Looking back on the dawn of the Clinton administration in 1993, supporters of President Obama must surely feel gratified at their man’s performance to date. They contrast the chaos of Clinton’s liftoff with the disciplined tempo of the new crowd taking over the White House. They can savor the dispatch with which the forty-fourth president has pushed forward with the stimulus program and even tossed a few bouquets to the left–curtailment of official torture by the CIA, refreshing edicts on ethical guidelines and equal pay.
Perhaps even more inspiriting by contrast with the forty-second president and his spouse, the Obama family presents an image of relaxed stability unrivaled since the depictions of domestic felicity in the “Four Freedoms” covers Norman Rockwell painted for The Saturday Evening Post during World War II. No longer do the White House private quarters echo with profane altercation or the furtive sighs of yet another illicit tryst. If the nuclear family needs a poster couple, the Obamas surely qualify.
Progressives exult and the Internet vibrates with voices urging the left to rally behind Obama’s economic program. Here, for example, is Nation contributing editor Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, urging–I quote from the CAF news release–“progressives who helped deliver President Obama’s electoral victory to rally around an historic opportunity to rebuild America.” According to Borosage, “We are standing at the precipice of an historic period of reform…. This plan is a down payment on long-term investments in vital, core elements of the nation, including health care, education, infrastructure and sustainable energy.”
Would that it were so! We are indeed on a precipice, but the signposts being set in place by the new administration point mostly in the direction of continued, if not accelerating, disaster. Is it churlish to come to this judgment when the inaugural bunting has scarcely been taken down? No. We have the evidence of Obama’s mostly dismal cabinet appointments and the menacing outlines of his strategy to deal with the banking crisis.
The number of seemingly decent nominations has been pathetically small: Hilda Solis is a promising pick as labor secretary; Leon Panetta as CIA chief seems good. No doubt there are more among the hundreds of new officials. But the symbolism has been overwhelmingly negative. Obama has methodically surrounded himself with ranking members of the party of permanent war and with the economic strategists who blazed the path to the nation’s present ruinous state.
With the possible exception of George Mitchell, who is on assignment for the president in Israel/Palestine, Obama has the usual passel of lobbyists for Israel at his elbow. Not nearly enough commotion has been raised about the grotesque decision to leave Robert Gates in charge of the Defense Department. Why not simply post a sign at the main entrance to the Pentagon: Open for Business as Usual? The Pentagon is the prime sinkhole of budgetary corruption in the economy, and even before Obama took the oath of office he flashed the message he wasn’t going to lay a finger on it.
The progressives looked for comfort to the Agriculture and Interior Departments, which supervise vast slabs of the homeland. At Ag they got the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, who’d opposed Obama in the primaries and who is best known as a fanatical lobbyist for genetically engineered biocrops and ethanol. He’s Monsanto’s pinup boy and comes factory-guaranteed as a will-do guy for the agrochemical complex. Interior went to Colorado’s senior senator, Ken Salazar. He’s a born heel-clicker to the Money Power, always hatching deals with the coal industry and big ranching interests.
Though he would betray her, Bill Clinton appointed the estimable Joycelyn Elders as surgeon general. But who is Obama’s pick as the nation’s chief public health officer, to symbolize his priorities on healthcare? He put up a TV doc in the form of CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, a shill for drug companies, an ignoramus about public health issues and a known foe of single-payer healthcare.
At almost every level, Obama’s choices have been calibrated to appease the establishment.
The nation is in the midst of a fearsome economic crisis. Every week brings fresh indexes of accelerating catastrophe. The economy contracted violently in the last quarter of 2008 and is plunging. If Obama’s plan to create or save at least 3 million jobs over the next two years works, it would still barely recover those that vanished over the previous two.
The core of the disaster is the collapse of the banks. It’s not hard to envisage a course of bold, decisive action: Obama should confirm publicly that the banking system is in ruins, too far gone to warrant more injections of public money. The positive assets should be marshaled into nationalized banks, and the bad paper and stockholder equity dispatched to the knacker’s yard.
Yet what are Obama and his pathetic treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, hatching up? Another trillion-dollar bailout package! Worse still, members of Obama’s economic team are alerting reporters to their increasing enthusiasm for a so-called aggregator bank that would take over the banks’ worst assets.
As in Europe, the left here should be on the streets, coaxing smoldering public fury at Wall Street into a blaze. As in the early ’30s, there should be fierce Congressional hearings into Wall Street’s crimes, not just a yap or two from Obama about bonuses.
Abroad, Obama heads toward quagmire and catastrophe, pledging to double the number of US troops in Afghanistan, converting a bogus hunt for Osama bin Laden into a wider war on the Pashtun tribes, seeping ever deeper into Pakistan. For those who entertained scant hopes for Obama-time, the reality thus far is worse than they feared.