The New Obama Administration: A Lot of More of the Same

Obviously he [Rahm Emanuel] will influence the president to be pro-Israel, why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.
— Binyamin Emanuel (father of President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel)

I don’t want to just end the [Iraq] war, …I want to end the mindset that got us into war.
— Candidate Sen. Barack Obama (January 31, 2008)

What Washington is really telling you is that you should keep doing the same old things over and over and over again and somehow expect a different outcome. And that’s the definition of madness, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something different.
— Candidate Sen. Barack Obama (December 27, 2007, to a crowd in Carroll, Iowa)

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil! [The more things change, the more they remain the same!]
— Old French dictum

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama ran a successful campaign on an anti-Iraq war, anti-Washington establishment and pro-change platform. With the assistance of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, he prevailed in obtaining a clear governing mandate. Most Americans have no other choice than to want him to succeed in delivering on his promises. But the issuance of vague political promises and the hard reality of governing while relying on an efficient decision-making process, are two different things.

President-elect Obama has so far concentrated on not repeating former president Jimmy Carter’s mistakes in his difficult relations with Congress, and he has surrounded himself with people who are directly connected with the Democratic congressional majority. However, in so doing, he has given the impression that he has enthusiastically joined the Washington political establishment that he so vehemently decried only a short while ago. The real question is whether he has brought Washington insiders into his own political tent, or whether he has simply joined the same corrupt Washington establishment that he himself decried. Only the future will tell for sure.

It is indeed understandable that a young and relatively inexperienced President-elect Barack Obama would feel obliged to surround himself with people who know how to steer Congress, who have close ties to Wall Street and the media, or who have assisted him closely during his political ascension. After all, the efficiency of a new president depends very much on having Congress, especially members of his own party, solidly on his side, if he wants to accomplish anything important.

That is probably why he chose an old run-of-the-mill senator in the person of Sen. Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate in the first place. It was undoubtedly also the main factor in his selection of Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. These two political workhorses will facilitate the necessary collaboration between the White House and Congress.

I would therefore not place too big an emphasis on the personae of these two well-connected individuals, i.e., their close association with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee AIPAC, considering their strategic role with Congress.

Also, the need to move quickly in forming a new administration, unless this has been planned otherwise long in advance, makes it a necessity to call on people who have experience and competence in government affairs. And, for a new democratic administration, the reservoir of experienced public servants can be found in the 1992-2000 Clinton administration. This may explain why President-elect Obama’s transition team is so heavily staffed with individuals who served in the former Clinton administration. Similarly, such people can be expected to recommend former acquaintances as candidates for important government positions.

Similarly, after the closely fought election, there is a practical need to reward the important constituencies that were the backbone of the winning coalition with hard work and money. Some high-profile nominations can be expected to fall in that category. This is to be expected.

For instance, the symbolic gesture of naming the first black Attorney general, the former No. 2 Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, Eric Holder, is a case in point. The expected nomination of Washington insider Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State falls in the same category, i.e., the need to unite the Democratic Party behind the new administration. Ditto for the nomination of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as Commerce secretary, a former U.N. ambassador and Energy secretary under President Bill Clinton.

The enlarged Obama economic team is technically competent and is designed to inspire confidence and to create a feeling of active involvement, with a hands-on approach. This is important to understand the nomination of a high profile financier as Treasury Secretary, in the person of New York Federal Reserve Bank CEO Timothy Geithner. As a question of routine, the Treasury Secretary-to-be should be asked whether he was in favor of letting the investment bank Lehman Brothers fail in mid-September, and why Citigroup, the second largest Wall Street megabank, is still paying dividends to its shareholders after it has been saved from bankruptcy with hundreds of billions of dollars of public money? Indeed, let’s keep in mind that Timothy Geithner, as president of the New York Fed, was directly involved in many recent generous bailouts to Wall Street banks and insurance companies, including Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and American International Group. He is not new at the job and he surely does not represent a break with the past.

Geithner was under secretary for international affairs during the Clinton administration under former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (later a director of Citigroup in 1999 and its chairman in 2007) and under Lawrence Summers, who succeeded Rubin as Treasury chief. (Summers is to lead the National Economic Council in the Obama administration.)

