Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney left the country with a doubled national debt, a doubled military budget, a global financial crisis, lost credibility among our allies, more enemies, and a crippling housing and financial crash. Those who dream of a return to a Republican majority would do well to ask themselves if the nation would be better off, given this track record.
Among the positives since the election are the reversal of many of Bush’s executive orders and policies embodying a host of radical agenda assaults on the social framework of the last 50 years. In this, Mr. Obama must be praised, and one can only imagine what worse might have happened if he had not won the election.
Still, one year into his term, his supporters are disappointed, his enemies are louder, the Democratic majority in Congress is frustrated by the Republican minority, and the public again wants change, this time away from the Democrats. Is Mr. Obama really a liberal? A socialist? Why has there been such a rapid loss of support for him?
In trying to see the future of this President, it is important to review his actions in office, not in terms of what he said about them, or what the opposition said about them, but in terms of what they are versus what they could have been. What options could have been chosen? What paths have been closed? No doubt my bias is liberal/progressive, so this review attempts to compare Mr. Obama’s chosen actions with some more liberal choices.
The “War” in Iraq
As a candidate, Mr. Obama called our actions in Iraq the wrong war and a dumb war. Why was it wrong and dumb? First, with the removal of Mr. Hussein, the evil leader who might threaten us with weapons of mass destruction no longer was in power. Second, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a tribute to the results of the first Gulf war, and a decade of inspections, however flawed. Thus, the real and imminent threat to the U.S. often repeated as a reason for our invasion simply did not exist.
Why then did Mr. Bush stay in Iraq? Instead of fighting terrorists, we were fighting the Iraqi people, mostly Sunni groups which had lost power with our invasion. The mission had changed, to become one of nation-building. We wanted to create a Western-leaning ally. This is why our continued military action in Iraq was wrong and dumb. Without a threat to the U.S., we had no right to intervene in the governance of Iraq: this was wrong. Without a threat to the U.S., we were wasting American and Iraqi lives, and billions of dollars, rather than dealing with terrorism elsewhere: this was dumb.
In the campaign, Mr. Obama said he wanted to end the war and remove American troops. In office, Mr. Obama set an extended deadline (2011) for ending U.S. military action, but also announced that he would retain some 50,000 troops (and perhaps as many contract employees) to provide training and assistance to the Iraqi government. Whatever you call them, 50,000 troops does not qualify as ending a “war.” Mr. Obama has continued the Bush-Cheney mission of nation-building in Iraq.
The choice he could have made was to set a shorter deadline, and truly remove all U.S. troops from Iraq. He could have announced that the Iraqi people would have to resolve their internal political issues on their own, and that once resolved, we would provide aid in reconstruction of the country. This he did not do, and the question arises, did he mean his campaign pledge?
Consider this perspective. At the onset of the primary season, Mr. Obama was little known, short on money, and African-American, facing the formidable front-runner, Mrs. Clinton. Their views on most issues were similar. How could he make a claim for public support? There was one issue, her vote for the war and her refusal to abandon it. Since many voters were against continuing the occupation of Iraq, Mr. Obama chose Iraq as his main issue, and rode it to the nomination. It seems, though, that this was more a masterful strategy of product differentiation, an advertising strategy, than a personal commitment. Those who expected a quick end to the occupation of Iraq have a right to be disappointed.
The “War” in Afghanistan
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following 9/11 to oust the Taliban, who had supported Al Qaeda, and to attack Al Qaeda directly. Under Bush and Cheney, we installed new leadership and occupied the country. Again, the policy was nation-building, seeking to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, and to create a Western-leaning government. At this point, we know that the government is weak, corruption is rampant, and the Taliban are resurgent. Mr. Obama has called Afghanistan the right war. He has chosen to escalate the military presence in Afghanistan, rather than focus on Al Qaeda directly. But in what sense is it the right war? The Taliban regime was oppressive, but it was not a part of 9/11. If our foreign policy is to remove autocratic regimes, how many other wars will we have to launch? Is it realistic to expect Mr. Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan within the next few years? More likely, continued instability there will prolong the U.S. presence.
