Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why Have Obama's Appointments So Far Been So Dreadful?

Before turning to that vexing question, a few preliminary remarks:

-Maybe, once the top tier positions in his administration are filled with Clintonites and Wall Street moles, Obama will throw a few sops to the “liberals.” There are signs of this already, though it is so far mainly confined to the Vice President’s staff – for example, the appointment of Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute as Biden’s economic advisor. Admittedly, we’re talking social workers, not socialists, but, in an era of small “change,” small favors are most welcome.

-I would venture too that today’s announcement that retired General Eric Shinseki will head the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is also good news. Shinseki is a military professional who was on the outs with Donald Rumsfeld even before being forced into retirement for opposing the administration’s transparently low ball estimate of the troop levels necessary to subdue Iraq and manage it after the American invasion.

-It is intriguing that Obama decided to appoint a Japanese American on Pearl Harbor Day, and that no one has accused him yet of palling around with kamikazes. The American Right has evidently made peace with Japan – even to the point of wanting the Japanese to run automobile manufacturing in this country, if that’s what it takes to do in the UAW. The Right’s reaction to Obama’s election also shows that they’ve made peace with the demise of Jim Crow – to the point that they can accept a (non-threatening) African-American President. But, as the example of Obama’s “pal,” Bill Ayers, attests, the folks who were right about Vietnam are still not forgiven. The lesson of that sorry phase of American history is still not learned.

-That “the sixties” remain contentious is a comparatively benign consequence of the fact that America’s defeat in Vietnam – and the defeat along with it of the War Party -- was less than total. The two Bush wars raging today, along with the wars initiated by Bush’s poppy and by Bill Clinton, are more malign consequences. This is why it is urgent to combat the Clintonites – Obama included – on the Bush wars, as much or more than it was to combat Cheney and Bush. They want out – who doesn’t! – but they don’t want there to be a perception of defeat because it would be bad for the empire; because America would then lose “respect.” This is a recipe for yet more disasters. Without some considerable come-uppins, we will have no chance at all of securing a relatively soft landing as the inevitable consequences of imperial overreach accumulate. The less clear it is that these latest adventures have ended in disaster – and humiliation – the more likely it will be that more of the same will happen again.

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Of course, it may yet turn out that circumstances force even the most dreadful members of Team Obama to do some pale approximation of the right thing – perhaps even to end the Bush wars. Still, the question remains: why has Obama been so drawn to war-supporting, free-marketeering Clintonites? Why has he made so many bad appointments? The most straightforward answer is that his politics are as bad as theirs. That hypothesis is confirmed by almost everything Obama has said and done since he announced his candidacy, with the possible exception of that too brief moment, before Super Tuesday, when Obama and his advisors thought it expedient to try to win over John Edwards’ supporters.

There are other explanations in circulation too, and they are not entirely implausible. However, for the most part, these explanations have an illusory aspect (in Freud’s sense of “illusion,” according to which illusions are expressions of unconscious desires). Obamamaniacs who are not yet ready to concede that they have been snookered are especially susceptible to illusions. There are also more hard-headed analyses in circulation. What they have in common is the idea, which may well be true, that Obama is extraordinarily shrewd. In the aftermath of that Grant Park moment, and in anticipation of Inauguration Day, the boundaries of these explanations easily meld together – as much for skeptics like myself as for “true believers.”

No doubt the most wishful explanation revolves around the idea, dear to liberal pundits, that Obama is so smart and so self-confident that he can fashion a “team of rivals” for their “competence” alone, while calling the shots himself. [The expression “team of rivals” comes from the title of a very unremarkable best-seller about Lincoln’s cabinet by pop historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.] For those who imagine this, Obama is “the decider” – though, in view of that term’s most recent uses, Obama’s cheerleaders dare not say so directly. Of course, the obverse is at least equally plausible: that Obama is so insecure that he needs Washington and Wall Street “heavies” around for cover and to keep him from going too far wrong.

Explanations that appeal to Obama’s shrewdness, more than to his majestic (or deficient) powers, all have one characteristic in common: they would make little sense had Obama not named Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. Thus there is the Godfather explanation -- “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.” In these terms, Clinton’s appointment would be shrewd indeed. By becoming Secretary of State, she will serve at Obama’s “pleasure.” Should she be dismissed, she’ll have no Senate seat to return to. She’ll probably not have much of a base in New York either – since, in the circumstances, neither she nor her “better half” will have much reason to continue cultivating one. Indeed, they have no reason any longer even to maintain residence in New York. Watch for Bill Clinton to move his operation from Harlem to Washington; it’s unlikely to happen right away, but give him a year or two. Remember that, for the Clintons, parachuting into New York was all about launching Hillary’s Presidential campaign. Now that that’s a dead letter, why bother.

[How delicious it would be if, in eight years time, having been appointed to Clinton’s Senate seat, Caroline Kennedy would be elected our first woman President of the United States! Dynastic politics is not without ironies; and, despite the Bush family and the Clintons, it is not a wholly deplorable phenomenon.]

There is also a wrinkle on the last of these explanations that renders it more benign. Ralph Nader mentioned it – skeptically -- last week on “Democracy Now”; I don’t know who else has floated the idea. The thought is that by putting a high profile figure at the head of the State Department – Hillary surely is that – Obama is aiming to restore the State Department’s traditional preeminence in foreign affairs, at the expense of the National Security Council, the Defense Department, and the various, nefarious agencies of the National Security State. That hypothesis is supported by the continuation in office – allegedly for a short, if not fixed, period of time – of George Bush’s man, Robert Gates, as head of the Defense Department. In that capacity, he is likely to remain what he now is: a caretaker. That would help neutralize the Defense Department in the perennial struggle for foreign policy supremacy, effectively reversing the situation that, until quite recently, existed under Bush – before his entire administration went missing. It should become clearer whether there is anything to this idea when we find out who Obama selects to head the many potentially powerful national security posts he has yet to fill – especially at the CIA.

Perhaps, then, there is some good that will come out of all the dreadfulness. Perhaps too things will all work out better than appears. However, to think so, one must don rose-colored glasses. In the light of day, it looks increasingly like what we see is what we’ll be getting.

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