Beating around the Bush

November 6, 2009 at 10:36 am | Posted in International | 3 Comments

Despite all the quadrennial talk of ‘change’ and the blitzkrieg ferocity of political debate, there’s always far more that stays the same in American politics than really changes. Lobbyists are still writing cheques, politicians still act out of calculation as much as conviction, and there’s always someone, somewhere, who wants to seccede from the Union.

Similarly, Presidents inherit most of the sins or virtues of their predecessors without seeking or succeeding to change them. Sometimes they are constrained by the Constitution, Congress or political expediency, sometimes they are too timid to attempt change and sometimes the policies they inherited just happen to work.

The continuity which underlies the frenzied war games of Washington D.C. is – or should be – a fairly basic observation for anyone acquainted with American politics. However, such is the level of discourse at the New Statesman, this fact that some Presidents can inherit the misdeeds of their predecessors has been treated as some profound front page revelation.

Just last month they published a piece by Mehdi Hasan comparing President Obama to George W. Bush and noting the areas in which the Democrat had failed to roll back some of the most egregious misuses of executive power: Guantanamo is still open, rendition still occurs, state secrecy is still forcefully invoked and those suspected of authorising the use of torture have not been prosecuted.

Hasan is at it again on his blog, fisking a ‘silly’ and ‘pointless’ rebuttal by Ken Gude of the Centre for American Progress and speculating about why some people didn’t like his original piece.

The Obamaniacs didn’t like my take. They don’t want to hear about assassinations in Pakistan, renditions in the Middle East, torture in Gitmo — that all stopped when Bush left for Dallas, right? Wrong. In several areas but, in particular, in national security policy, Obama has picked up Bush’s baton and run with it.

Possibly. Alternatively, maybe being the kind of writer who’ll describe supporters of this President as ‘Obamaniacs’ means you’ll just irritate a whole bunch of people without knowing it. By throwing around this crude little put-down, Hasan is implying that support for the President can only come from ignorance or irrationality; we are either blind to the black marks against his Presidency or, drunk on hope juice, we blithely slur that we’ll love him whatever he does. This is really just thinly-disguised political misanthrope; it’s crass when Melanie Phillips uses it , and it doesn’t come across as any more sophisticated when it’s used by someone on the left.

Of course President Obama has made some mistakes and bad decisions. He’s been too timorous in restoring transparency & human rights to the field of national security, has heavily-diluted some of the more progressive planks of his election platform, has been lamentably slow in pushing for gay rights and America’s foreign policy is guided more by naked self-interest than at any time since Bush 41. But he’s also being blamed for a bunch of things that aren’t entirely his fault, and critics should remember that the President cannot get much through Congress (including healthcare & a climate change bill) without 60 votes in the Senate. If you don’t recognise how difficult that is, then your expectations at the start really were too high.

Furthermore, it’s completely possible to accept the existence of all those mistakes and still feel that the President has made a reasonably good start to his first term.

In less than a year, he’s ordered an end to the use of torture, passed a $787 billion stimulus package, voided most of the petty ‘signing statements’ of his predecessor, expanded health care to around 4 million children, begun moves towards reducing America’s nuclear arsenal, instructed the EPA to start regulating carbon emissions, worked to repair relations around the world, announced plans for high-speed rail networks, reversed the previous administration’s prosecutorial stance on medical marijuana, ended the travel ban on people with HIV, overturned the global gag rule, pledged $900 million in aid to Gaza and $300 million to flood-ravaged Haiti, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, supported a UN statement calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, encouraged tougher financial regulation, proposed a decent budget and appointed a progressive to the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, America is in a better place than this time a year ago, and there is still scope for major achievements in the future. If none of this is enough to rid him of the comparisons to ‘Dubya’, my guess is you’re giving Bush far more credit than he deserves.



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  1. It always makes me laugh that right-whingers sneer at Obama for continuing some of Bush’s policies. They don’t seem to appreciate that if he is indeed like Bush, then he can’t be a fascist Moose-limb terrrrst as they said he was.

    I agree on the stimulus (which despite vague misgivings I support), Sotomayor (a big deal that has been forgotten, but we should bear in mind the fury of the “criticism” of her), & so on. Let’s not forget the absolute madness of the winger attacks on him for not invading enough countries & their “policy” regarding, in particular, Iran.

