indeed — and revealing — that some Obama supporters think the best way to defend him is by constantly emphasizing his weakness.
UPDATE III: Highly recommended: Yale Professor David Bromwich examines the “impressive continuities” of what he calls the “Bush-Obama presidency.” It’s a very thorough list: consider how much of it can be fairly blamed on Congress.
PPP says the base is demoralized. Again, we’ve been predicting this for over two years now. From PPP:
The debt deal really does appear to have demoralized the base, and the weird thing about it is thatthis is one issue where if Obama had done what folks on the left wanted him to do, he also would have had the support of independents. The deal has proven to be a complete flop in swing states where we’ve polled it like Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio. And in every single one of those states a majority of voters overall, as well as a majority of independents, think new taxes are going to be needed to solve the deficit problem.
It’s not really the one issue. 70% of Americans supported the public option. A large percentage of Americans wanted us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. 70% wanted DADT repealed. There have been a lot of issues over the past several years where the left has been ahead of the game.
Nate Silver makes a point in his polling analysis, and I think it’s dead wrong:
Nevertheless, analysts should be careful to distinguish the liberal blogosphere from liberal Democrats over all and furthermore from the Democratic base, which includes many voters who do not identify themselves as liberal.
We’re far past the time that it’s just the liberal blogs who are disappointed in the President, and the PPP poll shows it. It’s a regular topic of discussion at this point as to whether the President is a wimp. That talk may have started with the liberal blogs, who recognized the trait a good two years ago, but it’s hardly just us anymore. The recent Krugman piece titled “President Pushover” comes to mind.
And it’s not just Krugman, lots of reporters I know think Obama is a pushover. As do a number of Democratic members of Congress, some who are finally beginning to speak out. Then there are Dems across the country. Yeah, some of them still like Obama, but a lot are disappointed as hell. You could throw a stone in Washington, DC and you’d have a hard time hitting a Democrat who would tell you they love the way Obama’s doing his job.
I think the liberal blogs have a bit of a Cassandra complex. They’re awfully good at seeing what’s coming, but no one wants to believe them. Well, believe them now.
“We were basically held up in raising the debt ceiling, until they got all of those budget cuts they demanded,” Waters said. “We didn’t raise any revenue and they didn’t close any tax loopholes. I believe the Democratic Party and the president of the United States should not have backed down. We should have made them walk the plank.”
What’s interesting is that you often hear that the black community is one of the only constituencies that remains undivided in its support of the President. Waters’ comments would tend to suggest otherwise.
Yesterday, Waters also demolished Rep. Allen West. It’s a classic:
from AMERICAblog: A great nation deserves the truth by Matt Browner Hamlin
The relationships between progressive House Democrats and the administration seems somewhat strained. Jim McGovern (MA-3):
“We need to get the focus back on jobs,” said McGovern. “Here we are at the end of August, and Congress hasn’t done anything about jobs.”
McGovern voted “no” on the debt ceiling compromise, calling is “a catastrophe” that disagreed with both President Obama and the American people’s stance on revenues.
“I didn’t run for Congress to dismantle the New Deal,” said McGovern.
The Massachusetts Rep is a loyal supporter of the president, but feels that the current political climate in the country calls for bolder leadership.
Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-4)is only slightly less pointed in his criticism of President Obama.
“Fight? I don’t think it’s a word in his vocabulary,” said the Springfield Democrat, who specifically cited Obama’s lack of follow-through in promises to restore Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
“I believe Oregon is very much in play. I mean we are one of the harder hit states in the union, particularly my part of the state. I’ve just done six town hall meetings, have seven to go but people are shaking their heads and saying ‘I don’t know if I’d vote for him again.’” Defazio said.
Asked if he was surprised, the congressman shrugged.
“Not at all,” DeFazio said. “One guy asked me, ‘Give me 25 words what he’s about and what he’s done for me.’ I’m like, ‘It could have been worse.’”
Obama NM campaign manager publicly blasts Krugman, liberal blogs, insinuates comparison with Teabaggers
Here is what the Obama campaign, via New Mexico state campaign director, Ray Sandoval, decided to share with its supporters earlier this month, from Amanda Terkel at Huffington Post:
Paul Krugman is a political rookie. At least he is when compared to President Obama. That’s why he unleashed a screed as soon as word came about the debt ceiling compromise between President Obama and Congressional leaders – to, you know, avert an economic 9/11. Joining the ideologue spheres’ pure, fanatic, indomitable hysteria, Krugman declares the deal a disaster – both political and economic – of course providing no evidence for the latter, which I find curious for this Nobel winning economist. He rides the coattails of the simplistic argument that spending cuts – any spending cuts – are bad for a fragile economy, ignoring wholeheartedly his own revious cheerleading for cutting, say, defense spending. But that was back in the day – all the way back in April of this year. […]
No, the loudest screeching noise you hear coming from Krugman and the ideologue Left is, of course, Medicare. Oh, no, the President is agreeing to a Medicare trigger!!! Oh noes!!! Everybody freak out right now! But let’s look at the deal again, shall we? […]
Now let’s get to the fun part: the triggers. The more than half-a-trillion in defense and security spending cut “trigger” for the Republicans will hardly earn a mention on the Firebagger Lefty blogosphere. Hell, it’s a trigger supposedly for the Republicans, and of course, there’s always It’sNotEnough-ism to cover it.
