The presidency of Barack Obama started off with a bang, as he repudiated the most reprehensible policies of the previous administration through a series of executive signing orders. But since then it’s been all downhill.
In fact, we should have seen it coming. When Obama declared, just before taking office, that no government official was above the law, he tempered those comments by saying, “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Credit Obama with releasing reams of documents exposing the inner workings of the torture regime – but he has done, and will do, nothing about it. Those who crafted fine legal arguments justifying the searing of human minds and flesh will remain free and unpunished, their good names unbesmirched.
There is one notable exception to the Look Forward, Not Back policy. Those who have blown the whistle on government misdeeds can expect to receive the full retaliatory force of the US Justice Department. Thomas Drake, while an employee of the National Security Agency, revealed the trashing of American privacy embedded in the government’s massive warrantless surveillance operation. For his efforts in exposing mismanaged public funds and civil rights abuses, Drake faces the possibility of decades in prison and millions in fines. Obama re-issued the Bush indictment against James Risen, who wrote about a reckless and inept CIA program aimed at undermining the Iranian nuclear program – a program so thoughtless and dangerous that it may have aided the Iranian efforts at getting the bomb. And now Bradley Manning, accused of leaking the video of the Apache helicopter incident, in which US forces killed two Reuters employees and a number of Iraqi civilians, is being held incommunicado at Quantico. Manning is also charged with leaking the Afghanistan War logs to Wikileaks. These leaks have shown the true face of American wars in the region, and for that reason, the full weight of the Empire is being brought to bear against Manning, Risen and Drake.
The whole world is Obama’s battlefield. He orders covert special forces on missions in over 75 countries – not just Afghanistan and Iraq. He claims the right to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely, even to assassinate them on sight – including American citizens – no matter where they are in the world. He has repeatedly upheld and extended Bush legal arguments to deny torture victims their day in court and continues to allow the torture of prisoners in American custody. Meanwhile, he’s busy trying to extend the government’s powers to spy on the population at home.
Support for these policies, or at least the quiet acceptance of them, is common among Americans, and runs something like this: they’re terrorists, fuck ’em! As emotionally satisfying as that may be, proponents ignore the government’s repeated errors in identifying actual terrorists. Since the Supreme Court granted Guantanamo prisoners the right to habeas review, 72% of Guantanamo prisoners whose cases have been heard have been found innocent of any wrongdoing. Drone missiles aimed at al-Qaeda leaders, which have increased sharply under Obama, frequently kill innocent civilians. The terrorist “watch list” has grown to over a million names and yet didn’t prevent the Underwear Bomber from boarding his flight, a child whose own father explicitly warned us that he was a threat.
And so the war continues to have first dibs on our limited resources, even as we slash valuable social services to an increasingly vulnerable population. The Senate goes on vacation while denying assistance to the armies of unemployed, and then finally offers help by cutting twelve billion dollars from the food stamp program, of all places. One out of eight Americans now relies on food stamps – 41 million people, half of whom are children – and the average household receives only four dollars a day in aid, an amount which will surely be reduced now. These are the people being forced to make sacrifices for the goal of balanced budgets – the young, the old, and the disabled – not the war planners in the Pentagon, who get billions every year to research and develop new ways of killing people.
Obama’s behavior in the face of the biggest environmental disaster in American history has been equally uninspiring. Although the president has wrung $20 billion out of BP to pay claims, his administration has basically toed the corporate line, acquiescing in the company’s denial of press access to the areas of the worst damage, allowing them to keep scientists away from the scene, preventing any proper assessment of the spill, and refusing even to sack Ken Salazar, the corporate shill Obama appointed Secretary of the Interior, who rubber-stamped the waiving of environmental regulations for BP’s drilling operations. BP still has massive contracts with the government and will no doubt claim enough losses to earn themselves generous tax rebates next year. In 2009, BP earned $2.2 billion selling oil to the Pentagon to fuel its wars, and there is no sign of that relationship coming to an end. BP has sold almost a billion dollars’ worth of oil to US warmakers this year.
And Obama has made it clear that he believes those warmakers offer a key to America’s continued prosperity. The Nobel-Laureate-in-Chief would like to see American firms expand their already considerable dominance of the world market in weapons and armaments.
Democratic party loyalists will point to the successful passage of major legislation on economic stimulus, national healthcare, and financial regulation as significant Obama victories. But these efforts were all either meager or co-opted by the forces they sought to control. While the stimulus may have kept the economy from going completely off the rails, official unemployment is near 10%, and actual unemployment is over 20%. One need only look at the stock market performance of the health insurance companies and the banks during their respective legislative battles to see how those industries ended up benefiting from the laws meant to end their abuse of the American people.
It all adds up to a depressing record. When even articles on education policy are pointing out the similarities between Obama and his predecessor – a similarity which is obvious on its face – and Robert Gibbs has to resort to calling those who articulate such views drug-addled communists, it is little wonder that the Democrats face the distinct prospect of electoral slaughter this fall.