Mr. Obama had several choices on Afghanistan. He could have chosen withdrawal, risking a return of the Taliban. For those who consider the Taliban primitive and barbaric (and I agree with them on this), a question: is it the obligation, is it the right, of the U.S. to determine who should govern in the Middle East? He could have gone to the United Nations, seeking to establish a U.N. protectorate, removing the U.S. as a provocative presence. But U.N.-sponsored peace-keeping in the Middle East was not part of the Bush doctrine, which Mr. Obama has adopted as his own. Thus, he has chosen to continue the occupations. Not good for the U.S. Not good for the people of the Middle East. We need to stop talking about war, and start talking about ending the U.S. occupations.
The Chase After Al Qaeda
Here lies the big issue, the elephant in the room few are willing to discuss. The U.S. has been pursuing a policy of invasion and occupation to combat terrorism. Now, we are bombing in Pakistan. It is possible that the next military action will take place in Yemen. Do we really want to invade every country where we find a few terrorists? Do we have the right? Al Qaeda’s membership is not large. Related terrorist groups also are not large. But rather than focusing on constraining these groups and preventing their attacks, as intelligence and police matters, we are investing enormous military resources and many lives in chasing them around the globe.
The small number of terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack succeeded in provoking the U.S. investment of trillions of dollars, thousands of U. S. military lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani lives, and much anti-U.S. sentiment. Has our investment made us more safe? Of course not. Have we forgotten how the Soviet Union spent itself into ruin? Mr. Obama seems to be following the same path.
Note that we only intrude into weak states, which cannot challenge our presence. What happens when terrorists take hold in states which can resist us? Our intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan, which does not want a U.S. troop presence. Our interventions have destabilized the entire region, rather than achieved the Bush-Cheney dream of Western-style regime change. The arrogance which claims our right to intervene, coupled with our ignorance of the local cultures, ensures the long-term growth of opposition to the U.S.
Since 9/11 we have used extraordinary rendition to extract information from suspected terrorists. Mr. Obama initially was against this program, which turns people over to other governments for interrogation. However, he now has asserted the right and reserves the use of extraordinary rendition as a component of our anti-terrorism strategy. The only purpose for this program is enabling the use of interrogation techniques which we are reluctant to use, or prohibited from using. The key word here is “torture.” Mr. Obama could have articulated a commitment to the rule of law, and confidence in the ability of the U.S. both to obtain information and to provide due process and justice to suspected terrorists. He has chosen instead to continue this policy of the Bush administration.
The Bush-Cheney approach to suspected terrorists asserted our right to hold them indefinitely, without charging them with unlawful acts, providing them the right to an attorney, affording them habeas corpus appeals, or trying them in the federal courts. This policy violated centuries of tradition in the law. The assertion was that these people were so dangerous that they did not deserve the protections of the law. If tried at all, they should be tried in military courts, in secrecy, with severely restricted procedural rights, and a much greater chance for “guilty” verdicts.
What has been missing is our own long-standing tradition, which opposes labeling people and putting them outside of the public legal system. “Innocent until proven guilty” applies just as much to terrorists, as to others. Once one takes a group out of the legal system, one has abandoned any pretense of morality. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has continued this Bush-Cheney policy, preserving military tribunals even as he has moved to try some of our prisoners in federal courts. In this case, he has not been as extreme as his predecessor, but neither has he clearly restored our commitment to equal justice for all (including suspected terrorists).
There is no need to repeat the sordid history of our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo prison. Many observers have pointed out the significant harm to U.S. standing around the world stemming from our behavior there. Mr. Obama rightly called for the closure of Guantanamo within one year, but now has been delaying the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. Partly this has been the resistance of the states and Congress to accepting suspected terrorists. There have been fears that prisoners might escape, ignoring the fact that prisoners in high security prisons do not escape, and that even if these particular prisoners did escape, they would stand out and be recaptured relatively easily, given the massive resources which would be arrayed against them.
Returning Guantanamo prisoners to their home countries has been complicated by instances of such returnees rejoining terrorist groups. Recall that prisoners returned to Yemen under Bush resumed their terrorist activities. Here at home, prisoners who have served their time are released, and may return to crime. We accept this as the price of justice. If we cannot prove the cases against suspects, then we should release them, even at the risk that they will try to harm us. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has not moved to resolve this mist of ambiguity over our treatment of terrorist suspects, and it is not clear when or how Guantanamo will be closed.
