State-sponsored assassination. Pre-emptive war. Imprisonment without trial. Dismantling Social Security. Ten years ago, these abominations were far outside the mainstream of American discourse. It was President Bush who made them policies of his Administration, but it is Obama who has made them a bi-partisan consensus.
Barack Obama was lifted into the White House with a joyous outpouring of hope, and the hope was centered on a reversal of the galloping policy disasters of the previous administration. President Obama has not fulfilled the hopes of Candidate Obama.
How do we see the President's record, as against the person we thought we were electing three years ago? Has he disappointed us, or has he betrayed us?
There are many good reasons to assume the former. We want to be forgiving and understanding. We have not walked a mile in Obama's shoes; in judging his motives, we offer him the same generosity of spirit we would ask for ourselves. We are wise to recognize how easy it is for us to criticize, how difficult for him to lead. For our own peace of mind, too, we are happy to focus with gratitude on gifts that our leaders offer us, and not dwell on their failures, or bemoan what might have been.
On the other hand, there have been those of Obama's acts as President that we cannot frame in a positive light, no matter how we stretch and bend.
President Bush politicized the Justice Department, appointing political hacks for the express purpose of making trouble for Democratic politicians, and shielding Republican criminals from accountability. Two and a half years into the Obama Administration, why do so many of them remain in office? If we tend to view Obama's concessions to the Right as political calculation, this one stands out not just as a moral failure but blatant political suicide as well.
The Bush White House was the most corrupt and criminal in memory, harboring crimes ranging from common bribery to deceiving Congress and the nation in his push toward war in Iraq. The latter fits the definition of treason, and may qualify as 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' (Accounts here, here and here.) In order for these crimes to become public -- with a probable political impact comparable to Watergate, but far larger -- all Obama would have had to do was to allow the wheels of justice to turn at their measured, lawyerly pace. The revelations would have come out slowly, over the course of a year or two, each one a nail in the coffin of the Republican future. But Obama has actively shielded officials of his predecessor administration at every turn, not just from prosecution but also from investigation.
How are we to make sense of the fact that Democrats are dragged through the mud for "crimes' like extramarital sex (Clinton) and appointing political allies to government panels (Don Siegelman), while Republicans are held harmless for high treason? This dynamic can only make sense if we assume Democratic complicity behind the scenes.
In last year's battle over health care, Obama offered us his commitment to a public option in the mix. This would have been a win for the public and a win for cost containment. But credible reports tell us that from the start he had assured the insurance lobbyists there would be no public option, and that his public posturing on the issue had been vacuous.
Richard Nixon was said to be paranoid. George W. Bush ran the most secretive White House in history. Barack Obama rode into Washington promising transparency and open government, but his administration has been, in many ways, even more secretive than Bush's. When brave whistleblowers come forward to tell the public about crimes in government and in the military, Obama has overlooked the crimes and punished the whistleblowers.
And so we come to the current Washington deadlock over expansion of the debt ceiling and passing a budget. This has been portrayed in the press as a political tug of war between Democrats who want to restore a fair taxation system that had been Bush had slashed and burned, and the Republicans who want "smaller government". But there are many signs that the reality doesn't fit this picture, and that all the tugging is in one direction.
The Democrats had control of both houses of Congress, and saw this problem coming. Alan Simpson was warning last November that the debt ceiling would be used as blackmail, and the Democrats could have raised the debt ceiling pre-emptively to protect against this threat.
But instead, last November Obama appointed Simpson to his Deficit Reduction Commission. Sen Simpson makes no bones about wanting to destroy Social Security as an end in itself. To "counterbalance" Simpson as co-chair, Obama appointed Erskine Bowles, who is nominally a Democrat, but has been active in his advocacy for raiding the Social Security trust in the name of "fiscal responsibility".
No one is talking about the real causes of the expanded deficits (Bush tax cuts, wars in the Middle East and bank bailouts). Instead, all of the discussion has been about cutting Social Security, which for 75 years has generated nothing but surpluses , funding (and masking) the deficit in other areas. Social Security has always been funded by a regressive tax, based on the fiction that it is not really a tax but an insurance premium; but since 1968, the Social Security surplus has been dumped in with general revenue to fund military adventures and corporate welfare.
Reluctantly, we may have to conclude that Obama's weak defense of Social Security has been a public relations posture. The Federal deficit has been crafted over the last decade as an excuse; the fiscal crisis of 2008 was created to provide a plausible crisis. President Obama has been designated to dismember the Third Rail of American Politics, and he has willingly taken on his assignment.
Republican rhetoric has been far worse than Democratic rhetoric during recent decades, but we can't help but notice that all the great steps on the road to fascism have had bipartisan support (Patriot Act, wars in the Middle East, legitimization of torture, aggrandizement of Defense and the CIA, repeal of Glass-Steagall and other regulatory systems).
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