“He gave billions to Wall Street, cracked down on illegal immigrants getting health care, and he’s sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan…. He may go down in history as our greatest Republican president.” – Jay Leno, summing up Obama’s first eleven months in office.
After eleven months in office, Barack Obama has hardly revolutionized – or even altered – the major dysfunction that confronts our system. A man of obviously good values – read his books and speeches – he has yet to show convictions. He has tinkered to keep terrible problems from getting much worse – a kind of political plumber without access to equipment that would redo the entire system.
Like his other war-time predecessors, he used the trite phrase “in our vital national interest” to justify sending 30,000 more men and women to fight for Afghan President Karzai, a rare man worthy in his own lifetime for inclusion in the Guinness book of records – for corruption. Karzai amused the public by pledging to eliminate all corrupt practices. Obama appeared to believe him.
The deeply disappointed if not downright disillusion on the left, who had not already peeled off their Obama bumper stickers, got an assurance that the President appreciated their months of campaigning and donating. “Our troops will begin to come home” in only 18 months. How many can die in that short time? A few hundred, more or less?
Obama also disappointed millions of his supporters – in the United States and in Latin America, by implicitly endorsing a coup in Honduras, failing to move quickly on U.S.-Cuba policy and by setting up more military bases in Colombia.
We have made the transition from a President who both horrified and amused us to one who simply disappoints. Gone are boners like, “No senior citizen should ever have to choose between prescription drugs and medicine” or “Too many OB-GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country.”
Instead, Obama replaced such linguistic fractures with eloquent expressions of good values. But these values don’t get realized because of an apparent absence of convictions. His words – from the campaign and as President – about keeping the country safe, secure and healthy, he has apparently defined as continuing wars, and healthy as a slight improvement of health care, a bit more EPA monitoring and a less than satisfactory promise on fossil fuel emissions.
He did not stand loyally by the Rev. Wright, when reactionaries slandered him. He abandoned Van Jones, forced to resign when rightist radio banshees discovered his “leftish” views. Obama also did not defend ACORN, which helped mobilize his voters, when the right painted them as criminals.
Beyond issues of character and cojones, however, Obama lacks the means to change institutions in whose interests U.S. policy gets written. The monster financial parasites and their corporate brothers have for a century plus served as means and ends of U.S. policy. Obama picked one of them, Tim Geithner, as his Treasury Secretary who, in turn, chose to bless (with money, not holy water) the cesspool of perpetrators, aiders and abettors. He chose another, Larry Summers, who counseled deregulation that led to the 2008 collapse, to head his National Economic Council. Distinguished by their recent failures, the two have pursued Bush policies of bailing out the wealthiest members of the financial system.
For decades, corporate growth also meant more jobs and the extension of industrial civilization; the building of a vast infrastructure. It spurred the growth of education, culture and science. Now, the financial sector speculates on bad mortgages and other “derivatives” and the big corporations have moved their productive operations to cheaper labor markets.
Obama also inherits an institutionalized complex involving the military, its suppliers, the science machine attached to it and, by extension, the prison linkage. Only the left and right wing populists like Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs dare raise the issue of outmoded and wasting money on imperial nonsense – far away wars that cannot be won.
His foreign and defense policy team (I hesitate to use the words “national security,” which should make sensitive linguists recoil) also follows Bush policies, albeit without finessing the occasional bon mots of their president.
In his December 1 West Point speech declaring his intention to escalate U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, Obama did not say, “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.” But he did offer the preventive war argument that Bush used to justify attacking Iraq. Maybe, perhaps, the bad guys could or would use the territory to plot harm against us. As if the U.S. military could somehow kill them all or prevent them from plotting somewhere else. Indeed, he could have quoted Texas Governor Bush to end his West Point Speech: “We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.” (Sept.22, 1997)
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His film FIDEL is available on dvd (roundworldproductions.com).