"Democracy came into the Western World to the tune of sweet, soft music," wrote H.L. Mencken as the opening to his Notes on Democracy. With the ascent of Barack Obama, the music was triumphant and loud, captivating the entire center-left media establishment, the nation’s youth, the official counterculture, the legions of professional victimologists, the mainstream antiwar movement, the civil bureaucracy, the legal profession, the unions, most traditional Democrats and the young and old members of American academia. For the lion’s share of Obama’s loyal supporters, his ascent to the throne marked something nearly as significant as the entrance of democracy itself onto the Western scene. It signaled a turning point to one day be listed on a short list of American victories for the modern world — a watershed to appear on timelines featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, although in Mencken’s account "there was, at the start, no harsh bawling from below" when democracy made its appearance, Obama was met early on by loud protest from much of the grassroots right, much of which had backed Bush until the twilight of his own reign of power and who agreed with Obama’s supporters that the man represented a great shift in American governance, only disagreeing on whether this dramatic transformation was one to be celebrated rather than feared.
A year has passed since the maligned and lame-duck Bush presidency gave way to the hope and change of the Obama administration. For the first couple months last year, criticism of Obama was regarded as premature. We had to give him the benefit of the doubt for the obligatory although arbitrary 100 days. When that period passed, Obama was shielded from criticism on the grounds that his predecessor had made such a disastrous mess of domestic and foreign policy that the new president would need yet more time before he could be fairly evaluated. That isolation from criticism did give way eventually, and few today have the temerity to insist that we delay our scrutiny until the president is reelected in 2012.
A fundamental element in a meaningful critique of Obama’s first year must take account of whether his policies have succeeded on his own terms. Has he represented the hope and change that he promised, that became the rallying cry of tens of millions and swept the internet in YouTube videos showcasing artists and celebrities at once pleading and predicting that America would usher in the political reform of a lifetime?
We must remember why the Republicans were so roundly defeated in November 2008. McCain was seen as a continuation of the Bush legacy, about which many conservatives by that time had become visibly embarrassed. Throughout the seemingly interminable campaign season, all the way up until Autumn, John McCain ran on a platform of staying the course in foreign policy and being more reform-minded than Bush in the domestic arena, while somehow being at the same time more fiscally conservative so as to offer a meaningful alternative to the Democrats.
The alleged expertise and experience brought by Republicans to the realm of national security had suffered due to widespread public fatigue about Iraq, dozens of scandals concerning Republican executive power that made headlines for about four solid years, and a growing sense that Bush and by corollary McCain demonstrated a crass hubris concerning the projection of American power that was hurting the country’s image and not keeping us the least bit safer. Of course, Ron Paul’s presence on the GOP primary stage, through the presentation of a truly diametrically opposed alternative, revealed the limits of the Republicans’ monotone attachment to the foreign policy status quo.
Running on the supposed success of the Iraq "surge" was doing better than it should have. With McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate, he seemed for a week to have a real chance at victory. The choice had secured the Republican grassroots and much of middle America, while cutting into the Democrats’ dominance among independent-minded women. But then amidst growing concerns about the financial and mortgage markets, McCain, who had admitted that he did not know much about economics and yet had the boldness to challenge Ron Paul to read Adam Smith, spoke the words that sealed his political fate: "The fundamentals of the economy are still strong." By September the consensus turned decisively against this foolish remark.
In the wake of financial collapse, with both McCain and Obama stepping over themselves to rush to Washington and approve the Bush-Paulson bailouts, the premier political question was one that hit voters’ wallets hard, and Obama swept into the White House. A change in foreign policy and economic policy became more attractive to enough swing votes to give Obama an unambiguous electoral victory, even if nobody could show just what Obama knew about the recession that had just culminated into a huge crash and how he was supposed to fix it.
For those of us whose main political passion is liberty, we could at least be glad that the Fed-corporatist economic disaster and the imperial foreign disaster were identified as problems, albeit ones with numerous proposed solutions, ours not taken as seriously as Mr. Obama’s. Now, with a year behind us, let us consider what has truly changed, and how much of that change is in any sense a good thing.
First, we look at the first area of policy that helped bring Democrats to power in 2006 and 2008: War and national security.