The arrival of legendary inflation-fighter Paul Volcker among Obama’s economic advisers, however, is an indication that the new administration intends to be a problem-solving administration. This would seem to be required in order to repair the structural damage done to the U.S. economy over the last eight years. Nevertheless, a question lingers on: Will the ongoing mammoth bailout of Wall Street banks, with insufficient quid pro quo returns and protections for U.S. taxpayers, continue unabated under the Obama administration? If yes, these huge financial bailouts may turn out to be the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the history of the world.

Economically, however, it can be said that the coming Obama administration finds itself in a somewhat enviable position. Indeed, if there were to be an economic depression in the coming years, such a depression would still be called the “George W. Bush depression”, just as the last one was known as the “Herbert Hoover depression.” The current economic and financial ordeals are justly part of the Bush administration’s dismal legacy.

However, the same benefit of the doubt can hardly be extended when it comes to rewarding Sen. Joe Lieberman for siding against his own party, and for supporting the Republican Presidential Ticket (that he nearly joined) in 2008, and for filling other important cabinet posts. Let us remember that, in 2006, Sen. Lieberman was openly rejected by Democratic voters in a Connecticut primary, but ran as an independent candidate against the official Democratic anti-Iraq war candidate, Ned Lamont, in his own state of Connecticut. Could any other American politician, other than this fanatically pro-Iraq war and pro-AIPAC senator, have received the same generous accolade after being rejected by Democratic voters and after switching party lines twice, in both 2006 and 2008 elections?

Why then was Sen. Joe Lieberman allowed to keep his chairmanship of the all-important Senate Homeland Security Committee, with the implicit backing of President-elect Barack Obama, despite his high profile support for GOP presidential nominee John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign? (N.B.: For the record, Sen. Barack Obama initially supported Lieberman over Lamont in 2006.) It is fair to say that if Sen. John McCain had won on November 4, Joe Lieberman would have gotten a high cabinet position in the new McCain Republican administration. Now that Lieberman is back in his powerful position in the Democratic-run Congress, it is also fair to say that this politician cannot lose, whatever he does. For him, at least, the Democrats and the Republicans are just two wings of a single large Establishment Party, in Washington D.C., between which some politicians are free to move at will.

What’s going on over there? Does the desire to have a filibuster-proof threshold of sixty Democratic senators—and the good old-buddy system—explain and justify everything? Obviously, people are entitled at least to an explanation, lest rumors start to circulate that President Obama is de facto the stooge of powerful special money interests. The worst thing that could happen to a politician is to give the impression that he or she is in the pockets of rich special interests. This could be devastating to his credibility, not only domestically but also internationally.

Indeed, after the above revealing incident and after paying his political debts to supporting constituencies, things got even worse with some other nominations to the Obama cabinet, such as the choice of the crucial Defense secretary. Indeed, president-elect Obama—his promise of ending the Iraq war and changing the mindset in Washington that led to it, and the echo of his slogan “Change You Can Believe In” still ringing in our ears—is said to have decided to leave the Pentagon in the hands of Robert Gates, a Bush appointee who does not believe in ending the Iraq war, who believes in the unlawful concept of preventive war and who says that America has the right to “act violently and alone” in the world! Many may see in this nomination a kind of betrayal of his campaign rhetoric and an overt attempt on Obama’s part to please the industrial-military complex.

If the President-elect had wanted to bring Republicans into his administration, while marking a break with the recent past, he could have called on Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), a decorated war veteran, to act as Secretary of Defense. He did not. Alternatively, President-elect Obama could have asked Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a former Secretary of the Navy and a critic of Bush’s Iraq war, to run the Pentagon. He did not, preferring a member of Bush’s team, and this reveals more than anything else Obama’s fundamental priority, i.e. to make himself acceptable to the Washington establishment.

This comes in tandem with the expected nomination of pro-war “stay the course” retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser, even though the general initially resisted Bush’s rush to war with Iraq. The message here could be that, “as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, with Obama, it’s business as usual.” Is this so? When a politician aims at pleasing everybody, he usually ends up pleasing nobody.