And “firebagger” is clearly a reference to “Teabagger,” what we call the Tea Party. It’s also likely a reference to the blog FireDogLake that has been highly critical of the President and the Dems in Congress. So this senior Obama campaign official – he heads up the entire state of New Mexico – was suggesting that Paul Krugman and the progressive Netroots were no better than Teabaggers.
He also refers to the blogosphere as “the ideologue sphere,” and suggests that we’re “fanatic” and full of “hysteria.” Funny, the Obama campaign didn’t feel that way about us in 2008 when they repeatedly asked us to do their dirty work for them, and we gladly, and quietly, did. I guess this is yet another example of how no good deed goes unpunished when Barack Obama is the recipient of said deed.
Hell of a get out the vote message.
PS There seems to be some effort to claim that A) this guy is some junior staffer (in fact, he’s the Obama campaign director for the entire state), and B) that he of course wasn’t speaking for the campaign (except he was, officially, and it’s been almost three weeks and the guy still has a job). You do the math.
from AMERICAblog: A great nation deserves the truth by John Aravosis (DC)
Told ya so.
Joe, Chris and I have been warning about this for at least two years. So have a number of the top progressive bloggers, and the Netroots generally. We were worried from Day One of the administration that the President was coming off as a bit of a wimp. We were all ignored, and then belittled as “the professional left” and “the Internet left fringe” by a White House that never fully respected any of us. And now we’re finally proven right.
So all the complaining we’ve been doing on this blog about the President for the last two years has now been proven right. At least in so far as our concern that the President was presenting an image as a weak leader.
It’s particularly interesting that this news comes from Marc Ambinder. Ambinder is often the go-to guy when the White House wants to get their story out there. That means we can reliably trust that Ambinder’s story is true.Here are two salient grafs:
The decline in what one White House aide called “the leadership brand” is clear from the polling. In April 2009, Gallup found 73 percent of Americans who said that Obama was a “strong leader.” In May 2010, that had declined to 60 percent. In March 2011, Gallup had it down to 52 percent. There has been no more recent polling on that issue, but aides fear that after Libya and the debt-ceiling debate, the number almost certainly has dropped again.
According to the two senior officials, the plan to arrest that decline is for Obama to no longer be seen as above the fray. While they believe Republicans were both wrong and unfair to claim the president had no plan to bring down the deficit, they know it hurt him. So they will try to show the president as having specific plans and then show him fighting for them. No more will the president be focusing primarily on issues that can attract bipartisan support and appeal to a Republican House. And no longer will he be so willing to let Congress work out the details on its own.
All of that is great, and laudable. But part of what still concerns me is this:
To an important degree, this change in strategy is made easier by the deterioration of the president’s trust in House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Three White House officials said the debt debate left that relationship in tatters, with the president deeply disappointed in Boehner’s refusal to try to deliver Republican votes for a “grand bargain.” The president saw himself as willing to challenge his party’s activists and was dismayed when Boehner wouldn’t, in the words of one official, “man-up” and take on his.
The President trusted Boehner? Particularly during election season? It’s the same way he trusted the Republicans during health care, and paid for it dearly. At this late date, it’s troubling that the President still had a pollyanna view of the GOP. And it’s difficult to see how he turns all of this around when he’s been the problem from the beginning. This is who he is. He’s 50 years old. He doesn’t have a stomach for the fight. I’m not sure how you just flip a switch and change all of that.
But I hope to hell he can.
PS A bunch of bloggers typing in their underwear saw this coming, but the vaunted Obama White House didn’t. Perhaps it’s finally time for the President to get some senior staff, and outside advisers, who understand the political landscape in this country, and know how to sell a carton of milk. But again, staff is only part of the problem – in the end, this is the White House the President wanted. He is the one who ultimately has to change.
Obama and his party cling to the familiar narrative that their hands are tied. They’re wrong
“Obama’s aides say the president has a responsibility to explore policies that have a chance of passage, rather than merely making a political statement.” — Washington Post, 8/10/11
One of the most persistent memes in modern politics, perfectly embodied by the above quote, is what I’ve long called the Innocent Bystander Fable. It goes something like this: Democrats really want to do X, but they can’t because it’s “politically impossible” not “where the country is” and/or doesn’t “have a chance of passing.”