Similarly, he has not declared an absolute end to CIA “black” sites, where prisoners have been held incommunicado for lengthy periods. And, he pressured Britain to prevent the release of the details of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (otherwise known as torture) used on a former Guantanamo detainee who was released in 2009. Britain knows about the details. The former detainee and his network of friends know about the details. The only parties who are prevented from knowing are the American public. Now that a British panel of judges has made this information public, one has to ask why the secrecy was necessary? For a person who supported open government in the campaign, why protect the torturers? Why not support open government even when it might be embarrassing? Aren’t we strong enough to face the truth? Mr. Obama has moved us back a bit toward the respectability of the rule of law, but the movement has not been far enough to remove the stain of Guantanamo and Bagram.
Speaking of Torture
The Bush administration ignored international treaties, and U.S. law, by implementing “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists. The U.S. arguably and actively engaged in torture, and rendered suspects to nations which most likely tortured them. Mr. Obama said that he wanted to look forward, not back, when he chose not to investigate these policies and actions. He said that any prosecutions would inflame and divide the country. While seemingly well-meaning, his approach is flawed.
Ruling out the prosecution of those who applied torture, on the grounds that they were just following what appeared to be lawful orders, is a complete denial of the Nuremburg principles, which explicitly ruled out such a defense. The Nuremburg principles asserted that orders which violate human rights, even if lawful, must be disobeyed. Participation in torture is a crime against humanity. Those who inflict torture must be brought to justice. Instead, Mr. Obama ignored the crimes both of those who directly inflicted torture, and of those who ordered those acts. In so doing, he violated his oath of office, requiring him to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the U.S, which incorporate ratified international law and treaties. The message he sent was that supporting our troops and their leaders required no consequences for horrible crimes. Is this how we are to recapture moral leadership in the world?
The Dream of Arab-Israeli Peace
The U. N. long has called for a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The extension of Israeli settlements into Arab land has been declared illegal by the United Nations for years. Yet, when the Israeli government ignores international law and continues expanding settlements illegally, dividing the land so the Arab population cannot function economically, Mr. Obama continues the Bush approach of deploring the expansion, and of doing little else. Even the latest instance of Israeli expansion announced during Vice President Biden’s visit, probably will not change our approach. There must come a time when the U.S. initiates real consequences for Israel in this matter. Whether that involves withdrawing military aid to Israel, or sponsoring U. N. sanctions against Israel, something must be done to restore a sense of balance and justice to the region. Mr. Obama has not yet shown any desire to engage Israel in this way. Again, no real change.
Relations with Cuba
Mr. Obama has moved to soften the embargo on Cuba, by allowing family members to travel there. but consider what else he might have done. He could have opened travel and trade to anyone, but he chose not to do this. With other Communist countries, notably the Soviet Union and China, the U.S. pursued a policy of free exchange, arguing that face-to-face exposure would promote better relations. Why not Cuba, which is neither a military nor an economic threat to the U.S.? Similarly, the economic embargo has not brought about regime change in Cuba. It even may have harmed Cuban citizens, by restricting their access to technology. If we trade with Russia and China, how harmful would it be to trade with Cuba? Mr. Obama has chosen not to move aggressively toward a more rational and open Cuban policy, just like his predecessors.
Non-Proliferation and India
India is one of the few countries consistently refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under U.S. law, nuclear trade with India was banned, until the Bush administration changed policy, and offered nuclear assistance to India. The message was that India is our friend and ally, so their failure to sign the treaty was not important. Bush thus created a double standard: we are serious about nuclear non-proliferation only for countries which are not our allies. Mr. Obama has continued this misguided and self-contradictory policy, when he could have returned to past principle, and refused to aid India with nuclear technology.
When one considers this choice, plus the fact that we only invade countries with no nuclear capabilities, the message to those who do not agree with the U.S. is clear: rush as fast as possible to develop nuclear weapons and missile systems. Is it any wonder that Iran and North Korea have learned this lesson? By dealing softly with India, Mr. Obama continues to contribute to a serious weakening of the nuclear non-proliferation movement around the world.
A Note on The Nobel Peace Prize Speech
The heart of Mr. Obama’s Nobel speech was a lengthy defense of the right of the U.S. to act unilaterally anywhere in the world, to protect its citizens and its interests from attack. Notably missing was an endorsement of the U.N., or of the benefits of collective action in the common interest. For him to use the Nobel platform to assert the right of unilateral U.S. military and covert actions abroad, simply was a perversion of the award. It contributed to further erosion of our standing in the world. He could have done so much more to promote peace in his speech. He chose otherwise. No change from his predecessors, even when it would have cost so little to say the right words.