So far, even though he ran on an anti-Iraq war platform, President-elect Obama has not filled any important government position with individuals who are known to have opposed the war. Therefore, the question must be asked: Was he really sincere when he pretended to be opposed to Bush’s war, or was he simply playing politics?

In any case, too many decisions of the Lieberman-Gates-Jones variety, and people will start to think that a few faces may change in Washington D.C., but things really stay the same, no matter the grandiose promises of “change”. Indeed, people are not far from having the impression that President-elect Obama has quickly “gone native”, even before taking office, and that he has been embraced by the more or less corrupt Washington and Wall Street establishments. He seems to want to fit in. If true, President Obama will make speeches, give press conferences and reign, but he won’t govern.

Indeed, was the November 4 U.S. presidential election anything more than a narrow choice between a third term Bush administration and a third term Clinton administration, …or a mixture of the two?

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and author of the book The New American Empire. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Rodrigue, or visit Rodrigue's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on November 28th, 2008 at 9:42am #

    “Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama ran a successful campaign on an anti-Iraq war, anti-Washington establishment and pro-change platform.”

    Many, here, argued that he never made a credible case. In the end, at the end of his “positions”, he came out sounding pretty much like the so-called “Bush Doctrine” (really the Plutocracy Doctrine). His responses at debates and press-conferences were aligned with Bush (and McCain/Hillary). What he did was fool some of you (and he’s still persisting with the ruse even as he appoints one neocon/neolib after another, amazing!!).

    He does not surprise at all. He would have surprised me had be selected some progressive econonists – Michael Hudson, and a few others – as well as some folks who understand non-imperialist foreign diplomacy. But he’s been true to form.

    As the song goes “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest…” Obama, from what I can tell is doing precisely what he said he would do. He may even move further to the right. For sure this is no friend to the poor and people of color.

  2. bozh said on November 28th, 2008 at 11:08am #

    in other words, USA,USA, USA remains USA

  3. Max Shields said on November 28th, 2008 at 11:09am #

    bozh – exactly!

  4. John Hatch said on November 28th, 2008 at 2:01pm #

    President-elect Obama had so much promise, but he’s not off to a good start.

  5. Nathan Robison said on November 28th, 2008 at 6:40pm #

    The author and Max are blinded by the cures of ideological association: Robert Gates has spoken irresponsibly…in the course of his job defending the unspeakable; but he has also avoided escalation and bull-headedness in prosecution of a war he did not start – and I’ve admired the fact that the guy speaks coherently and, apparently, honestly whenever he talks to us – don’t worry about a few blood-rising soundbites: listen to 5 minutes of Gates on any subject, and then 5 minutes of Rumsfeld. “in time of universal deceipt, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (+/-Orwell). Really, Barack’s promise is not to satisfy every liberal grudge we’ve been nursing. It is to judiciously and permanently steer this battleship of state in a better direction. Just flipping reactionary positions for radical ones would only re-prime the Bush/Clinton/Bush 60’s hangover squabbles which, IMHO, are the real source of this country’s degradation. Obama will do good, perhaps not in a way that inspires Dionysian frenzy, but good nonetheless.

  6. Nathan Robison said on November 28th, 2008 at 6:41pm #

    I meant “curse” not “cures” – though the slip is interesting. Good day!

  7. Max Shields said on November 28th, 2008 at 7:29pm #

    Nathan Robison,

    I’m not interested in every little itsy bitsy liberal whim (or however you characterize it).

    I’m interested in ending the imperial empire that is America. That’s a tall order and Gates is about preserving that empire. I also think that Obama is about saving it, not changing it.

    So, you little complacent, sanctimony about how upright Robert Gates is compared to the neofascist monster Rumsfeld is so much in place chatter.

    But if that’s all you’re after you’ve got your administration. But when you’re ready to talk about real change, I’d be glad to discuss.

  8. Bob said on November 29th, 2008 at 6:24am #

    As soon as the talking heads talk about a candidate being “pragmatic” you know that the rhetoric is just run of the meal bean breeze.