The idea is that even though Democratic politicians occupy the most powerful offices in the world, and even though X usually represents a policy 80 percent of rank-and-file voters support, Democrats are nonetheless powerless bystanders before political events rather than shapers of such happenings. In response, we are expected to nod our heads in agreement (as so many blind partisans do), somehow forgetting that these politicians are paid hefty taxpayer-funded salaries not to be bystanders, but to actually use the authority they have to make — or at least seriously advocate — change.
This Innocent Bystander Fable, of course, has long been the excuse the Democrats have used almost every time the party wants to avoid taking a stance on an issue.
In practice, this fable has been used to make excuses about everything from the Iraq war to the public option to the Patriot Act to the debt ceiling to, now, job creation. It has its local iterations as well — in my state of Colorado, it’s our Democratic governor insisting “I am the biggest supporter of education you can imagine,” before championing one of thelargest cuts to education funding in state history, and then claiming he opposes raising taxes to better fund schools because voters supposedly have “no appetite for new taxes” — as if a sitting governor simply cannot use the bully pulpit to change that (purported) anti-tax reality.
In every case, it’s the same — powerful Democratic officeholders would have us believe that while they really want to do the right thing, they are just passive bystanders to history.
Crude as it is, this fable has been deliberately created as a defense mechanism and a cudgel — the media cites it to recast rank corruption as a noble “willingness to accept what is politically possible,” while the political establishment uses it to bash critics as one or another form of lunatic — in the words of Obama administration officials and other government sources, junkies who need to get “drug tested,” “Cheeto eating people in the basement,” children in “pajamas [who must] get dressed” and “Internet left fringe” types. Following the lead of the politicians they worship, partisan sheep then knead this into conventional wisdom among the activist class, ultimately leaving anyone who wants anything different from their government (oh, I don’t know, a President Obama who actually tries to fulfill his campaign promises) lambasted as a crazy person who just doesn’t “understand” today’s “political reality.”
The problem, though, is that after a few seconds of cogitation, it becomes clear that the Innocent Bystander Fable actually makes no logical sense. To demonstrate this, let’s more closely consider the assumptions embedded in the quote at the top of this article.
According to the Washington Post, the president’s advisors say the only “responsible” thing for the president to do is to “explore policies that have a chance of passage, rather than making a political statement.” Translated into plain English from Washington-ese, this is the White House stating that the president will only consider job-related legislation that congressional Republicans already support, and that the president will not push a proposal that the GOP right now opposes. Hey, the administration is saying, the president is binded by the political reality of today’s GOP intransigence — and there’s nothing he can do about that, other than work within that reality’s confines.
Except, of course, there is something he can do. He can stop pretending to be an innocent bystander, and instead acknowledge what he really is — an active participant, and likely the single most powerful one, in the political process. In Washington-ese, he can reject the notion that having “a chance of passage” is the opposite of “making a political statement” — and realize that the two are complementary concepts. In short, like other legislatively successful presidents, he can use “political statements” as a means of changing the political reality, thus giving other legislative alternatives “a chance of passage.”
What’s that look like in practice? Well, something like George W. Bush — one of the most legislatively successful presidents ever (this is a statement of truth: Bush did pass a boatload of legislation, even if I didn’t agree with the substance of it). This was a president who, when faced with a political reality he didn’t like, made “political statements” (that is, barnstormed the country making speeches, twisted congressional arms, exploited major news events, etc.) to change that reality.
The end result was the realization of events that weren’t “politically possible” until his “political statements” made them so — things like the Patriot Act, a preemptive war in Iraq, an unending occupation of Afghanistan, a massive bank bailout and insane budget-busting tax cuts for millionaires. Even Bush’s initially failed effort to gut Social Security today looks like a key “political statement” that may have ultimately changed what has a “chance of passage,” as both Democrats and Republicans now put Social Security cuts on the table.
This is the truth that undergirds my recent column, in which I argued that President Obama is one of the strongest presidents in modern history. Though the White House wants us to believe that the president is a weak innocent bystander to the Republican colossus, he’s actually the opposite. As the single most powerful political actor on the planet, he is actively complicit in every political outcome of his term — and, as the Washington Post shows, he’s quite deliberately choosing to avoid trying to change the definition of what’s politically possible/passable.
The real innocent bystanders in this charade are the millions of Americans who have been harmed by the Democratic sleight of hand. The partisan activists, operatives and pundits who make excuses for such betrayals are bystanders, too — but they aren’t innocent at all.
- David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at http://www.davidsirota.com. More: David Sirota