A Foreign Policy Summary
Where to place Mr. Obama on the foreign policy spectrum? The discussion above strongly suggests that his deeds place him not in the center, nor in the center-right, but somewhere off to the right wing. He has repudiated some of the worst policies of the Bush regime, but he has adopted and continued most of the aggressive and unilateral policies initiated under Bush. He has put a friendlier face on distinctly unfriendly, inappropriate, wasteful, destructive, and unlawful actions. This is the change we did not vote for. This is the change which makes little difference.
The Health Care Debate
Mr. Obama began the health care debate with two startling statements: a single-payer system was off the table, and the legislation should not increase the deficit. He said single-payer was too radical for the U.S. He should have said that a single-payer system was his goal, and that it was the right thing to do. He could have noted that we would be joining most of the developed Western world in single-payer, delivering high quality health care to everyone.
He could have chosen to leave no one out. He could have championed single-payer as the cheaper system, costing less because it eliminates the profit motive, and the insurance companies. He could have reminded us that in the current system, many claims are routinely and unfairly denied by the insurance companies, and that many policies are terminated once people become sick.
He could have controlled costs by setting a ceiling on administrative overhead in the hospitals. He could have called for doctors to be on a salary, rather than on a pay-per-service system, which leads to more expensive and unnecessary procedures. He could have increased the numbers of doctors and nurses by introducing tuition-free medical school education for anyone who qualified, and who agreed to serve the country for a minimum of ten years, on that salary scale. He could have proposed requiring negotiations for lower cost medicines for government programs.
He could have sent Congress model legislation, and announce that pork, special interest deals, and complications would be vetoed. In other words, he could have fought for a simpler, cheaper, and more effective system, but he did not. Instead of leading, he asked Congress to create the legislation. An invitation for complication, special interest deals, and delay.
On the deficit question, Mr. Obama could have put the problem in perspective. He could have pointed out that an extra annual cost of $100 billion was a tiny fraction of the national health care cost of over $2 trillion. It would be worth the investment, and cover all the 30-40 million now uninsured. He chose instead to accept the proposition that no social costs could add to the deficit, giving comfort to the enemies of health care reform. Republicans have been willing to increase the national debt with unfunded military actions, and tax cuts for the rich. Why didn’t Mr. Obama cut these, and spend more on our people?
Asking Congress to take the lead clearly was a mistake. Strong Presidential leadership was necessary. In the face of Republican filibuster threats in the Senate, Mr. Obama could have reminded the country that the Constitution called for majority rule, not supermajority rule. He could have compaigned for a change in the Senate rules, requiring once again that a filibuster must be conducted by real people on the Senate floor, rather than by a note stating one’s intention to filibuster. He could have asked the Senate leadership to freeze other business until a bill was brought to debate and a majority vote. He could have embarrassed the opposition until it caved, and it would have. For example, why didn’t he challenge those who said single-payer would be unfair to the insurance companies? Why not counter by asking why health care has to be a profit center? Why not ask why insurance companies continue to raise premiums and deny coverage to the people?
However, Mr. Obama and the Democratic leadership played the Republican game and agreed that 60 votes in the Senate were required to pass any important legislation, the Constitution notwithstanding. Once this decision was made, the spectacle of individual Senators demanding special favors began to unfold. Instead of majority rule, the country witnessed extortion by individual Senators, and a White House which wrung its hands in frustration. Once again, Mr. Obama resisted Congressional liberals, and made deals with the most conservative Democrats. Thus, the budget games to satisfy the fiscal conservatives. Thus, the decision to abandon any form of public option. Thus, the agreement to ensure that no Federal funds would support abortion, a legal procedure.
Mr. Obama needed to make a choice, throw out the massive, complicated bill, and get back to basics. A streamlined bill needed to be drafted and introduced, which focused on the key elements of a truly universal health plan. He needed to take strong leadership over the process, and commit to seeing it through. Instead, he chose to pursue any bill, as better than none.