    I’ll, further, make reference to a thing you didn’t mention, which is his repeal of the Mexico City “Policy”, a very early thing which gave me hopes after taking a lukewarm stance on him during the campaign, though I preferred him to McCain because I virtually always prefer Democrats to Republicans.

    Well, he delivered the goods. Those who laud Bush for funding HIV/AIDS treatment don’t mention that it was probably outweighed by lack of realistic access to family planning. Which you can be sure women in sub-Saharan Africa & the Middle East want even if their self-appointed masters don’t.

    I really do attribute the lack of progress in some areas to the fact that liberals have traditionally been pro-government, which naturally leads them towards uncritical admiration of Obama. Them as worked like dogs to get him elected then went home & said “job done”. Well, not at all. Do they think the winger lobbyists have given up breathing down the necks of, in particular, Blue Dogs (people for whom I have little time)?

    Of course not, but they don’t fight back. I think it is such people who are now disillusioned, but omit to mention that they haven’t been carrying any load themselves & Obama’s shoulders are not broad enough so he needs their support, which has often not been forthcoming.

    It concerns me that this constituency might not bother in 2010, whereas you can be sure right-whingers will have everyone out to vote for Republicans.

    What I would like is for all federal laws against the herb to be repealed, & ideally most drugs. The federal nature of the USA makes it possible for red states to use prohibition themselves (although maybe some wouldn’t- those of a more libertarian nature like Alaska, Montana & them). I am hoping for progress on this. I am seriously wondering whether secular libertarian Republicans might trend this way. Hopes won’t be being got up, but the direction of travel seems to me quite clear.

    Only worry is the weasel words “for medicinal use” or whatever. No, not for medicinal use, for pleasure. They are whinging about people who aren’t truly ill getting hold of medicinal stuff. But they don’t otherwise do any harm. So why not let them have it, eh?

    Freedland was strong on this matter in the Groan on Tuesday.

  2. I’m actually more optimistic about ‘medical marijuana’ because I think it shows the prohibitionist argument for what it is. I mean, if it’s permissable – and even beneficial – to take it for certain medical conditions, what the bloody hell is the point of it being illegal?

    Actually, I keep telling mum that it could do her the world of good; she’s in all sorts of pain with her joints. Alas, the ’60’s must have passed her by, and she’s swallowed the prohibitionist arguments hook, line & sinker. I can’t imagine how disappointed she must be to have raised a liberal!

    On that topic, I wonder whether you’ve seen this gloriously stupid piece by a Labour backbencher: It seems the ‘well, we don’t do much horse riding in my constituency’ quip has really taken off. The defense of ‘well, my view’s right because I’m considerably more working class than you’ is probably the single most irritating trait in left-wing politicians.

    You’re certainly correct that the Mexico City thing is important, particularly at a time when we’re worrying about demographics & environmental sustainability. Along with education, family planning is a vital tool for social mobility, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say Bush’s money was wasted, it certainly wasn’t spent as efficiently as it could’ve been.

  3. Yes, I am fairly sceptical about aid- not the principle, but the practice. I didn’t actually read “Dead Aid” but I gather the author expected to be flayed alive by the liberal-left & was pleasantly surprised that she wasn’t.

    You can’t do much better than “DRUGS ARE BAD, MMMKAY?” as a parody of this approach. Because drugs are bad, which they are, does that in & of itself make the status quo good? You have to try a lot harder than that, especially as I actually live on an estate where illegal drugs are rife.

    It might well be that there are too many people thinking solely of their own pleasure, & I’m sure there are out of touch, middle-class liberals (but it’s not as if there are no out of touch, middle-class conservatives, is it?) so maybe the liberal/libertarian side hasn’t got the most attractive supporters. (A bit like the green movement, but as a conservationist I’d say it’s hardly my fault if government policies tend to be rubbish & various celebs have got mass media attention while arguments like mine go unregarded).

    I know most working-class people are instinctively prohibitionist, but they never explain why it is that so many top civil servants, policemen etc. are now against the very laws they enforce. I know why, but none of my opponents has ever explained it other than to rather laughably claim they are out of touch, as if decades fighting an unwinnable war STILL left people unqualified to express an opinion?

    Specifically about this gent’s argument. It reminds me of nothing so much as the right-whinger view that people aren’t entitled to be non-racist if they don’t live in areas with a high immigrant population, because we don’t know how evil furrins are.

    Applying this “logic”, does that mean right-wing journalists can’t talk total bollocks about “the white working class” unless they have genuine proletarian credentials? I’d like that as it would shut them up for good :)

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