Hail Caesar!

Hail Caesar!

Warning sign one: Obama plans a “fiscal responsibility summit.” Warning sign two: entitlements are on the table.


Barack Obama, now the forty-fourth president, kept it brief, mercifully so. Inaugural rhetoric is a currency debauched by John F. Kennedy’s appalling excesses in this department, and the genre has never gotten over it. Still, all incoming presidents are expected to alert the citizenry that there’s a new commander strutting along the poop deck, which means that pledges of a new day get their usual airing, along with reassurances that America is still a beacon of freedom and virtue, also a foe whose reach is long and whose wrath is implacable.

Obama trod this familiar path, offering a mild version of blood, sweat and tears along with some finger-wagging about “a new era of responsibility.” Responsibility begins at home, right there in the White House. So let’s hope Obama launches the new era by accepting a fair measure of responsibility on America’s part for the slaughter of some 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza, a large number of them women and children, killed by US weapons furnished to Israel along with moral and political support for its criminal actions. Let him deplore publicly Israel’s savage assault, which came in the run-up to his inaugural.

I assume the talk of this new era was a softening-up salvo. Before we get there we should watch for intentions that often march through the door arm in arm with newfound responsibility. Five days before the inaugural (which may end up costing a thoroughly irresponsible $150 million, much of it furnished by taxpayers), Obama told editors at the Washington Post that he’s going to convene a “fiscal responsibility summit” in February. This is very bad news. “Fiscal responsibility” in this context means only one thing–an attack on Social Security and Medicare. Sure enough, Obama confided to Post reporters that he plans to bring together “a variety of voices on solving the long-term problems with the economy and with a special focus on entitlements.”

A second alarm went off when Obama indicated that this is to be a bipartisan conclave. Attacks on entitlement programs are invariably of this nature, so that Democrats and Republicans can fuse into a gray blur of “responsibility” as they hack away at the people’s last frail defenses. According to the Post, Obama remarked that “some of the difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare–should be made on his watch. ‘We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,’ he said.”

It’s an invariable rule of inaugurals that at some point during the interminable proceedings, some TV anchor will marvel at the peaceful nature of the transition of power. So it was this time. More than one commentator seemed stunned at the fact that Obama had not been forced to purchase the loyalty of the joint chiefs of staff to assign him shock troops to winkle Bush and Cheney out of the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But peaceful transitions are tranquil even at the rhetorical level, when those with a serious stake in the system are entirely confident that no change detrimental to their interests is going to take place once the new man takes over. Big businesses soon got frightened by FDR and immediately started planning an armed coup.

Suppose Obama had spoken to the editors of the Post about his resolve to mend the incontestable irresponsibility of Wall Street, that on his second day in office he was going to propose uniform regulations of all financial institutions; universal asset-transaction taxes; asset-reserve requirements that would be established to reflect stability requirements and social priorities like green investments and jobs; and a new system of loan guarantees to channel funds to productive investments. (The above list was suggested by professor Robert Pollin.)

Suppose Obama had tossed in a few robust words of support for a bill making it easier to form unions, a measure he had claimed he favored and one strongly backed by the labor movement (from which came many of the precinct workers who assured his election). The Post‘s editors would have been abominably shocked, and there would have been harsh advisories to the president-elect the following morning. As it was, they rejoiced at the reassurance that here was yet another president pledging, just like Reagan and Bush Sr. and Clinton and Bush Jr., to shred Social Security and Medicare.

There is, incidentally, no crisis in Social Security. As a share of GDP, it’s projected to increase by approximately 2 percent over the next twenty-five years, which is about the same as the increase in military spending in the Bush years. The greatest exhibition of irresponsibility in America today is the Pentagon’s budget, about which no bipartisan conclave appears to be scheduled and on which Obama is so devoted to continuity that he is keeping Bush’s defense secretary in place.

Each time a new president strides forth, flourishing his inaugural menu of change, one feels the same gloom at these quadrennial displays of leader-lust. Eight years of complaining about Bush’s arrogation of unconstitutional powers under the bizarre doctrine of the “unitary executive,” and here we have the national audience enthusiastically applauding yet another incoming president rattling off the I-will-do’s as though there was no Congress and he was Augustus Caesar.

To quote Dana Nelson’s useful new book Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, the founders produced a Constitution that “gives the president only a thin framework of explicit powers that belong solely to his office: for instance, the power to grant reprieves and pardons, and to fill governmental vacancies during any Senate recess. His other enumerated powers are either shared…or secretarial and advisory.” Enough of the commander in chief. All we need is a decent pardoner and a good secretary.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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