Finally, Mr. Obama needed to recognize that reaching out to the Republican opposition is both unrealistic and useless: they are committed to the policy of “no.” Seeking compromise only works with Republicans who are willing to work for the national interest, and these are in very short supply, if not extinct. You can’t be a team player if no one else wants to join the team.
Mr. Obama’s mismanagement of the health care debate is one of the reasons why so many want real change, not the complicated, special interest laden bill which came out of the process. The bill is a windfall for the insurance companies, and the requirement for people to pay for insurance or be fined faces an uncertain fate in the Supreme Court. Mr. Obama must be praised for persistence, but criticized for both strategy and tactics. The result is a significant step forward for the previously uninsured, but the controversy will linger, with unknown long-term consequences.
The Financial Crisis
Mr. Obama inherited the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The outgoing Bush administration threw money at the financial sector, warning that a global depression would result if we did not save the big firms. Few challenged this claim. The funds were given away without strong conditions and audits. The funds were given away under secrecy: tracing where the money went was not a consideration. The funds were given away to the rich and the influential, not to the people. Nor was it only direct aid. It also was trillions in loan guarantees. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama accepted these actions, and continued them. He appointed Wall Street (such as Summers and Geithner) to his key economic posts. Is it a surprise that his economic team continues to favor Wall Street over Main Street?
Most of the profits of the biggest financial firms had little to do with supporting the economy of Main Street. Trading on their own accounts. Fees for mergers and acquisitions. Hedging against their own products. The financial sector has sucked huge sums out of the economy and into a small number of pockets. If the largest firms had been permitted to fail, the global shock would have been large, but the perpetrators of the crisis would have vanished, and the world’s governments would have been able to focus on direct aid to their people and smaller businesses. Mr. Obama has not questioned the bail-outs, meaningfully strengthened oversight, or developed a strategy to wind down the loan guarantees and other subsidies for the financial sector.
Mr. Obama could have called for restoration of the Glass-Steagal act, separating (boring) banking from (risky) investment activity. This worked for the country for many years, encouraging local banks, and isolating riskier investments. Both Clinton and Bush broke down the barrier between banks and investment companies, a mistake of historic proportions and consequences. We need to return to the safety of that barrier.
Mr. Obama could have challenged the assertion that some institutions are too big to fail. He could have reminded us that when government protects the largest firms, it strengthens oligopoly, and abuse. He could have begun the process of making the largest firms responsible for their mistakes and excesses. He could have broken them into smaller pieces, as the price of government support. Instead, he accepted the duty of protecting them, with the promise of tighter oversight. Since when has government oversight of the largest firms been effective? Especially now, when the government is a financial partner of the largest firms?
The response to the financial crisis represents the ultimate victory of the trickle-down theory: save the richest and the biggest, and everyone will benefit from the trickles-down. Those who lost their homes and their down payments, those who lost their jobs and their businesses, and those who will lose more over the next few years, are finding little comfort in hoping for the future, and little direct action by Mr. Obama to help them. Is it a surprise that the public is angry over the bail-outs? We need more trickle-up, and less trickle-down. We need more direct aid to the people, and less to the financial industry.
The Housing Crisis
The forecasts are for two or three more years of residential foreclosures, as adjustable rate mortgages reset to higher rates. Is this really inevitable and acceptable? It is not too late to freeze foreclosures, and take the time to sort out the speculators from the victims. It is not too late to force the mortgage lenders to return the down payments and fees paid by those who should not have been in adjustable rate and exotic mortgages in the first place.
Mr. Obama has proposed meager measures on housing. For example, a complicated, time-consuming and expensive procedure for individuals to petition for loan modifications. Mr. Obama should recognize the vastly disproportionate impact of improper lending on the minority and lower/middle-income sectors. He needs to focus on helping these people, now.
Much more could be done to improve the foreclosure and home value crisis. Mr. Obama could propose legislation lowering all home mortgage rates to 5%, and converting all adjustable rate mortgages into standard 30 year loans. This would keep more people in their homes, while reducing the profits of the loan industry. This would support home values, too. No cost to the government. Direct costs to those who created the problem. Why isn’t he helping the public?
