Swans Commentary » swans.com December 14, 2009  



Perspectives: A Review of 2009


The First Obama Year
Business as Usual, but with a Friendlier Face


by Gilles d'Aymery





Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.
("Against human stupidity, the gods themselves fight in vain." "Contre la bêtise humaine, les dieux eux-mêmes luttent en vain.")

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)


(Swans - December 14, 2009)  One year in and by itself means little without the historical context in which it took place. Upon closing the pages of this century's first decade it is worth recalling how it all began in the wake of the 1990s drastic financial deregulations and following the Y2K scare and the Clinton bridge to the new century based on the New Economy made of high-tech, finance, and globalization. High-tech turned into a bubble and Mr. Clinton bequeathed an economic recession to his successor, the Supreme-Court-selected George W. Bush. Mr. Bush did not waste time cutting taxes for the wealthiest of the wealthy by trillions of dollars. With the help of his Wizard of Oz, the Randian Alan Greenspan, Mr. Bush proceeded with a policy of cheap credit that put the real estate market on steroids. Caught with his pants down on 9/11/2001 by 19 kamikazes armed with box-cutters, Mr. Bush told the American people to go to Disneyland and to the Mall, as he assured the traumatized populace that he would take care of evil once and for all. The march to Afghanistan was a cakewalk military operation and so he turned his attention to one member of his self-defined Axis of Evil, Iraq, which was also supposed to be a cakewalk. In light of the Mission Accomplished extravaganza thrown by the administration, the end of the recession, the rise of the stock market, the hefty profits of corporate America, the credit card binge, and real estate going through the roof, Mr. Bush won the 2004 presidential contest (with the handy help of the Iowan Republican apparatus) and stood ready to spend some political capital toward privatizing Social Security and the rest of the economy.

The cakes, however, having been only half-baked at best, especially in Iraq, his agenda stalled in Congress, and the housing market weakening, the electorate turned sour on Mr. Bush in the 2006 mid-term elections. The Democrats took control of both the House and the Senate. By then, Alan Greenspan had long joined the speaking circuit and investment banking community and had been replaced at the Fed by one of his protégés, Ben Bernanke. In January 2007, Mr. Bush announced his new strategy on Iraq, a "surge" that has been relentlessly hailed a great success by the establishment. Meanwhile, further cracks in the economy were becoming more apparent. By then the 2008 presidential election primaries were in full bloom.

In the spring of 2008 the venerable investment bank Bear Stearns was collapsing and had to be taken over by JPMorgan Chase. During that same period a charismatic, charming, and talented politician with a magnetic smile and great sense of humor and repartee, Barack H. Obama, was making headway against the competition for the Democratic nomination. The Clinton camp attempted to paint him as too young, lacking experience and knowledge of how Washington works. Obama's wife, Michelle, now in full campaign mode, took advantage of the purported lack of Washington experience to hammer that it was what was needed -- Change you can believe in had to steer clear of the very way Washington worked. If her husband were a full-fledged member of the Washington establishment he would not be able to affect the changes the country wanted. He was portrayed as an outsider looking in with fresh new ideas. It was a well-tailored message. By emphasizing an antiwar stand, the need for change -- which allowed people to impose their own personal hopes on his unspecific exhortations -- and by running as an outsider who continually was castigating the corporate powers and their hated lobbies, Mr. Obama, a savvy political insider dating back all the way to the Daley Chicago political machine, clinched the nomination of the Democratic Party in June 2008. He wasted little time to recast his political orations in a more centrist light. While calling Iraq the wrong war, he vowed to direct his attention to Afghanistan, deemed the right war, increase American involvement in Pakistan, leave no option off the table in regard to Iran, and promise continued unconditional support of Israel.

On the home front, the financial and economic implosion of the country (and the world) and the poor choice of his opponent's rogue evangelical running mate with absolutely no governing experience helped Mr. Obama tremendously, as he kept underlining the need for change, including the desire for a post-racial, post-partisan future.