Obama said America would finally, quickly and safely withdraw from Iraq, and even pay for domestic needs with the savings. But it became clear by his February speech at Camp Lejeune that his approach would be more or less what we would have expected from a third Bush term — following the approximate benchmarks of the Status of Forces Agreement that Bush himself had acceded to in late 2008. Meanwhile, Obama gave no mention of the Vatican-sized embassy, its force protection, military contractors, troops charged with training the Iraqi military or what "non-combat" troops was really supposed to mean. All of this means the U.S. could indeed remain there longer than Bush had promised, and could lead to another escalation in that theater of war. Over a hundred thousand U.S. troops remain in Iraq. One hundred forty five have died there since Obama took office.
In Afghanistan, the situation has been far worse than we could have probably expected under another year of Bush. This is all because, tragically, Obama has kept his promise: He has expanded the war from the beginning, and announced in November the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops, bringing the total number up to about three times what it was when he took office. 2009 became the worst year for the Afghan people since 2001 — more depredations of children’s rights and the most civilian deaths since the invasion, including in air strikes that are ripe with scandal and can only contribute to the terrorist threat. As commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Obama picked General Stanley McChrystal, who became the target of controversy in the Bush years for the draconian handling of detention centers, the blocking of the Red Cross from these prison camps, and for his involvement in covering up the truth about Pat Tillman‘s death. Needless to say, when McChrystal publicly contradicted the president’s assessment of what was needed for victory, he was not fired for insubordination. Obama and the Democrats always criticized Bush and the Republicans for "neglecting" Afghanistan. The Democrats’ due diligence has successfully made Afghanistan a far deadlier place than Iraq in the last year. About 300 U.S. troops have died there since Obama took office.
This is all, supposedly, to take down about 100 members of al-Qaeda who live in Afghanistan and to stop a somewhat larger number in Pakistan from destabilizing that country. To stop the enemy in Pakistan, Obama has dramatically escalated drone strikes, launching them more than 40 times, killing far more civilians than militants and displacing as many as two million Pakistanis from the Swat valley in one of the largest refugee crises since Rwanda. Obama assures us we need not actually invade and occupy Pakistan, since it is a U.S. ally, but this policy of "stability" supposedly justifies the entire U.S. project in both nations.
The military excursions — which the Democrats used to condemn as "unilateralism" when Bush did it — mount from nation to nation. In his November speech at West Point announcing the escalation in Afghanistan, Obama promised more intervention in Somalia and Yemen. He had already bombed and even with a small force invaded Somalia, and provided about eighty tons of weaponry to Somalia’s "government," much of which ends up in the hands of the insurgents. His administration had threatened to invade Eritria in April. In the next month, at least dozens of civilians were killed in Yemen by Obama’s cruise missiles, which was soon after cited by the Christmas Day underwear bomber as the inspiration for his attempted act of blowback.
Although his diplomatic tone toward Iran marks an improvement over Bush’s belligerence, it is also less coherent, coming from an administration that claims Iran was "caught" with a nuclear facility that Iran itself had announced, well within its rights, to the International Atomic Energy Agency and that was not nuclearized at the time of this supposed revelation. Obama has approved tough sanctions on Iran, a classical act of war by other means, which will only hurt the Iranian people and strengthen the mullahs. While the claims that Iran is intervening in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan against our forces strain credibility, in October, a terrorist associated with Jundallah — an al-Qaeda-affiliated enemy of the Iranian government that the United States most likely backs covertly — carried out a suicide attack that killed 31 people.
Obama has also backed stricter sanctions against North Korea, a billion-plus dollars in foreign aid to Mexico so it can crack down on drugs, and $108 billion in loan guarantees to the International Monetary Fund.
This last bit of spending, incidentally, was included in a war supplemental bill passed in June. Aside from the $108 billion for the IMF was an off-budget $106 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq war spending, $660 million in aid for Gaza, $555 million for Israel, $310 million for Egypt, $300 million for Jordan, $420 million for Mexico and $889 million for UN peacekeeping missions. This supplemental bill was requested by the man who said last February:
This budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules — and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.
The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize has pushed through the largest "defense" budgets since World War II, and just requested a total of $708 billion Department of Defense budget for next year.