Recently, the Patriot Act was renewed for a year, with little said by the White House and no visible debate in the Congress. Why is this so? Is Mr. Obama and the Congressional Democratic majority afraid of a security debate in an election year? Why are we continuing the warrantless wiretapping program, instead of relying on the courts to determine reasonable grounds for wire taps, as we once did, not so long ago? It is important to promote our due process values, and to assert that security concerns do not justify throwing out legal protections and our long traditions.
Mr. Obama campaigned on a platform including a pledge to a more open government, yet from his inaugural, he has supported keeping many documents secret, in the name of state secrecy. The problem is that many state secrets are embarrassments, rather than military or security issues. One example is the refusal to release photos of prisoner abuse from Guantanamo and other prisons. The world already knows that we treated people improperly. Keeping these photos secret simply avoids assigning responsibility for these actions. We need legislation requiring strict justification for invoking the state secrets protections, and prohibiting classifying something as a secret when disclosure is a matter of embarrassment or of a violation of the law. What happened to Mr. Obama’s pledges in this area? Why do we still seem more interested in covering up our mistakes, than in honesty and apologies? Which of these is more in the long-term interests of the country? Mr. Obama could change this situation, but he has not.
The Military Budget
Prior to 9/11, our military budget was under $300 billion a year. It now approaches $700 billion a year. None of this increase has been paid for. If we truly need such a military budget, then why not a terrorism surtax, a pay-as-you-go investment in national defense? Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were willing to spend more on the military without paying for it; Mr. Obama is continuing their practice.
Last year, Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates led the opposition to the F-22 fighter, and succeeded in killing this program, which the generals did not want. This was a fine victory. However, that was last year’s budget. This year, there is no sign that more cuts will come. Surely there are more wasteful procurement programs to be eliminated. Mr. Obama has lost an opportunity to cut waste; it is no surprise that the defense industry, which had been prepared for more cuts, now is celebrating. Why hasn’t he done more to eliminate waste in the defense budget?
The U.S. maintains over 700 military bases around the world. No wonder that many nations are a bit suspicious of our motives. Do we really need tens of thousands of troops in Europe? Fifty thousand in Japan? Some years ago, there was a move to close unnecessary bases, but Mr. Obama has been silent on this issue. Why? Is it really in our national interest to maintain garrisons all over the world?
The Domestic Budget
A few words about the domestic budget. For clarity, we must realize that tax cuts spend real money, and that tax breaks spend real money. While they do not show up in the Federal budget, they reduce Federal income, just as appropriations spend money.
The Bush tax cuts transferred an enormous amount of money from the Treasury into private hands. As many have noted, the biggest beneficiaries were the super-rich, the top few tenths of a percent. After the financial crisis, Mr. Obama, the Congress and the media seem to have accepted the proposition that during a recession it is bad to raise taxes: the Bush tax cuts have been extended. The question is, does this make sense? If the very richest households were to return to the tax rates of the Clinton years, would they be very much less rich? It wasn’t that long ago that the marginal tax rate for the very rich was 90%. Would it be such a disaster if the rate went back to 45% or 50%? It has been said that taxing the rich would harm private investment. Is it clear that the gains made under Bush were returned to the economy for investment? Not clear at all.
For many years, we had a progressive income tax, under the philosophy that first, people should pay taxes according to their ability to pay, and second, that the very richest households should pay more, since their wealth derived from the U.S. system. These ideas have been under attack for so long that many people have forgotten them. Mr. Obama could remind the country of our past, and call for repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the very rich. It would only be fair.
A second point. Last year, Mr. Obama spoke about eliminating earmarks from the Federal budget, but his follow-through has not been consistent or firm. Earmarks represent a small portion of the total budget, but they also represent a toxic policy: that it is a good thing for Congressmen to take public money for private interests in their states or districts. Earmarks bypass competition, and often appear to be payoffs for campaign contributions. Ethics rules require Congress to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Is it too much to require an ethical Congress? Is taking money from the whole country to benefit local interests really in the national interest?
Why isn’t Mr. Obama vetoing bills with earmarks? Why isn’t he pushing for a complete ban on all earmarks?
Separation of Church and State
The Bush administration created an office of faith-based and neighborhood organizations, with the express purpose of helping them obtain more Federal funds. This was a direct challenge to our traditional (and Constitutional) separation of church and state. Many expected Mr. Obama to close this office, but instead he has continued its operations. Conservative Republicans have been working to funnel Federal funds to religious organizations for many decades. Why has Mr. Obama supported this highly visible office?