Recall that on September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the largest bankruptcy in the history of the country. The next day, AIG (American International Group) pointed a loaded gun at the Bush administration's temple, intimating in no uncertain terms that they would bring the entire world's banking system down if they did not receive immediate help. A bailout of $85 billion at taxpayers' expense was immediately put in place -- an amount that has since grown to $180 billion. Days later, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, presented a $700 billion bailout plan, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Congress approved in early October and President Bush immediately signed into law. (The great financial boondoggle, which has since reached over $12 trillion in capital infusion in the financial system, had begun in earnest.) The country was in full-fledged recession. From Detroit, the US car manufacturers were traveling to Washington like street beggars. The housing market had plummeted, foreclosures were exploding, jobs were hemorrhaging, and Mr. Bush, having become persona non grata, had essentially become a ghost, safely ensconced within the walls of his luxurious White House rental.

Under such circumstances, on November 4, 2008, Mr. Obama won 52.92% of the popular vote (against 45.66% for Mr. McCain). Incidentally, Ralph Nader, the independent candidate supported by many opponents of the bicephalous one-party corporate system, managed to win only 0.56% of the vote while spending $5.67 for each vote -- in comparison to $5.78 for Mr. McCain and $7.39 for Mr. Obama (the majority of the one-half billion dollars raised by the Obama campaign came from the castigated corporations and lobbyists!).

Nevertheless, this was an historical election, as Barack H. Obama became the first non-white American to be elected to the office of the president of these United States of America. People all over the world rejoiced. Swaths of Americans were jubilating. Change was on its way. The choice of another long-time insider, Rahm Emanuel, a congressman from Illinois and former Clinton operative, was considered a pragmatic decision by the adoring crowds and the progressive gallery. Obama's post-partisan aspirations led him to keep Bob Gates, a Republican, at the defense department, which made sense to progressives who understood the spirit of the campaign. The strategic move to bring Obama's former opponent, Hillary R. Clinton, was greeted with a few rumblings but accepted as a politically savvy move. His economic team (Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, et al.), however, grated Obama's followers for it abundantly showed that Wall Streeters were being kept in charge of the mess they had created.

Notwithstanding a few recriminations and doubts expressed in liberal and progressive circles, everybody was much too content to see the ideological crazies out of the White House, and all kept hope alive, as the saying goes. Obama was a master strategist, so the thinking went, and he was the only one who would master the imponderable and make the impossible happen.

On Inauguration Day, Mr. Obama inherited the worst Great Recession Americans have ever known since the 1930s Great Depression; two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan; increased warring involvement in Pakistan and the horn of Africa, and all the other military engagements that take place, known and unknown, around the globe; as well as an ever expanding globally chaotic and violent environment. He became the caretaker of more than 800 military bases and a military-industrial-congressional complex that defies the imagination. He took into his hands and mind a dilapidated country that has a crumbling infrastructure, an education system in tatters, a bankrupt health care structure, a fragmented and deeply divided polity increasingly falling into tribalism or communitarianism, at a time when the states' coffers are empty, the deficits are soaring, the competitive lead of the U.S. no longer exists, and other nations gradually threaten the predominance of American power. In addition, he was dealt with the legacy of one of the most unscientific and irrational administrations the country has ever known, and a series of huge challenges related to the mushrooming climate disruptions the U.S. and the world are facing, such as, for example: The melting of glaciers worldwide; the disintegration of the Antarctic and Artic ice shelves; the thawing of a huge area of the Western Siberian tundra, the size of France and Germany combined, that will lead to the release of methane gas in the atmosphere; the shrinking of the Greenland ice sheet that contributes to the 3mm-a-year rising of the seas, (see New Zealand TerraNature Web site); the rain forest droughts and record deforestations; the acidification of the oceans and extinction of fisheries; and a generalized water crisis due to increased fresh water scarcity.

