There's a common tendency to confuse politics with reality television shows or to imagine that politicians are, even more than fictional heroes, your own personal friends. This tendency is only compounded by the partisan framework in which we are instructed to imagine half the politicians as purely evil and the other half as essentially good. So, let's be clear. There's very little question that Barack Obama speaks more eloquently than Bush, and that Obama at times (and more so as a candidate than as a president) expresses far kinder and wiser sentiments than Bush. It seems quite likely to me that had Obama been made president in 2000 he would have done far less damage than Bush by 2008. Obama is probably a fun guy to play basketball with, while Bush might be expected to throw elbows, kick opponents, and pull your shorts down. But I'm interested in something more important than the spectacle of personality here. I think Obama would make a wonderful powerless figurehead, and I dearly wish that were what he was. I think Americans clearly need one.
Three rough ways of looking at a president might be as follows. First, in the unimaginable circumstance in which a president encountered a homeless person on the street, would he invite him to live in the White House, or help him find a home, be nice and give him $1, ignore him, shout at him to get a job, kick him in the guts, or help him into a van and take him off to be tortured? I don't care about that way of looking at presidents. Second, do the policies the president pursues lead to massive numbers of people becoming homeless or worse? Third, do the policies the president pursues empower all future presidents to make unfathomable numbers of people suffer horribly? My contention is that Obama has not yet done as much damage as Bush in the second view but has, in a certain sense, done worse in the third view.
Richard Nixon's White House Counsel John Dean, while Bush was president, predicted that Bush's successor would be one of two things, either the best or the worst president in history. He, or she, would either undo the damage and prosecute the crimes, or protect the criminals and continue the abuses. Obama has protected the criminals, continued many of the abuses, more firmly established the power to commit those abuses, and expanded abusive powers beyond what Bush ever attempted. I'm not trying to quantify and determine whether Obama has grabbed "more" new abusive powers than Bush did. I'm simply pointing out that, as with previous presidents, Obama has retained the powers bequeathed him and added some.
U.S. political debate, chattering, organizing, activism, and campaigning focuses most heavily on domestic issues -- even in discussions of a federal budget that devotes more than half our money to the military. And it is on domestic issues that the biggest differences can be found between the two parties and their leading members (which is why the debate tends to stay there). Obama appears to have appointed less crazy justices than Bush to the Supreme Court, more sane individuals to the National Labor Relations Board, etc. Obama's healthcare bill may have been disappointing, but at least there was one. However, that's a very charitable view. Presidents controlling the drafting of legislation in accordance with their secret negotiations with corporate cartels is a bad precedent to be entrenching, the health insurance reform bill arguably does more damage than good (including through the requirement to purchase a corporate product), and the bill makes it very difficult for states to put serious healthcare solutions in place as Vermont is attempting to do -- and the impediments were insisted upon by Obama.
The Education Department pushes corporatization, privatization, and testing. The trade agreements are all corporate. Obama has promoted the development of nuclear energy and "clean coal." The damage of Hurricane Katrina has been left in place, but been compounded by the BP oil gusher, during which disaster the White House's priority seems to have been deceiving the public about the extent of the damage. The environment may be more than a domestic issue, but it is also one where disaster looms. As we march forward into worse weather and more frequent "natural" disasters, one might reasonably place ever greater blame on each successive president who declines to make any attempt at survival (much less one who goes to international conferences and sabotages possible global accords, as Obama did in Copenhagen). And this is all before we look at the budget.
Obama has not added as much to the military budget as Bush did, but he has added to Bush's largest military budget, enlarging it further each year -- and with activist groups and news reports tending to falsely report that he's cutting it. This leads to more money for wars, less money for people, and less activism protesting these policies at the very moment when much of what remains of the peace movement has chosen to focus on budgetary issues rather than on ending wars. Bush's budgets were worse than they appeared because he used off-the-books supplemental bills to add more money to wars. Obama campaigned against that practice. Since becoming president, Obama has done just as Bush did, establishing off-the-books war spending as a normal practice favored by both parties, and establishing campaign lying as the norm as well.
For a time, Obama had more troops and mercenaries in the field than Bush had ever had. Now he doesn't, as a result of a partial withdrawal from Iraq. But Obama has embraced the myth that a 2007 escalation in Iraq caused a reduction in violence there, and he has applied that myth to Afghanistan with escalations in each of the past two years leading predictably to increased violence. Obama has taken a low-scale war in Afghanistan and dramatically worsened it. He has ignored, covered-up, and passed the buck on endless war crimes. He has radically expanded the use of drones, including into Pakistan. He has sent troops into Pakistan and at one point, according to news reports, into 75 nations, 15 more than Bush. Whether you count small-scale death squads as "wars" or not, the drone bombing of Pakistan certainly looks warlike, and that has happened without even the pretense of congressional authorization, and in the face of United Nations condemnation of illegality. Obama has added more U.S. military bases in more foreign nations, boosted weapons sales to nations we may some day have the opportunity to fight wars against, and continued the privatization of the military and the employment of the most notorious corporations of the Bush era -- helping to establish their immunity.
"Well, well, yeah, but he closed Guantanamo!"
Obama never intended to free prisoners or put them on trial. He always intended to keep people in prison without any due process. He just thought he might do some of it in Illinois instead of Cuba. He's been unable to make that move, but frankly who cares? The question is not how many people we're lawlessly imprisoning in Afghanistan and how many in Virginia. The question is whether we will lawlessly imprison people. Apparently we will. Secret abuses under Bush have become public formal policies under Obama. Whether to lock someone up, and even whether to torture them, has become a matter of policy preference, not of law. Even the power to assassinate anyone, including Americans, has now become -- by Obama's decree -- a matter purely of presidential whim, with no authorization from any other person or court or legislature required.
Obama announced the end of torture, not its prosecution in court. But he continued to claim the privilege to torture if he chose to, as Leon Panetta and David Axelrod made clear. And he openly claimed the power of extraordinary rendition, that is, the power to kidnap people and send them off to be secretly tortured in other countries. We don't know if this has happened. But we wouldn't. We do know that torture has continued in Guantanamo, in Bagram, and in the US-backed Iraqi government. Warrentless spying, likewise, continues and grows, while Obama has assured corporate co-conspirators of immunity.
This is the magic, the disastrous magic, of having a president of the other political party pick up the baton. Obama gave a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which he glorified war. He gave a speech on wars from the Oval Office in which he embraced a whole series of lies about Iraq. He stood in front of the U.S. Constitution in the National Archives and tossed habeas corpus into the trash bin. Can you imagine the raging inferno of outrage had Bush done any of those things? The process of normalizing crimes is not purely one of repetition and expansion. It's also one of fading the crimes into the background, making them part of the national furniture, forgetting collectively that we ever got along without them.
I mentioned the power to create new powers. This is where we risk exponentially worse damage -- to our system of government and to the world -- in the coming years. We don't guarantee it, but we do risk it. Avoiding it would require unprecedented steps of restraint and reversal. Obama came into office advertising himself as the president of sunshine, transparency, and openness. The age of secrecy was at an end! I'm not measuring Obama against the standard of his campaign promises, although it seems fair to do so. I'm measuring Obama against the standard of Bush, and noting that part of how Obama operates is through deceptive propaganda. Obama has refused to release White House visitor logs from the period when he met with health insurance corporations, has maintained the right to hide any others he chooses, but released some and announced this as a breakthrough. Meanwhile, he sends staff to meet with lobbyists just off the White House grounds in order to avoid writing anything in the visitors' logs.