In some important ways, Obama’s general promise to change foreign policy was always in tension with his specific campaign vows. To the extent it has changed, it has almost all changed for the worse — more intervention, more war, more foreign aid, more bombings. But the trajectory is approximately identical to the way it was under Bush. What else would we expect from the president who put McChrystal in charge of Afghanistan, appointed John Brennan, another Bush adviser closely associated with Bush’s "enhanced interrogation" policy, to the post of Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security, and kept Robert Gates as the Defense Secretary upon taking office on a campaign of hope and change?
Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law
Perhaps in the related areas of civil liberties, the rule of law, and such matters, we could expect to have seen more change than with war proper. Well, if we did, we should be rather disappointed by now. In his first week, Obama issued several orders, closing black sites, setting today as the deadline by which Guantánamo will have been closed, and symbolically reining in some excesses of the Bush years. The fifty-one weeks since then have been nothing but an entrenchment, ratification and expansion of Bush’s policies.
The first sign that this might be the case happened shortly after Obama sealed his nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, when he reversed himself on a campaign promise and voted to legalize Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. As president in April, he demonstrated his commitment to this program as his administration fought a lawsuit to inquire into the program, citing not just the "state secrets" doctrine abused by Bush, but going further and invoking "sovereign immunity."
The surveillance state has continued apace. The Transportation Security Administration has been pushing for full-body scans since 2002 and now has an excuse with the government’s failure to stop the underwear bomber. Last year we saw a leaked copy of the Department of Homeland Security’s now-infamous report on "rightwing extremism" — alerting law enforcement to keep an eye out for Americans with unpopular political views, a policy that was also embraced by Bush (and many presidents before). Particularly frightening is the proposal of Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, that the government "cognitively infiltrate" online groups to spread disinformation and discredit "conspiracy theories." If the goal is to quash paranoia, they are not doing a good enough job. But one could be forgiven for believing the real goal is to chill dissent. And speaking of Obama administration officials proposing most disconcerting policies, we must not forget that Rahm Emanuel has suggested that Americans on the No-Fly List lose their Second-Amendment rights.
The most worrisome developments under Obama concerning the rule of law revolve around detention policy. Repeatedly, Obama criticized the Bush administration for its "legal black hole" at Guantánamo, and argued that indefinite detention without the benefit of habeas corpus was an affront to time-honored American values. In an early indication of where this administration would take this policy, it stood by the Bush-era designation of "enemy combatants" and fought a ruling by a Bush-appointed federal judge that habeas corpus should extend, in limited capacity, to the Bagram prison camp in Afghanistan.
In May, Obama stood in front of the National Archives — in front of the Bill of Rights itself — and engaged in the most impressive example of doublespeak in our time. He spoke well about the principles of the rule of law and how important they are to our country, even as he unveiled a plan to try some detainees in court, try others in front of military commissions and keep some of them imprisoned indefinitely — a policy of "prolonged detention" that, in a sense, went beyond the Bush policy of executive detention in that it was now asserted to be a part of our legal fabric, not just an ad-hoc executive prerogative. This was akin to Bush’s saying he had to destroy the free market to save it, except it was much slicker and actually fooled many people.
When the Democratic Congress refused to finance the closing of Guantánamo, Obama stood by its decision. Now it appears that he intends to bring many of them to a detention facility in Indiana, thus bringing the lawlessness of Guantánamo into our shores. This is an unspeakably unsettling precedent.
Although Obama has been attacked for trying the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, there was a decent chance this would have happened anyway, and many other terrorists have been given civil trial — Timothy McVeigh, Richard Reid, and even "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui. An irony, once pointed out by Obama, is that the more evidence the government has against a suspect, the more likely they are to get civil procedure, as opposed to a military commission or indefinite detention. But the concern that Mohammed will find a technicality and be released, and the liberals’ triumphant posturing that the rule of law is finally being obeyed, must run against the inconvenient fact that Obama’s Justice Department says, even if he is acquitted, he will simply be remanded to indefinite detention anyway!
Two other Bush policies savaged by Obama and his civil libertarian supporters were torture and extraordinary renditioning, whereby detainees would be outsourced to foreign regimes for interrogation unbecoming of our own republican system. As for torture, although the policy is officially that the U.S. does not torture — which was also technically the Bush policy — abuses at Guantánamo have only gotten worse. Further, Obama flip-flopped on his promise to release the photographs of torture at the hands of U.S. officials, going so far as to push for an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act with the sole purpose of preventing images of torture since 9/11 from going public.
