Page 1 of 3 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA George W Obama?
By David Bromwich
Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?
The record shows impressive continuities between the administrations of George
W Bush and Barack Obama, and nowhere more than in the policy of "force
projection" in the Arab world.
With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching
across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and
black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of
thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at
Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with
the repeated invocation of "state secrets" to protect the government
from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious
provisions left intact - the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient
self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.
The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream
coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back
in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been
presented as "sectarian feuding" began to look like a war of national
liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon
But Washington's embrace of "the surge" in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the
front page, and it - along with the Afghan war - has returned only occasionally
in the four years since.
This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the
wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much;
by not talking about them imply that, while "victory" is not in sight, there is
something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still
available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is
never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it "success".
Meanwhile, back at home ...
The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions,
however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing
their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president's "debt
deal" - a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort former vice
president Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Obama and the House
Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power
more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and
given the stamp of permanence.
Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind
(however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a
reversal with such sickening completeness.
One of the last good times that Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt
negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, chief executive
officer of General Electric and now head of the president's outside panel of
At a June 13 meeting of the president's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a
questioner said he assumed that Obama knew about the difficulties caused by the
drawn-out process of securing permits for construction jobs. Obama leaned into
the microphone and offered a breezy ad-lib: "Shovel ready wasn't as, uh,
shovel-ready as we expected" - and Immelt got off a hearty laugh. An unguarded
moment: the president of "hope and change" signifying his solidarity with the
big managers whose worldly irony he had adopted.
A certain mystery surrounds Obama's perpetuation of Bush's economic policies,
in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his
expansion of Bush's war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy
and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown
tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.
Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes
resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his
contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the
lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose
hopes once rested with him.
The philosopher William James took as a motto for practical morality: "By their
fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots."
Suppose we test the last two-and-a-half years by the same sensible criterion.
Translated into the language of presidential power - the power of a president
whose method was to field a "team of rivals" and "lead from behind" - the motto
must mean: by their appointments shall ye know them.
Let us examine Obama, then, by the standard of his cabinet members, advisers
and favored influences, and group them by the answers to two questions: Whom
has he wanted to stay on longest, in order to profit from their solidity and
bask in their influence? Which of them has he discarded fastest or been most
eager to shed his association with? Think of them as the saved and the sacked.
Obama's taste in associates at these extremes may tell us something about the
moral and political personality in the middle.
The saved Advisers whom the president entrusted with power beyond expectation, and sought
to keep in his administration for as long as he could prevail on them to stay:
1. Lawrence Summers: Obama's chief economic adviser, 2009-2010.
As Bill Clinton's secretary of the Treasury, 1999-2001, Summers arranged the
repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated the
commercial banks - holders of the savings of ordinary people - from the
speculative action of the brokerage houses and money firms.
The aim of Glass-Steagall was to protect citizens and the economy from a
financial bubble and collapse. Demolition of that wall between savings and
finance was a large cause of the 2008 meltdown. In the late 1990s, Summers had
also pressed for the deregulation of complex derivatives - a dream fully
realized under Bush. In the first years of the Obama era, with the ear of the
president, he commandeered the bank bailouts and advised against major programs
for job creation. He won, and we are living with the results.
In 2009-2010, the critical accessory to Summers' power was Timothy Geithner,
Obama's Treasury secretary. Most likely, Geithner was picked for his position
by the combined recommendations of Summers and Bush's Treasury secretary Hank
Paulson. The latter once described Geithner as "a very unusually talented young
man" and worked with him closely in 2008 when he was still president of the New
At that time, he concurred with Paulson on the wisdom of bailing out the
insurance giant AIG and not rescuing Lehman Brothers. Obama for his part
initiated several phone consultations with Paulson during the 2008 campaign -
often holding his plane on the tarmac to talk and listen. This chain is
unbroken. Any tremors in the president's closed world caused by Summers' early
departure from the administration have undoubtedly been offset by Geithner's
recent reassurance that he will stay at the Treasury beyond 2011.
Postscript: In 2011, Summers has become more reformist than Obama. On The
Charlie Rose Show on July 13, he criticized the president's
dilatoriness in mounting a program to create jobs. Thus he urged the partial
abandonment of his own policy, which Obama continues to defend.
2. Robert Gates: A member of the permanent establishment in
Washington, Gates raised to the third power the distinction of massive
continuity: First as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director under George H
W Bush, second as secretary of defense under George W Bush, and third as
Obama's secretary of defense.
He remained for 28 months and departed against the wishes of the president.
Gates sided with General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 to promote a major (called "moderate")
escalation of the Afghan War; yet he did so without rancor or posturing - a
style Obama trusted and in the company of which he did not mind losing.
In the Bush years, Gates was certainly a moderate in relation to the
extravagant war aims of Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their
neo-conservative circle. He worked to strengthen US militarism through an ethic
of bureaucratic normalization.
His approach has been endorsed and will be continued - though probably with
less canniness - by his successor Leon Panetta. Without a career in security to
fortify his confidence, Panetta is really a member of a different species: the
adaptable choice for "running things" - without regard to the nature of the
thing or the competence required. Best known as the chief of staff who reduced
to a semblance of order the confusion of the Clinton White House, he is
associated in the public mind with no set of views or policies.
3. Rahm Emanuel: As Obama's White House chief of staff, Emanuel
performed much of the hands-on work of legislative bargaining that Obama
preferred not to engage in. (Vice President Joe Biden also regularly took on
this role.) He thereby incurred a cheerless gratitude, but he is a man willing
to be disliked.
Obama seems to have held Emanuel's ability in awe; and such was his power that
nothing but the chance of becoming mayor of Chicago would have plucked him from
the White House. Emanuel is credited, rightly or not, with the Democratic
congressional victory of 2006, and one fact about that success, which was never
hidden, has been too quickly forgotten. Emanuel took pains to weed out anti-war
Obama would have known this, and admired the man who carried it off. Whether
Emanuel pursued a similar strategy in the 2010 mid-term elections has never
been seriously discussed. The fact that the category "anti-war Democrat" hardly
exists in 2011 is, however, an achievement jointly creditable to Emanuel and
4. Cass Sunstein: Widely thought to be the president's most
powerful legal adviser. Sunstein defended and may have advised Obama on his
breach of his 2008 promise (as senator) to filibuster any new law that awarded
amnesty to the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. This was Obama's
first major reversal in the 2008 presidential campaign: he had previously
defended the integrity of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act against the
secret encroachment of the National Security Agency (NSA).
At that moment, Obama changed from an accuser to a conditional apologist for
the surveillance of Americans: the secret policy advocated by Cheney, approved
by Bush, executed by NSA director Michael Hayden, and supplied with a rationale
by Cheney's legal counsel David Addington. In his awkward public defense of the
switch, Obama suggested that scrutiny of telecom records and their uses by the
inspectors general in the relevant agencies and departments should be enough to
restore the rule of law.