The issue of abortion is perhaps the hottest hot button issue in the country. Years of anti-abortion pressure have produced a ban on Federal funding for abortion-related activities. Most in Congress mouth their preference against abortions, even as some who are pro-choice try to protect women’s access to this procedure. Yet, this is a clear case of religious fundamentalism influencing national policy. Mr. Obama could have begun the process of reversing the rhetoric, teaching again that the principle of separation of church and state warns against the tyranny of one religious group over another. He has not. Others will have to begin the long march back to the separation of church and state.
In the arena of energy policy, Mr. Obama at least has been consistent, if not correct. He always has been a supporter of nuclear power development, and recently proposed tripling Federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. There are a few problems with his position. First, the country still has not solved the problem of the long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste. These wastes need to be isolated for at least ten thousand years. The process set up decades ago to find and approve a single waste site for the U.S. so far has failed, both on technical and on political grounds. Currently, such wastes are stored on the plant sites, which is both a safety and a security issue. There is a limit to on-site storage, and we must find a proper disposal/storage solution. So far, Mr. Obama has been silent on this concern.
Secondly, all in the industry agree that without the Federal loan guarantees, no new plants would be built. Why is this so? Because the private market refuses to underwrite the risks of a nuclear accident. If the private sector has decided that new nuclear plants are too risky to insure, why should the government provide the guarantees? Public subsidies for private ventures tend to distort the free market, or is this acceptable only for nuclear power but not for renewable energy projects, such as wind and solar power? Mr. Obama has not proposed a comparable level of support for renewable energy projects? Why?
The cheapest energy is energy not used: conservation. One major source of wasted energy is in heating and cooling of homes, offices, and factories. Mr. Obama could propose a public works program, using unemployed workers, to better insulate America. He has not. He could propose even higher auto mileage standards, with fewer loopholes for gas guzzlers. He has not. He could raise the floor by pushing a minimum auto mileage requirement of at least 20 miles per gallon in the city. He has not. He could propose a higher gasoline tax, to reduce consumption. He has not. The savings would be enormous, and help the economy. Why isn’t there a greater push for energy conservation?
A curious thing happened soon after the inauguration: virtually all of Mr. Obama’s appointments have been center right. Liberals and progressives need not have applied. More than any other Democratic President in the last 60 years, Mr. Obama has refused appointments across the political spectrum, but has reached across the aisle, and over to the right. Even his first opportunity to make an appointment to the Supreme Court was not a liberal, to move toward balancing the far right appointments of Mr. Bush. Ms. Sotomajor is a virtually textbook example of a careful, narrow, jurist. Liberals are likely to be disappointed in her performance, and one can only hope for a pleasant surprise.
The hundreds and thousands of people appointed by the President set the tone for the administration. Mr. Obama’s refusal to appoint many well qualified representatives from the left of center has meant that liberals and progressives had to be content with their hope that he would act as the progressive-in-chief. He has not.
Compared to Mr. Bush, of course, Mr. Obama is sublime eloquence. On the other hand, has he been effective in reaching out to his supporters, or to his doubters, giving them reasons to be inspired and to follow his directions? With some notable exceptions, the answer is “no.”
His speaking style is arrhythmic and somewhat halting, rather than flowing. He focuses on facts, but often neglects vision. His emotional tone tends to be flat, rather than engaging. When attacking his opponents, he appears reluctant, his voice rising and sounding petulant, rather than firm and in command. His public appearances have been too numerous, virtually every day, on every issue. This has undercut his effectiveness through overexposure. Simply put, Mr. Obama needs more warmth in his voice, and he needs to be a statesman, not a pitch-man.
On the other hand, who else speaks for the Democratic agenda? Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi each have serious deficiencies as public speakers. Mr. Gibbs is not an effective Press Secretary. They should be asked to stay more in the background, while the Party finds both more telegenic and more articulate spokespersons. Mr. Obama needs to direct a search for the best public speakers he can find in the Democratic Party, and give them an opportunity to make his case with the public. The leaders of the future need to come out now. Why hasn’t he seen the urgent need?