As for renditioning, it will continue in a modified form, with Hillary Clinton’s State Department in charge of "oversight." The use of black sites and secret prisons appears to have ended (although it was probably receding long before Obama took office), but the new president’s first case of renditioning raises all new concerns. Raymond Azar alleges credibly that he was tortured in all the ways we’d expect from the Bush years — deprived of sleep, stuck in stress positions for many hours, subjected to extreme temperatures and taunted that he’d never again see his family if he didn’t speak. But there’s a twist: Azar was not a terrorist, or accused of being one, or even alleged to be the least bit dangerous. His supposed crime was knowing about a petty amount of corruption committed by a U.S.-connected military contractor and not coming forward. He is essentially, if anything, a white-collar criminal, and in the hundreds of billions wasted in defense spending over the years, it is bizarre he would be targeted over a meager amount, and downright terrifying that such extralegal processes and abuses were used in the case of a man alleged to be a Muslim version of Martha Stewart.
Obamanomics and Domestic Affairs
Moderate Americans tend to trust Democrats in domestic affairs and Republicans on national security issues. The financial collapse of 2008 played into the hands of Democrats who wanted to use the crisis as an excuse to expand government power and implement the policies they had long wanted — just as 9/11 was the type of foreign-policy crisis that formed the perfect storm for Republican interventionism.
Indeed, in the domestic arena there has been the most actual change, at least superficially. Most of the debates in the last year have concerned domestic policy. The flavor of central planning we could always expect under Obama is a mixture of center-left Keynesianism, corporate socialism with an egalitarian veneer, and the machine-politics pragmatism of Chicago from whence his career was launched.
But libertarians, limited-government conservatives and anti-corporatist liberals should actually agree on one thing: Obama’s economic policy has been a disaster and a betrayal in practically every way.
We could tell there would mostly be continuity when Obama picked Timothy Geithner, who had been intimate in the Bush-Paulson Wall Street bailouts, as his Treasury Secretary. From then to Obama’s nomination of Ben Bernanke to serve another term as Fed Chairman, there has been little for anyone wanting actual "change" to celebrate.
First, a note on Obama’s style of governance. A product of a tech-savvy and youthful political movement, Obama repeatedly promised transparency, transparency, transparency. He said the deliberations with drug and insurance companies would be on C-SPAN. He said all non-emergency legislation would be online for five days for the public to read before it was voted on. He has broken these promises.
The first bill Obama ever signed, the Lilly Ledbetter "Equal Pay for Equal Work" law, was not put online as promised. Neither was the stimulus bill. And neither have all the health care talks been on C-Span, as he repeatedly promised. It is also difficult to find an excuse for why Obama’s website that showed where all the stimulus money was supposed to be creating jobs listed 440 Congressional districts that don’t even exist. This is the kind of mistake that is either the product of such brazen hubris, or such incompetence, that it makes even the most cynical opponent of government corruption scratch his head and laugh.
Now, in the case of the stimulus bill, Obama did claim it was an emergency. The cost of inaction was too great to delay action. "[A]t this particular moment, only government can provide the short term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe." He also said, "For every day we wait or point our fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs. More families will lose their savings."
And how did that work out? As USA Today reported just recently:
Even before Barack Obama took the oath of office, his economic advisers projected that without hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending, the U.S. economy could lose another 3 million to 4 million jobs on top of the 3.1 million lost in 2008.
It turns out they were optimistic. Even with the $787 billion stimulus package that Obama signed in February, more than 4 million jobs have been lost in 2009, the worst year for job losses since World War II. The jobless rate that advisers projected would peak at 8% has topped 10%.
Early on, Obama gave us the auto bailouts that Bush probably would have had he continued serving in office, circumventing bankruptcy law, hurting creditors and essentially nationalizing the car industry. Now the Treasury tells us such "loans" are "highly unlikely to be recovered." Related to this of course was the Keynesian and Rooseveltian "Cash for Clunkers" program, an insane subsidy project whereby cars that could have been sold to people who actually could use them were destroyed wholesale in exchange for a voucher to buy a new car. Many of these new cars were foreign imports, even though the program was supposed to boost America’s auto industry. But all in all, what the program did was encourage Americans to either buy a car a little earlier or later than they would have anyway. The only tangible result is American taxpayers were ripped off and perfectly good cars were destroyed.
