Obama and the Power of Prayer

A reason for reading Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips’ Impeach the President[1] is to see how much of that case remains applicable today—against the current administration of Barack Obama. It seems we spent much of 2009 and all of 2010 engaged in a debate over whether Obama has betrayed the left or is “governing.” In September 2009, David Swanson argued that Obama has embraced and extended so many Bush policies that we were effectively living in “Bush’s third term.”[2] Towards the end of 2009, Glenn Greenwald wrote, noting Matt Yglesias’ argument that it is the role of Congress to check the executive branch,

I agree with Matt’s explicit point that Congress has an important role to play in checking presidential abuses — a role they’ve clearly abdicated no matter which party was in control. He’s also right that Presidents don’t easily relinquish power. But it’s hardly unreasonable to object when someone runs for high political office based on clear and repeated promises that they have squarely violated. Whatever else is true, watching Obama embrace extremist policies can still be “disappointing” even if one isn’t surprised that he’s doing it. I could understand and accept a lot more easily this blithe acquiescence to Obama’s record if it weren’t for the fact that progressives and Democrats spent so many years screaming bloody murder over Bush’s use of indefinite detention, military commissions, state secrets, renditions, and extreme secrecy — policies Obama has largely and/or completely adopted as his own. One can’t help but wonder, at least in some cases, how genuine those objections were, as opposed to their just having been effective tools to discredit a Republican president for partisan and political gain.[3]

And about a week and a half later, on the emotional attachments that many on the left have for Obama—which he parallels with those on the right for George W. Bush and, more recently, Sarah Palin,

These outbursts include everything other than arguments addressed to the only question that matters: are the criticisms that have been voiced about Obama valid? Has he appointed financial officials who have largely served the agenda of the Wall Street and industry interests that funded his campaign? Has he embraced many of the Bush/Cheney executive power and secrecy abuses which Democrats once railed against — from state secrets to indefinite detention to renditions and military commissions? Has he actively sought to protect from accountability and disclosure a whole slew of Bush crimes? Did he secretly a negotiate a deal with the pharmaceutical industry after promising repeatedly that all negotiations over health care would take place out in the open, even on C-SPAN? Are the criticisms of his escalation of the war in Afghanistan valid, and are his arguments in its favor redolent of the ones George Bush made to “surge” in Iraq or Lyndon Johnson made to escalate in Vietnam? Is Bob Herbert right when he condemned Obama’s detention policies as un-American and tyrannical, and warned: “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House”?[4]

The left’s criticism of Obama didn’t let up. By August 2010, well on the way to a disastrous November election, which Obama used as an excuse to betray yet another campaign promise,[5] White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was complaining that those who say Obama is “like George Bush . . . ought to be drug tested.”[6] In September, as progressive fury built, Susie Madrak of Crooks and Liars was accusing David Axelrod of “hippie-punching,” saying, “We’re the girl you’ll take under the bleachers but you won’t be seen with in the light of day,”[7] and Vice President Joe Biden was telling progressives to “stop whining.”[8] But it is hard to imagine a more quintessentially progressive issue than a woman’s right to choose abortion, an issue Obama has been weak on in the past,[9] and David Dayen pointed out the hypocrisy of Democrats appealing for votes on the grounds that Republicans would erode that right[10]:

I don’t think anyone doing this explicitly voted for, say, the Stupak amendment. But I don’t think women and abortion rights advocates have forgotten about the outcome of that in the health care bill. They haven’t forgotten that they expected the Obama Administration’s tenure to spell the end of the Hyde Amendment, only to find it extended dramatically, in ways that could mean the end of all insurance coverage of abortion permanently.[11]

One difference between Bush and Obama, however, appears in the role of evangelical Protestantism. Obama pandered to evangelicals on abortion, but at the very least, we do not hear of Obama White House aides wandering down the corridors reading the Bible. It might have been Ron Suskind who coined the phrase “faith-based presidency;” he definitely painted a picture of the Bush White House as governed by a certainty based not on facts but on faith, a faith that apparently played well on the campaign trail.[12] To the extent that Obama has extended and expanded Bush policies, he is extending and expanding that faith-based presidency.[13] And in what might be the weakest chapter of Loo and Phillips’ book, Mark Miller argues only in passing that Bush’s criminality exceeds by far that of any previous president; he focuses instead on how Bush has transformed the federal government into a theocracy.[14]

To suggest that Miller’s chapter might be the weakest in this book is almost not a criticism; the book—and even Miller’s chapter—is that powerful. The passage that concerns me however is,

Whereas the neocons have no grass-roots constituency, the Christianists command a seasoned national army of devoted troops who have long since infiltrated the political establishment at both the state and federal levels and who now run both the GOP and the [Bush] regime’s executive departments, while also dominating Congress and, increasingly, the Supreme Court. The neocons, in other words, do not comprise a full-blown movement but are nothing more, or less, than a highly influtential coterie, and so to cast them as the theocrats’ full partners is to overstate their numbers and their power.[15]

This seems to be true, as far as it goes. But it also seems to understate the role of neoconservatives and corporations. Miller defends this arguing that neither the military nor corporations share evangelicals’ apocalyptic suicidal influence.[16] But if anything is apparent since financial deregulation, it is that corporate quarterly results outweigh long term considerations, even those which ultimately make corporate activities unsustainable—these are dismissed as “externalities” even as the environment that sustains human (and all other) life is destroyed and even as the socioeconomic systems that sustain the economy and the financial system are hollowed out.[17] That surely is a form of suicide. And while Miller points out how evangelicals have permeated the Army, Marines, and Air Force,[18] neoconservatives Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom strongly advocated the wars that Miller (probably rightly) sees as so destructive for the military, date back to the Nixon administration[19] and it is only reasonable to believe that fellow neoconservatives have been finding their way into various levels of federal government service for at least that long.