His inaugural address was filled with graciousness and humility -- a great piece of oratory. He extended his hand to his political opponents and to the world, friends and foes alike, as he looked toward the future and the challenges ahead. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," he said. He repeated the customary images about freedom and liberty with poetic stanzas on American mythology, and he assured the gathering and the audience all over the world that change was on the way. Yet, buried in the powerful and lyrical address were two short propositions that canceled the entire meaning of the speech. He said, at one point, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense..." George H. W. Bush had once said, "The American way of life is not negotiable." President Obama reiterated that mantra loud and clear. Business was to be as usual.

From that august day, he's been going on with the business for which he has been elected. His administration has kept bailing out the financial system and done very little to help Main Street. He's delivered other wonderful speeches in Prague and Cairo, among other places. He thankfully overturned Mr. Bush's executive order against federal funding for stem cell research. He abandoned another Bush project, the installation of a pie-in-the-sky missile air defense system in Eastern Europe at the doorstep of Russia. He brought back a sense of cerebral rationality to the White House, after eight long years of evangelical delusions. And he made a few promises still left unfulfilled (e.g., closing Guantánamo). Beyond these worthy achievements, surrounded by a brain trust that epitomizes Washington, he has carried on with the elites' agenda -- increasing the military budget, embracing executive power, state secrecy, giving lip service to ending torture, refusing to sign the Ottawa Treaty (an international ban on landmines and cluster bombs), maintaining attacks on civil liberties, multiplying military strikes in Pakistan, doing a double surge in Afghanistan, cutting deals with big Pharma and the insurance industry to the detriment of a real health care overhaul, dropping the poor and the indigent by the wayside, short-changing the fast-dwindling middle class, and cutting down the little that remains of the national safety net in order to further fill the bank accounts of his corporate backers...(or should one say masters?)

Some, not having buyer's remorse yet, have argued in Obama's defense that he's been dealt an awfully bad hand, that his efforts at post-partisanship were met with disdain by the party of "No" (the Republicans), the Tea Party reactionaries, and Town Hall crazies, that he has also faced solid resistance by, and often opposition from, the Blue Dog Democrats, and that, all things considered, he was a better choice than the horrible alternative (McCain and his beer queen of a wife, and the Palin ignoramus hegepath). The merits of this line of defense are quite debatable, but even if granted, President Obama's first year in office is indelibly marked by an absence of clearly defined principles and policies, a cabinet filled with insiders, and actual decisions made and actions taken that are by and large a direct and transparent continuation of the policies implemented by the former Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, Reagan, and Carter administrations. The rhetoric may change, but the actualities have not.

At the time of this writing, Mr. Obama and his entourage were flying back from Oslo, Norway, where he had received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The overwhelming bulk of his Nobel lecture focused on the justification of necessary and just wars as well as the use of overwhelming force and sweeping sanctions to advance peace in the world under oh-so-benevolent American military leadership. He even echoed Mr. Bush when he solemnly stated, "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world."

That says it all.

In short, 2009 was like 1999 or 1989 or 1979: A year of difference without a difference, as fully expected by this observer.


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Internal Resources

Years in Review

Patterns which Connect

Myths and Realities


About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Some Lines In Favour Of A Troupe Of Buffalo Flying Over The White House Singing Pastoral Songs - Graham Lea

The Winter Of Liberal Discontent - Louis Proyect

Angry Men - Beligerent Women - Charles Marowitz

Obama: Were We All Naïve? - Femi Akomolafe

2009: It Was What It Was - Jan Baughman

Notes From The Edge - Jeffery Klaehn

2009 And "Mooving" Ahead - Steve Shay

French 2009 Vintage - Marie Rennard

2010, The Make-Or-Break Year - Martin Murie

Failure Of Progressive Thought - Michael Barker

Year End Closet Sweep Out - Peter Byrne

The Official Policies - Michael Doliner

A 2009 Year-End Rant - Raju Peddada

Levi 1943 In Front Of Our 2009 - Multilingual Poetry by Guido Monte

Bilan Matin/Morning Appraisal - Poem by Simone Alié-Daram

Letters to the Editor

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Published December 14, 2009