  9. Ramsefall said on November 29th, 2008 at 8:10am #

    Rodrigue nails it with his closing question in that the election was nothing more than a narrow choice between two similar previous administrations, and with Obama’s cabinet picks that assertion is still more conspicuous. He brings up an even more relevant point by asking whether Obama was just playing politics when he voiced his initial anti-war stance. Once again, from the assembly of his hawkish appointments, his post 9/11 position on war could have been a well formulated smoke screen to secure his future projections. That move allowed Obama to skillfully and effectively play on the rhetoric for “changing the mindset that got us into war.” This guy is good, he may be the most slippery snake of them all. We’ll soon find out.

    Max goes on to define reality even better by acknowledging that Obama did fool some of you (Obama supporters), although I’d say he fooled the lot of you high hopers who believe they have a movement built behind Obama. Ending the imperial empire that is the US should be at the top of everyone’s priority list after more than a century of imperial war mongering and democracy destruction — thanks for the momentum Teddy. Obama and his picks are for preserving that establishment, not changing it, as their positions clearly indicate. Are the fooled ones still hopeful that all these hawks will suddenly shape-shift into doves come January? That would be real change, and nothing short of a miracle.

    Political movements are apparently subject to opinion and/or interpretation, albeit inaccurately according to general consensus. For those of you who adhere to this fallacy, remember that political movements lift candidates from their own ranks, e.g. Gaitan and Colombia circa 1948, Mossadegh and Iran 1951, Arbenz and Guatemala 1951, Allende and Chile 1970, Aristide and Haiti 2000, Morales and Bolivia 2005, and of course Chavez and Venezuela on nearly a dozen occasions since coming to office in 1999. These movements are comprised of people who organize, rally and hit the streets with their fists in the air, time and time again. Rocking the vote for a candidate propped up by the corporate establishment barely surpasses complacency, certainly not a movement. Were you fooled by the color and a phenomenal bandwagon?

    Real, altruistic change will be easily recognized when it’s proposed;
    1. end the entrenched US imperialist disposition
    2. abandon sanctions which operate as silent WMDs against countries like Cuba
    3. close down our military bases around the world
    4. abolish Homeland Security and the Patriot Act
    5. transform capitalism by moving from a monetary system to a resource-based economy that prioritizes stewardship and equal distribution of necessities
    6. start prosecuting white collar criminals and their governmental cohorts
    7. implement a national health care system and a functional education system
    8. invest and reward for practical green energy alternatives
    9. quit supporting tyrannical governments like Israel
    10. start cooperating multi-laterally with the UN and international community
    11. quit trying to lead the world like a lost puppy while violently protecting US interests
    12. apologize to the world and humbly request forgiveness for our past behavior and short-sighted arrogance

    Radical transformations like these constitute real change, anything short of this maintains the same general trajectory of the past 100+ years of a corrupt, plutocratic doctrine.

    Don’t continue to be fooled by the charades, the media spin and Hollywood props for Obama fails to represent or constitute anything that resembles real change, unless of course one’s perception of real change is utterly skewed.

    Best to all

  10. Max Shields said on November 29th, 2008 at 9:44am #

    Well said.

    A true progressive movement needs an entirely different narrative. One that moves us away from imperial empire. Reading FDR (as seems t be Obama’s inclination) and what he did during the Great Depression is not progressivism. It is about saving capitalism; tho there are elements of progressive initiatives with FDR’s New Deal, it never touched the fundamental structure of empire which is with us today. A progressive narrative is not about saving capitalism, imperial empire, exceptionalism, or the dominant narrative of prosperity which concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few thus sustaining not life, nor justice, nor peace, but imperial empire ruled by a plutocracy – not a democracy of the people.

    The other night I was listening to the old school notion of progressive economics as espoused by Robert Kuttner. As I listened I heard the imperial empire talk of GDP and economic prosperity through growth, etc. Kuttner was describing what he thought a “progressive” economic agenda need to be to achieve those goals of economic prosperity. These are clues not a progressive agenda but to the business as usual talk of Dem/Repub. Considering Obama a progressive because he voted party line in the Senate is the perfect example of how deep the imperial empire’s narrative goes.