The problem here is that Miller seems to see the federal government in dichotomous terms. It is either neoconservative or it is theocratic. We might consider instead the possibility that it is quite large enough to be both. And then we must consider that Obama inherited institutions substantially staffed by believers of the one kind or the other which were on a trajectory towards a unitary executive that Barbara Bowley discusses in her chapter.[20]

But it would assume negligence on Obama’s part to suggest he did not realize as a candidate that this would be what he was getting into. And it is particularly criminal for this former professor in constitutional law to run on a promise of change on many if not all of these points and then to 1) continue Bush’s program of amassing executive branch power, 2) do next to nothing to alter the trajectory he seems to have inherited,[21] and 3) refuse and resist any investigation of those crimes.[22]

With a Democrat as president, any excuse Democrats had for evading responsibility for their complicity in Bush policy has now evaporated. They, along with the Republicans, fully deserve not just impeachment, but criminal charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  1. [1]Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds. Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney (New York: Seven Stories, 2006)
  2. [2]David Swanson, "Bush's Third Term? You're Living It," Huffington Post, September 1, 2009. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-swanson/bushs-third-term-youre-li_b_274438.html
  3. [3]Glenn Greenwald, "Is Obama's civil liberties record understandable?" Salon, November 27, 2009. http://www.salon.com/2009/11/27/civil_liberties_3/
  4. [4]Glenn Greenwald, "My friend the president," Salon, December 8, 2009. http://www.salon.com/2009/12/08/obama_126/
  5. [5]Paul Krugman, "The World as He Finds It," New York Times, November 14, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/15/opinion/15krugman.html
  6. [6]Sam Youngman, "White House unloads anger over criticism from 'professional left’," The Hill, August 10, 2010. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/113431-white-house-unloads-on-professional-left
  7. [7]Greg Sargent, "Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of 'hippie punching'," Washington Post, September 23, 2010. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/09/liberal_blogger_directly_confr.html
  8. [8]Blue Texan, "Stop Whining, Liberals!" Firedoglake, September 27, 2010. http://firedoglake.com/2010/09/27/late-night-stop-whining-liberals/
  9. [9]Marie Cocco, "Obama Botches the Abortion Conversation," Alternet, July 8, 2008. http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/90675/
  10. [10]David Dayen, "Democrats Running on Abortion Politics," Firedoglake, October 8, 2010. http://news.firedoglake.com/2010/10/08/democrats-running-on-abortion-politics/
  11. [11]Dayen, "Democrats Running on Abortion Politics."”
  12. [12]Ron Suskind, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," New York Times, October 17, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html
  13. [13]David Benfell, "The Obama administration is as dangerous as the Bush administration," January 15, 2011, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=2013
  14. [14]Mark Crispin Miller, "Bush-Cheney's War on the Enlightenment," in Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney, Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006).
  15. [15]Miller, "Bush-Cheney's War on the Enlightenment," p. 190.
  16. [16]Miller, "Bush-Cheney's War on the Enlightenment."
  17. [17]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007); Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  18. [18]Miller, "Bush-Cheney's War on the Enlightenment."
  19. [19]PBS Frontline, "Rumsfeld's War: Paths to Power." Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/pentagon/paths/
  20. [20]Barbara J. Bowley, "The Campaign for Unfettered Power," in Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney, Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006).
  21. [21]Barbara J. Bowley, "The Campaign for Unfettered Power: Executive Supremacy, Secrey, and Surveillance," in Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney, Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006); Jeremy Brecher, Jull Culter, and Brendan Smith, "War Crimes are High Crimes," in Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney, Dennis Loo and Peter Phillips, eds. (New York: Seven Stories, 2006); jeffroby, "Time for a Dump Obama movement," Firedoglake, September 11, 2010. http://seminal.firedoglake.com/diary/70644
  22. [22]Shashank Bengali, "Other countries probing Bush-era torture — Why aren't we?" McClatchy, August 18, 2010. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/08/18/99359/detainee-torture-cases-proceed.html; David Johnston and Charlie Savage, "Obama Reluctant to Look Into Bush Programs," New York Times, January 11, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/12/us/politics/12inquire.html; Susie Madrak, "Wikileaks: Obama Pressured Spain Into Dropping Bush Torture Prosecutions," Crooks and Liars, December 2, 2010. http://crooksandliars.com/susie-madrak/wikileaks-obama-pressured-spain-dropp

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