Since January 21 the Obama team has been struggling—with mixed success—to stabilize the ship of state, to plug its leaks, to change its direction and set a new course. The ship our 44th president took command of cannot be righted easily or quickly; it is foundering due to two terms of venal management by its previous captain.
I, and many who voted for Obama, applaud his efforts; we like him, we like his family, we believe he has a good heart. But while our affection is strong, doubts and suspicions creep in. Where, we wonder, is Obama actually taking us?
During the campaign he told us he wanted to take the nation to a place where transparency of government replaces secrecy, a place where our damaged reputation abroad gets repaired, where legislative attention is directed away from the powerful and toward the powerless. By meeting and surmounting the many difficulties and obstacles encountered in that costly and elongated campaign, Obama erased our doubt that he could do the job. And he marked the route he followed with eloquent speeches.
Fourteen months ago in “A More Perfect Union,” a nationally televised speech, Democratic presidential candidate Obama, in a brilliant rhetorical stroke, quieted a media-generated swirl of negativism focused on extracts from a sermon by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Last November 4, as president-elect, Obama delivered a victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park that outlined his plans and aroused universal jubilation.
Two and a half months later the whole world watched the inauguration ceremony and heard Obama pledge in the final words of his speech that together “we [will carry] forth that great gift of freedom and deliver … it safely to future generations.”
Obama’s early executive actions demonstrate an overarching concern for inclusiveness; he invited dialogue with Ahmadinejad and shook hands with Hugo Chavez.
All this leads me to conclude that Obama will do anything, however small—and cooperate with anyone—that he believes will take him closer to where he wants to go. But where is that?
Bush appointee, Robert Gates, stays on as Defense Secretary. (Anyone who replaces Rumsfeld is bound to look good.) Formidable former rival Hillary Clinton takes over the Department of State. (By thus rewarding her failure, Obama imitates George W.) Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geitner and Lawrence Summers, whose resumes are comparably impressive but similarly marred, are close enough to give advice in a whisper. (Tom Daschle was forced to withdraw.) Thus, at the top of the new administration, old battle-scarred politicos are in the majority. The change we were promised begins to looks more like a regression, a flashback to the future.
I am delighted that the 44th president cannot only give a good speech but actually write books, good books. However, to do what needs doing will require much more than literary gifts.
I am delighted to have a president who listens ardently, but I’m beginning to wonder what he’s hearing.
Everyone, not just sitting presidents, prefers to focus on the future rather than the past, but justice requires that we not give in to our preferences. Torture is a crime and crimes have perpetrators who ought not be absolved en masse. And those who provided legal cover for torture and others at the top who signed off on it must not go scot-free.
It’s hard to believe that our intellectually endowed president, who is dedicated to transparent government, would seek to block the release of photos of torture. How does publicizing snapshots of crimes increase their initial grievousness, and by what magic do horrible images make our world more dangerous?
Constructing a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad larger than any in the world does not promote democracy any more than leaving fifty thousand troops in Iraq can be properly deemed a military withdrawal from that beknighted country. Nor does it foster Iraq’s sovereignty.
If Obama actually believes, as he has said, that the problems in Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means, then why send more troops?
Does setting up a military tribunal, albeit one a bit more responsive to the rights of prisoners than Bush W allowed, hasten or delay the closing of that extra-legal prison, that justice-mocking concentration camp at Guantanamo?
These are just a few of the questions I have for Obama, and I admit that they are over-simplified and that my own answers are too categorical and self-righteous. But I can no more understand how Obama answers them than I could if he expressed himself in Swahili. To my mind, for instance, it is itself a new crime to compromise or hesitate to prosecute old crimes.
No one should expect Obama to erase all the negative things Bush and Cheney did but he has the unique opportunity—and I think also the responsibility—to change the culture that produced them. He certainly can’t do that alone, and I very much doubt if he can do it surrounded as he is by a crowd of battle-weakened politicos.