    A new narrative is required to provide a real alternative to empire thinking. Moving the empire narrative so it’s a tad more palatable to a shallow 20th Century progressive notion of change, only sustains the imperial empire and provides what we’ve seen with the Bush administration. The latter was born out of the narrative chosen and amplified by not only Reagan but Clinton, and soon Obama.

    Real change, deep structural change, must be precursored by a new progressive narrative that starts local, on a human scale and moves out from there. Yes, leaders come from the movement not the other way around.

    When the empire narrative rules, then people expect a simple vote to represent change. It will never happen that way. Make it happen locally, lead by example. Usher in a new narrative which makes the American empire and the hideous past that brings us to this point, a relic of the past.

    Obama does NOT represent this change. He’s busy reading FDR to figure out how to fix the system so it continues down the path of empire.

    While apparently intelligent, and quick to pick up on rhetorical phases, Obama has yet to display, courage or wisdom. It is not his age that is the issue, it is his personal self-absorbed ambition. Change will NOT come from the top of the empire pyramid.

  11. Ramsefall said on November 29th, 2008 at 11:21am #

    Thanks, Max, and for your constructive comments on these posts. Change will NOT come from the top of the empire pyramid, but from the foundation of our social base which supports the all-seeing Masonic eye.

    Michael Tsarion, aside from some of his rather esoteric views, curiously points out a bust of George Washington, I believe in DC, which says “George Washington: Free Mason and first US President”, in that order. One doesn’t have to wonder excessively where the priority for public servants lies, and in that there’s more to the meaning of the eye atop the pyramid on the $1 bill, the dogma of our present system.

    It’s an interesting time to be alive, and as our movement toward the inevitable continues its accelerated curve there is much to learn along the way, and much to do. We cannot change the external without changing internally. We all have the responsibility to confront that fact if we are to effectively bring about needed change. So long as people are reluctant to abandon their false hope in a fundamentally corrupt system, and not see reality for what it is through historical investigation, reality will continue to mirror irrationality.

    Best to you.

  12. bozh said on November 30th, 2008 at 9:14am #

    deep structural change. one of them wld be to allow also working people to set up new curricula in basic schooling. at present, schooling avoids the most important studies; including the study of why we r the way we r and why the sit’n is worsening for most amers and nonamers. thnx.

  13. Ron said on December 7th, 2008 at 10:18am #

    Well put! I have observed the dreamy eyed Obamian’s for about a year now. I have tried to talk to many of them about how he is being propped up and paraded around by the establishment, marketed as though there is a movement toward a truly progressive agenda.
    When the campaigning first started I was mildly intrigue by him but quickly saw through his mask when he started to gain momentum. At one point he gave a speech and his tone of voice, his inflection, sounded like Martin Luther King Jr. I tried to bring this to the attention a friend of mine while we were listen to him and she would not hear it. It really surprised me and from that point on I knew people were going to be mesmerized by this guy. The media helped! I noticed that people were simply listening to him but not really hearing what he was saying. Perfect example: just before the election I heard him state that “an Obama administration would create 5 million jobs”! I thought wow!, that’s lofty and probably impossible! But then, right after he became President/Elect Obama I heard him state that his administration would create 2.5 million jobs!? I thought wow, he’s cut it in half already, wonder if anybody else is hearing this? I tried to talk to my Obamian friends about this and they did not want to be negative, “We must be positive, keep hope alive, Yes we can”! That is what I was told. Then, suddenly from the podium, while introducing his “Economic Team” I heard him state that his administration would “Create and SAVE 2.5 million jobs”! I thought wow! Someone surely sees through this? But not many of my Obamian friends here in Everett, Washington!
    My hope is that as things unfold many will see through this and begin to take to the streets against continued U.S. Military Interventionism/Imperialism.
    What we do here is work on a local level building small co-operatives, local exchanges, growing our own food and hopefully spawning some local leaders to take the helm of city government with a truly progressive agenda. I believe we need to build self-sustainable communities that do not depend on the centralized military/corporate/congressional complex. I don’t know that we change the system that exists in Washington D.C., but I do know I can change my behavior and work with others in my community to change theirs when they are ready. The more of us who do not depend on that system the less power the system has!