So I’m telling an old story by now, but old stories are sometimes the most valuable to look back upon. This president came to office on a tide of commitment, not to the changes every candidate promises but, as he himself put it, change you can believe in. Well, we believed. In fact, we believed twice.
Sure, he was blind-sided by an economic disaster that was only an egg when he ran for office and hatched almost simultaneously with his inauguration. But the statesman, the man of character we thought we were voting for quickly turned politician–and an inexperienced one at that. A statesman would have federalized the banks, guaranteed deposits and let the investment houses and investment banks take the bath they deserved. Barack Obama blinked and it was merely the first of a string of blinks. That string is what finally unglued the already strained self-assurance of a once confident nation, as well as dooming his presidency.
Take a moment to consider true statesmanship and its relevance to our current sorry-state of affairs. The comparison comes by way of a new story; the corporate, political and public response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s overwhelming popularity. Populism is a rum term, but Senator Warren stared-down the political fiction and called it what it was–a huge scam played out against the interests of ordinary Americans at their own personal expense by bailing out those who drove us off an economic cliff. Warren doesn’t mince words. Banks have no business gambling and bankers who commit fraud in order to gamble belong in jail.
Pretty tough lady, this Senator from Massachusetts and a matter of statesmanship, shot directly from a well-informed hip, with steely-eyed, but very subtle and courteous intensity.
So how has all that played out?
As for the corporate, the banks have been absolutely gobsmacked. These paragons of power and influence are unable to get past Warren’s perceptive questioning, behind rimless glasses, a tendency to interrupt bullshit and a charming smile. Over on the political side, her honesty and damn-the-torpedoes style made the Senator the most powerful among that glib and feckless club of 100. Publicly, she is so popular that the call is unending for her to run for higher office, no matter her consistent refusal.
In hockey we call that a hat-trick.
So it is possible to make the changes we believe in, if the voice and power of change is straightforward and in the interest of the nation. That, in a nut-shell, is what defines statesmanship. Franklin Roosevelt had it, as did Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, but to find another example one would have to visit an earlier century. Certainly no president has come close in this one and we thought, we believed we had a statesman in Barack Obama.
Transparency was Obama’s campaign promise and the National Security Agency’s secret spying exposed the presidential reality. Protecting whistle-blowers “as necessary to the nation’s health and accountability” was praised on the stump, while in office Obama viciously hounded whistleblowers from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden.
Reining in Wall Street was the rhetoric and paying down their private debts with public money the result; $16 trillion worth, when our total national debt stood well below that figure. Accountability in the Pentagon, first pointed out by Rumsfeld at $2.1 trillion the day before 9-11 (then forgotten in the panic of panic) was an Obama commitment and today amounts to four times that unaccountability.
Our president told us, standing before his teleprompter, “Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, I will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”
Horsefeathers! Almost immediately and without either public review or commentary, he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, expanding the power and scope of the federal government to fight the War on Terror, including codifying into law the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial. Under the new law the US military has the power to carry out domestic anti-terrorism operations on US soil. Worse, the Act authorizes the military to detain US citizens on our own soil under the broad new anti-terrorism provisions provided in the bill, once again without trial.
The military? On U.S. soil, at any whim or whisper of anti-terrorism, against American citizens? Obama is a Harvard student of constitutional law and in that context his signature flies in the face of a career that promised openness and the consent of citizens—constitutional issues. We merely drop our jaw in wonder as to whom this president sees reflected in his shaving mirror.
Back again on the 2008 campaign rhetoric-trail, Barack promised, “We will not negotiate bilateral trade agreements that stop the government from protecting the environment, food safety, or the health of its citizens; give greater rights to foreign investors than to U.S. investors; require the privatization of our vital public services; or prevent developing country governments from adopting humanitarian licensing policies to improve access to life-saving medications,”
That was then and this is now, but as President Obama knew when he said it that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was well under way. He personally nurtured it through his first term in complete secrecy from the United States Congress, even though they begged for information. Those for whom it was not secret were not the appointed officials one might expect, thoroughly trained in trade issues and protecting our rights as Americans. They were exclusively a team of 700 Big Business representatives, ushered in by Obama to negotiate on your and my behalf.
(The Nation, July, 2012) Think of the TPP as a stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public scrutiny. Indeed, only two of the twenty-six chapters of this corporate Trojan horse cover traditional trade matters. The rest embody the most florid dreams of the 1 percent—grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.
Obama has insisted on reviving Fast-Track, forcing the Congress to approve or disapprove on an up-or-down vote, with no amendments to a trade agreement they had not seen. I guess you can’t get any more two-faced than that. Elizabeth Warren, for one, is furious. The media is largely silent.
As a candidate (oh, that again), Obama promised to restore proper legislative and judicial oversight over counterterrorism operations. Rather than treat counterterrorism policy as an area of exception, operating without the normal safeguards that protect the rights of the accused, Obama promised that his approach “will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”
Obama is hardly a ruler, at least not yet, but his weekly Drone ‘kill list’ is as arbitrary and beyond the law of which he spoke so eloquently as one can get. A federal judge acknowledged a “Catch-22,” saying that the government claimed “as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
It’s impossible under the constraint of everything being secret to get an accurate count, but estimates range as high as 3,000 deaths so far. And if a wedding party is targeted because a single terrorist may be a guest, one can assume that the outcry from collateral deaths in targeted countries is as on-target as the drones. These strikes probably enlist more terrorists than they kill, but the drone-beat goes on.
Campaigning in 2012, President Obama grandly proclaimed, “I have done more to take on lobbyists than any other candidate in this race. I don’t take a dime of their money, and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House.” USA Today promptly reported that Obama’s campaign fundraising team included thirty-eight members of law firms that were paid $138 million in 2007 to lobby the federal government.
The tragedy of all this fabrication is its legacy. Barack Obama has chosen to kick statesmanship in the teeth, opting instead for political gamesmanship. Why, Mr. President? You had a shot at greatness and chose mediocrity, a choice that will haunt your conscience. Surely, one term as a statesman would have been preferable to winning a second term by selling out your constituency.
Was it worth it?
Jim Freeman, The Dark Side of the Moon
published: 20. 3. 2014