So I’m telling an old story by now, but old stories
are sometimes the most valuable to look back upon. This president came to
office on a tide of commitment, not to the changes every candidate promises
but, as he himself put it, change you can
believe in
. Well, we believed. In fact, we believed twice.

Sure, he was blind-sided by an economic disaster that
was only an egg when he ran for office and hatched almost simultaneously with
his inauguration. But the statesman, the
man of character we thought we were
voting for quickly turned politician–and an inexperienced one at that. A
statesman would
have federalized the banks, guaranteed deposits and let the investment
houses and investment banks take the bath they deserved. Barack Obama blinked
and it was merely the first of a string of blinks. That string is what finally unglued
the already strained self-assurance of a once confident nation, as well as dooming
his presidency.
Take
a moment to consider true statesmanship and its relevance to our current sorry-state
of affairs. The comparison comes by way of a new story; the corporate,
political and public response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s overwhelming
popularity. Populism is a rum term, but Senator Warren stared-down the
political fiction and called it what it was–a huge scam played out against the
interests of ordinary Americans at their own personal expense by bailing out
those who drove us off an economic cliff. Warren doesn’t mince words. Banks
have no business gambling and bankers who commit fraud in order to gamble
belong in jail.
Pretty
tough lady, this Senator from Massachusetts and a matter of statesmanship, shot
directly from a well-informed hip, with steely-eyed, but very subtle and
courteous intensity.
So
how has all that played out?
As
for the corporate, the banks have
been absolutely gobsmacked. These paragons of power and influence are unable to
get past Warren’s perceptive questioning, behind rimless glasses, a tendency to
interrupt bullshit and a charming smile. Over on the political side, her honesty and damn-the-torpedoes style made the
Senator the most powerful among that glib and feckless club of 100. Publicly, she is so popular that the
call is unending for her to run for higher office, no matter her consistent
refusal.
In hockey we call that a hat-trick.
So it is possible
to make the changes we believe in, if the voice and power of change is
straightforward and in the interest of the nation. That, in a nut-shell, is
what defines statesmanship. Franklin Roosevelt had it, as did Dwight
Eisenhower, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, but to find another example one
would have to visit an earlier century. Certainly no president has come close
in this one and we thought, we believed we had a statesman in Barack Obama.
Transparency was Obama’s campaign promise and the
National Security Agency’s secret spying exposed the presidential reality. Protecting
whistle-blowers “as necessary to the nation’s
health and accountability”
was praised on the stump, while in office Obama viciously
hounded whistleblowers from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden. 
Reining in Wall Street was the rhetoric and paying
down their private debts with public money the result; $16 trillion worth, when
our total national debt stood well below that figure. Accountability in the
Pentagon, first pointed out by Rumsfeld at $2.1 trillion the day before 9-11
(then forgotten in the panic of panic) was an Obama commitment and today amounts
to four times that unaccountability.
Our president told us, standing before his
teleprompter, “Too often bills are rushed
through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to
review them. As president, I will not sign any non-emergency bill without
giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White
House website for five days.”
Horsefeathers! Almost immediately and without either
public review or commentary, he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, expanding the power and scope
of the federal government to fight the War on Terror, including codifying into law the indefinite
detention of terrorism suspects without trial. Under the new law the US
military has the power to carry out domestic anti-terrorism operations on US
soil. Worse, the Act authorizes the military to detain US citizens on our own soil under the broad new
anti-terrorism provisions provided in the bill, once again without trial.
The military? On U.S. soil, at any whim or whisper of
anti-terrorism, against American citizens?
Obama is a Harvard student of constitutional law and in that context his
signature flies in the face of a career that promised openness and the consent
of citizens—constitutional issues. We merely drop our jaw in wonder as to whom
this president sees reflected in his shaving mirror.
Back again on the 2008 campaign rhetoric-trail, Barack
promised, “We will not negotiate
bilateral trade agreements that stop the government from protecting the environment,
food safety, or the health of its citizens; give greater rights to foreign
investors than to U.S. investors; require the privatization of our vital public
services; or prevent developing country governments from adopting humanitarian
licensing policies to improve access to life-saving medications,”
That was then and this is now, but as President Obama knew when he said it that the Trans
Pacific Partnership (TPP) was well under way. He personally nurtured it through
his first term in complete secrecy from the United States Congress, even though
they begged for information. Those for whom it was not secret were not the appointed officials one might expect,
thoroughly trained in trade issues and protecting our rights as Americans. They
were exclusively a team of 700 Big Business representatives, ushered in by Obama
to negotiate on your and my behalf.
(The
Nation, July, 2012) Think of the TPP as a
stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public
scrutiny. Indeed, only two of the twenty-six chapters of this corporate Trojan
horse cover traditional trade matters. The rest embody the most florid dreams
of the 1 percent—grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and
permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor
safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources,
and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety,
natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.
Obama has insisted on reviving Fast-Track, forcing the Congress to
approve or disapprove on an up-or-down vote, with no amendments to a trade
agreement they had not seen. I guess
you can’t get any more two-faced than that. Elizabeth Warren, for one, is
furious. The media is largely silent.
               As a candidate (oh,
that again), Obama promised to
restore proper legislative and judicial oversight over counter-terrorism
operations. Rather than treat counter-terrorism policy as an area of exception,
operating without the normal safeguards that protect the rights of the accused,
Obama promised that his approach “will
again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of
stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”
               Obama is hardly a ruler, at least not yet, but his weekly
Drone ‘kill list’ is as arbitrary and beyond the law of which he spoke so
eloquently as one can get. A federal judge acknowledged a “Catch-22,” saying that the government claimed “as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible
with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion
a secret.”
It’s impossible under the constraint of everything
being secret to get an accurate count, but estimates range as high as 3,000
deaths so far. And if a wedding party is targeted because a single terrorist
may be a guest, one can assume that the outcry from collateral deaths in targeted
countries is as on-target as the drones. These strikes probably enlist more
terrorists than they kill, but the drone-beat goes on.
Campaigning in 2012, President Obama grandly
proclaimed, “I have done more to take on
lobbyists than any other candidate in this race. I don’t take a dime of their
money, and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House.”
USA
Today promptly reported that Obama’s campaign fundraising team included thirty-eight
members of law firms that were paid $138 million in 2007 to lobby the federal
government.
The tragedy of all this fabrication is its legacy.
Barack Obama has chosen to kick statesmanship in the teeth, opting instead for
political gamesmanship. Why, Mr. President? You had a shot at greatness and
chose mediocrity, a choice that will haunt your conscience. Surely, one term as
a statesman would have been preferable to winning a second term by selling out
your constituency.
Was it worth it?