Just Plain Politics
On virtually every major piece of legislation, Mr. Obama has compromised at the beginning, hoping to reach out to Republicans for bipartisan solutions. Then, he has given in to the opposition and compromised some more. The trouble is that the Republicans he has reached out to, are not there. They are the moderate and pragmatic people who have been almost totally eliminated in the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party over the last 10-20 years. The current Republican Party is what used to be called the radical right, or the right-wing extremists.
We need a new label for today’s Republican Party: Fundamentalist Republicans.
They are fundamentalist in their belief in a deregulated, free market, economy. This, despite the evidence of free market excesses, and reactive government bail-outs, since the 90’s. Bail-outs seem to be acceptable to them, as long as they are not followed by more regulations. Their ideal seems to be complete deregulation. We saw the result in the robber barons of the late 1800’s. Do we really want to go back that far?
They are fundamentalist in their belief in the necessity of tax cuts, to cut the government down to size. When the economy is positive, they call for tax cuts to give the money back to the people: it’s their money after all. Their tax cuts are primarily for the rich; the rest of us should be satisfied with whatever trickles down. When the economy is negative, they call for tax cuts to stimulate business, again primarily big business. There never is a time when cutting taxes is not a good idea. How far would they go in cutting taxes? No one, not Mr. Obama, nor the Democratic leadership, has called on Republicans to present their “ideal” budget for the Federal government. If they did, the public could see how much they wished to eliminate, and rightly question their approach.
They are fundamentalist in their belief that it is our right to assert ourselves militarily anywhere in the world where we see a need to protect our interests; and we see our interests everywhere. Thus, a new military mission in Africa. Thus, a new Monroe Doctrine for the Western hemisphere. Thus, the claim that we have the right to occupy any (weak) country which does not do as we wish. This, in spite of centuries of lessons that military power ultimately is self-defeating. We can be strong in our defense, but we need not be the policemen of the world, especially when we are not seen as neutral parties. As noted above, Mr. Obama has accepted the Republican vision of unilateral U.S. action anywhere. This is not a progressive vision.
They are fundamentalist on social issues, content to intrude upon personal freedoms, while opposing all government intrusion into private enterprise. Thus, fundamentalist Republicans promote anti-abortion legislation, as a religious and moral imperative. They oppose same-sex marriages on the same grounds. They promote censorship in libraries around the country. Mr. Obama has taken steps to support gay rights, which is commendable. Women’s rights and censorship have not received the same attention.
They are fundamentalist on gun control, arguing for virtually unlimited access to weapons. The Supreme Court recently ruled that this is a right, not a privilege. Mr. Obama rightfully decried the decision, but he has not supported a movement to amend the Constitution to permit reasonable gun control. Why not?
Fundamentalism is the rule of belief over reason, of narrow interest over the national interest. The Fundamentalist Republicans promote fear and hate, setting people against each other, rather than strengthening our common institutions, and respect for the rule of law. Mr. Obama needs to speak out more against their views. Why isn’t he?
This has been perhaps an exhausting, but not an exhaustive, review of the past year for Mr. Obama. The focus has been on his actions, not so much on his words. What has been revealed by this recitation of options not taken, policy choices not made, and opportunities missed?
This is not an all-or-nothing analysis. As stated at the beginning, his election was necessary. Mr. Obama has reversed some of the Bush policies, and has commendably committed a major effort toward health care reform. However, many of his activities need to be seen more as undoing some of the Bush/Cheney extremes, and as moving us back toward the center, than in carrying us toward a progressive agenda. He is smoothing out the rough edges, but the ball keeps rolling in the wrong direction. Once the dust has settled, all of this will not have substantively changed the key policies of the status quo.
Mr. Obama is not a communist. He is not a socialist. He is not a progressive. He is not a liberal.
A pattern has emerged, and it is not a happy one. He is firmly center right. He has little appetite for a fight or for the risk of alienating people. With some exceptions, he has not been a strong leader. He has not made major changes in the policies of the Bush administration. He is, in this view, a remnant of an endangered species: the moderate Republican.
Thus, Mr. Obama is the change we did not vote for. Those who wanted and expected progressive change will have to abandon their hope that Mr. Obama is the one to lead us. Those who wanted significant change will have to treat him as at best a reluctant ally, and at worst, an opponent. Once again, the people will have to march, to demonstrate, to rally, to lobby, to support appropriate candidates, and to put their money and energy into real change. That is the change we voted for: once again we have to make it happen.
© 2010 Allan Abramson