This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.
On a December day in 1932, with the country prostrate under the weight of the Great Depression, ex-president Calvin Coolidge–who had presided over the reckless stock market boom of the Jazz Age Twenties (and famously declaimed that “the business of America is business”)– confided to a friend: “We are in a new era to which I do not belong.” He punctuated those words, a few weeks later, by dying.
A similar premonition grips the popular imagination today. A new era beckons. No person has been more responsible for arousing that expectation than President-elect Barack Obama. From beginning to end, his presidential campaign was born aloft by invocations of the “fierce urgency of now,” by “change we can believe in,” by “yes, we can!” and by the obvious significance of his race and generation. Not surprisingly then, as the gravity of the national economic calamity has become terrifyingly clearer, yearnings for salvation have attached themselves ever more firmly to the incoming administration.
This is as it should be–and as it once was. When in March 1933, a few months after Coolidge gave up the ghost, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, people looked forward to audacious changes, even if they had little or no idea just what, in concrete terms, that might mean. If Coolidge, an iconic representative of the old order, knew that the ancien régime was dead, millions of ordinary Americans had drawn the same conclusion years earlier. Full of fear, depressed and disillusioned, they nonetheless had an appetite for the untried. Like Obama, FDR had, during his campaign, encouraged feverish hopes with no less vaporous references to a “new deal” for Americans.
Brain Trust vs. Brainiacs
Yet today, something is amiss. Even if everyone is now using the Great Depression and the New Deal as benchmarks for what we’re living through, Act I of the new script has already veered away from the original.
A suffocating political and intellectual provincialism has captured the new administration in embryo. Instead of embracing a sense of adventurousness, a readiness to break with the past so enthusiastically promoted during the campaign, Obama seems overcome with inhibitions and fears.
Practically without exception he has chosen to staff his government at its highest levels with refugees from the Clinton years. This is emphatically true in the realms of foreign and economic policy. It would, in fact, be hard to find an original idea among the new appointees being called to power in those realms–some way of looking at the American empire abroad or the structure of power and wealth at home that departs radically from views in circulation a decade or more ago. A team photo of Obama’s key cabinet and other appointments at Treasury, Health and Human Services, Commerce, the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and in the US intelligence community, not to speak of senior advisory posts around the president himself, could practically have been teleported from perhaps the year 1995.