Okay, I’m officially getting scared.
For now, let’s just call it a nonspecific, even remote, sense of dread – like the foreboding that often accompanies the first bark of an approaching thunderstorm: hardly an irrational unease, but often a harbinger of nothing worse than a dusting of rain.
Just a sense of unease — yeah, that’s what we’ll call it — for now.
It isn’t that Barack Obama hasn’t been liberal enough for my tastes. He hasn’t, but that’s not what’s unnerving me. It isn’t that he’s starting to break some of his most important campaign promises to the progressive base of the Democratic Party. He’s doing that certainly; but, no, that’s not the source of my unease either. It isn’t even that his administration seems to be placing a higher priority on protecting the pirates of the financial industry than on defending the rights of ordinary workers. They do seem to be doing that and yeah it’s awful, but once again it isn’t what’s scaring me.
What’s scary isn’t Obama’s priorities or even his governing philosophy, however disappointing they may be in some respects.
No, what’s scary is how often — and in such a short time — he’s simply been wrong — dead wrong. And what’s even more disconcerting is how often this wrongness has been the result of his growing tendency to default to inside the Beltway status quo thinking. Time after time, faced with a choice between new directions and conventional wisdom, Obama has been taking the conventional route.
He did it with the bank bailout. Progressive economists, including, of course, Paul Krugman, cried out for temporary nationalization of failing institutions. But Obama didn’t have the nerve, or maybe he just didn’t have the vision. Either way, he elected, instead, to follow the advice of his ever so conventional economic brain trust – Team Money, led, of course, by Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers.
The result? As a non-economist I can’t claim expertise here, but the answer seems clear enough. Hundreds of billions of dollars pissed away — transferred into the accounts of financial giants. And then, as their thank you to the nation for this generosity, the executives of these banking corporations chose not to increase lending one iota. Deciding, instead, to just put the money in the bank, so to speak. They did, however, continue to spend millions of dollars lobbying against progressive proposals.
Then there’s Obama’s growing betrayal of his campaign promises on issues of secrecy and civil liberties. And once again Beltway conventional wisdom rules supreme. We can’t release photographs of torture, we’re told, because to do so could put the troops at risk. Sad, I had all but convinced myself that the use of the troops as an excuse for political expediency was a Bush Administration trademark. But it turns out that Obama’s well publicized post-partisanship extends here as well.
I find myself increasingly, though with great reluctance, drawn to Glenn Greenwald’s conclusion that “ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has taken one extreme step after the next to keep concealed both the details and the evidence of Bush’s crimes, including rendition, torture and warrantless eavesdropping.” And, of course, the Beltway loves it. But what will this essentially amoral response to Bush era abuses bring us in four, eight or 20 years? I hope I’m wrong, but to me it seems like an invitation to repetition.
But the scariest thing of all is Obama’s growing default to the Military/Beltway Complex on Iraq and Afghanistan. Did you hear we’re going to win the war in Afghanistan? We’re going to kick us some Taliban butt and bring peace, capitalism and democracy to the region. No outside force in history has ever had much luck in trying to pacify this tragic but fiercely independent nation, but apparently we’re going to do it. And what’s more, we’re going to do it while at the same time carrying Iraq and Pakistan on our shoulders.
When I think about this ever increasing expansion of our military presence in Afghanistan, I can’t help but hear the echoes of LBJ in Vietnam. He was a president who wanted desperately to pursue other priorities: to do great things; to build a Great Society. But he found himself increasingly sucked into an intractable war he could never win. And just like Obama, he marched into this hell armed to the teeth with the wisdom of the finest minds conventional thinking had ever produced.
As a strong supporter of the president, it pains me to say this, but Barack Obama is dancing with disaster: a potential catastrophe born of a refusal to truly embrace the change he’s come to represent. He is doing much that’s good, but the good can so easily be swallowed up and destroyed by the bad. It isn’t too late to put things right, but the signs that he is willing to do what’s needed have so far been frighteningly few.
And even this early in his presidency, already the time for real change is growing shorter by the day.