As far as old-fashioned spending goes, Obama is king. Last Spring, Obama unveiled an unfathomable $3.6 trillion budget with a $1.2 trillion deficit. The deficit is now nearly as large as the entire budget was when Bill Clinton took office in 1992. In real dollars, you can go back to the height of the Vietnam War, and the U.S. was still not spending as much as the U.S. is borrowing today. Talk about scary.
In terms of the general flavor of Obama’s domestic policy, it is generally the same welfare-state corporatism we have become all too familiar with. Those progressives who think the president is standing up to corporate interests should read Matt Taibbi to learn all about how Obama has only taken the Wall Street—Washington revolving door and widened it.
There is a new emphasis on regulation and welfarism that we did not get from Bush, but the shift has mainly been rhetorical. The corporatist nature of America’s mixed economy can be seen in Obamacare — where the insurance companies will have a captive market, thanks to the "individual mandate" that candidate Obama claimed he opposed — as well as in Cap and Trade, which will create a commodity market in the right to pollute (and that’s assuming you take the administration at its word that carbon dioxide is a pollutant).
Speaking of health care, the interventionist scope of Obama’s bill is deeply unsettling. By forcing people to buy insurance, the government will soon embark on a virtually unprecedented and unconstitutional intrusion into our personal lives. Meanwhile, keeping with the corporatism of the previous president, Obama’s FDA has successfully opposed the reimportation of cheap drugs, which Obama once supported, and his Department of Agriculture represents a continuation of the corporate-welfare subsidies and cartelization in farming we’ve seen over the years.
Overall, there has been a sharp acceleration of intervention at home. There is no doubt. Obama’s health-care plan represents a tax increase, which he claimed he would not impose on the middle class. This administration has banned flavored cigarettes, invaded the corporate boardroom, expanded the budget, buffed up the EPA and regulatory agencies, pushed for an "network neutrality" policy that would hand the internet over to the FCC, and on and on.
Bush’s Ninth Year?
While many left-liberal partisans continue to cheer on Obama and attempt to hush all dissent, some on the left have become critical of Obama’s continuation of Bush’s policies. Those who recognize Obama’s first year as essentially an extension of the Bush administration still often fall short of recognizing the fundamental issue here: This was practically meant to be. The two parties hand power off to one another, but the essential political realities remain in place. Carroll Quigley, the brilliant historian of the establishment, wrote in Tragedy and Hope:
The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy.… Either party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies.
And whatever the particular ideological makeup of the Democratic Party supposedly is — an active federal government, the advancement of human rights worldwide, national prerogative being supreme over the authority of the several states, central economic planning, a charitable, rather than strict, reading of the Constitution — there was never any reason that this philosophical matrix when combined with the awesome and invariably corrupting power of Washington DC would yield anything other than an approximate continuation and validation of the Bush years, with some essentially cosmetic changes here and there.
The answer to the Obama problem is the same as it was to the Bush problem, the Clinton problem, and the problem with every president who overstepped his bounds, waged unconstitutional wars, denied due process to suspects, violated the Fourth Amendment and spent so much as to make his predecessor look like a piker — philosophical revolution. Until the American people are swayed by the arguments for sound money, free markets, constrained government, the rule of law and peace in international affairs, they will continue to elect presidents whose distinctions are greatly overshadowed by their similarities with the men they replace. The hope for real change will be dashed, just as it was when Bush embarked on a presidency of unconstitutional terror policies, stimulus, bailouts, and huge expansions of Medicare and other domestic programs. Just as it is now for so many Obama supporters, who have seen their agent of hope and change continue on the path laid out by his predecessor, except with some window dressing and more rhetorical emphasis on social programs and economic regulation.
If the latter superficial considerations are enough to fool those who thought they were rejecting the Bush-McCain platform by pulling the lever for the Democrat in 2008, they just might find themselves reelecting Bush to a fourth term in 2012. If the conservative opponents of Obama do not find a more consistent dedication to liberty and government sharply restrained at both home and abroad, they just might take the White House in 2012, only to find they themselves had just reelected Obama in all ways that matter — a person with a different name but with most of the disastrous flaws in governing that they find so readily in today’s occupant of the Oval Office.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a research analyst at the Independent Institute and editor-in-chief of the Campaign for Liberty. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.