Want to know Obama’s real politics? Forget what he says and pay attention to the cabinet members he’s kept and sacked during his presidency.
Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?
The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, 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 critical acuteness. 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 Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack 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 President Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric and now head of the president’s outside panel of economic advisers. At a June 13th meeting of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a questioner said he assumed that President 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.
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’s 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 York Fed. 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’s 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 13th, 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 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 Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative 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.