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Thread: The Obama Presidency

  1. #16

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    Transition Mania

    December 9, 2008
    by Tom Engelhardt


    44, The Prequel

    Did you know that the IBM Center for the Business of Government hosts a "Presidential Transition" blog; that the Council on Foreign Relations has its own "Transition Blog: The New Administration"; and that the American University School of Communication has a "Transition Tracker" website? The National Journal offers its online readers a comprehensive "Lost in Transition" site to help them "navigate the presidential handover," including a "short list," offering not only the president-elect's key recent appointments, but also a series of not-so-short lists of those still believed to be in contention for as-yet-unfilled jobs. Think of all this as Entertainment Weekly married to People Magazine for post-election political junkies.

    Newsweek features "powering up" ("blogging the transition"); the policy-wonk website Politico.com offers Politico 44 ("a living diary of the Obama presidency"); and Public Citizen has "Becoming 44," with the usual lists of appointees, possible appointees, but – for the junkie who wants everything – "bundler transition team members" and "lobbyist and bundler appointees" as well. (For those who want to know, for instance, White House Social Secretary-designate Desiree Roberts bundled at least $200,000 for the Obama campaign.)

    The New York Times has gone whole hog at "The New Team" section of its website, where there are scads of little bios of appointees, as well as prospective appointees – including what each individual will "bring to the job," how each is "linked to Mr. Obama," and what negatives each carries as "baggage." Think of it as a scorecard for transition junkies. The Washington Post, whose official beat is, of course, Washington D.C. über alles, has its "44: The Obama Presidency, A Transition to Power," where, in case you're planning to make a night of it on January 20th, you can keep up to date on that seasonal must-subject, the upcoming inaugural balls. And not to be outdone, the transitioning Obama transition crew has its own mega-transition site, Change.gov.

    Earliest, Biggest, Fastest

    And that, of course, only begins to scratch the surface of the media's transition mania – I haven't even mentioned the cable news networks – which has followed, with hardly a breath, nearly two years of presidential campaign mania. Let's face it, whether or not the Obama transition is the talk of Main Street and the under-populated malls of this American moment, it's certainly the talk of medialand – and at what can only be termed historic levels, as befits a "historic" transition period.

    Believe me, no one's sparing the adjectives right now. This transition is the earliest, biggest, fastest, best organized, most efficient on record, even as Obama himself has "maintained one of the most public images of any president-elect." It's cause for congratulations all around, a powerful antidote, we're told, to Bill Clinton's notoriously chaotic transition back in 1992. In fact, we can't, it seems, get enough of a transition that began to gather steam many months before November 4th and has been plowing ahead for more than a post-election month now.

    It's kind of exhausting, really, just thinking about that awesomely humongous transition line-up. Check out the list of transition review teams and advisors at Change.gov and you'll find that it goes over the horizon. According to the Washington Post, 135 transition team members, organized into 10 groups, all wearing yellow badges, backed by countless transition advisers, "have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National Council on Disability" preparing the way for the new administration. This, like so much else, has been "unprecedented."

    And don't get anyone started on the veritable "army" of volunteer lawyers giving "unprecedented scrutiny" to possible administration appointees in a vetting process that began at the moment of Obama's nomination, not election. As the Washington Post's Philip Rucker described it:
    "Embarrassing e-mails, text messages, diary entries and Facebook profiles? Gifts worth more than $50? Relatives linked to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG or another company getting a federal bailout? Obama is conducting the vetting much as he managed his campaign: methodically, thoroughly and on a prodigious scale."
    That process includes a distinctly unprecedented invasion of privacy via a seven-page, 63-question form that all potential appointees have had to fill out. Imagine, for instance, that after 62 "penetrating" questions on every aspect of your life, you faced this catch-all 63rd question: "Please provide any other information, including information about other members of your family, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the president-elect." (For anyone worried about privacy issues, what this means practically – as Barton Gelman explained in his book Angler on the vice-presidential 200-question vetting process by which Dick Cheney chose himself as candidate and then used private information sent in by the other candidates for his own purposes – is major dossiers on about 800 people.)

    Everything in this "transition" is, in fact, more prodigious and more invasive than in any previous transition, including, of course, the ongoing media fascination with all those positions Obama is filling with "the best and the brightest." We're not just talking about his vast economic team or his national security team, but the presidential liaison to Capitol Hill, the White House press secretary, the president's speechwriter, his communications director, and his White House staff secretary, not to speak of the First Lady's deputy chief of staff and, of course, that White House social secretary. And then there's always that bout of "fantasy football for foodies," the speculation over who will be the new White House chef.

    The Transition Bulks Up

    Talk about confident and organized, Peter Baker and Helene Cooper of the New York Times report that Obama invited former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones to meet with him and all but offered him a key national security post "a full 13 days before the election." (He clearly felt that he had a pretty good idea of who was going to be president-elect by then.) And the rest of his transition, so efficiently organized by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, has been on a (steam)roll ever since. Post-November 4th, it has been rolling out the key appointments at a historically "unprecedented" pace.

    Five weeks past victory, according to the Times, Obama had announced 13 of the 24 "most important positions in a new administration," including Jones as his national security adviser. At the equivalent moment in their transitions, Jimmy Carter had filled two of these positions; Ronald Reagan, two; George H.W. Bush, 8 (but his was largely a carry-over administration); Bill Clinton, one; and George W. Bush (distracted by an electoral battle wending its fateful way to the Supreme Court), one.

    Bated breath hardly catches the media mood, facing the thrilling almost daily roll-outs of new appointments and record numbers of president-elect press conferences against a backdrop of enough American flags to outfit a parade and announced from a White-House press-room-style podium carefully – not to say ornately – labeled The Office of the President Elect." At such moments, the Obama transition can seem anything but transitional.

    Given the overwhelming, largely congratulatory focus on specific appointments and their attendant drama – will the strong personalities of Hillary, Bob, and Jim clash? Are the Obama-ites in a desperate scramble for a new CIA Director? Is Larry Summers next in line for the Fed? – the larger architecture of this moment, and what it portends for the presidency to come, is ignored.

    Think of it this way: After the Imperial Campaign – that two-year extravaganza of bread and circuses (and money) – comes the Imperial Transition. Everything in these last weeks, like the preceding two years, has been bulked up, like Schwarzenegger's Conanesque pecs. In other words, since November 5th, what we've been experiencing in the midst of one of the true crisis periods in our history has essentially been an unending celebration of super-sized government. Consider it an introduction to what will surely be the next Imperial Presidency.

    As the transition events indicate, whatever its specific policies of change, the administration-to-come is preparing to move, and in force, into an empty executive branch as it already exists. Wherever there's an opening, that is, Podesta's guys are rushing to fill it.

    The particular transition moment that caught my eye occurred two weeks ago when the chief strategist of the Obama election campaign, David Axelrod, was appointed senior adviser to the president. To be more specific, he was given Karl Rove's old slot (and, assumedly, office) in the White House. As the Boston Globe's Peter Canelos wrote:
    "[I]t's now obvious that there's one part of George W. Bush's political legacy that Obama and Axelrod aren't eager to change: the very dubious notion of having the president's campaign strategist rubbing elbows with all the policy wonks in the West Wing."
    True, presidents have often wanted trusted advisors near at hand, but the institutionalization of that urge in an actual office in the White House is a new development that Obama could easily, as well as painlessly, have reversed (and many would have cheered him for it). So consider it a signal.

    Barack Obama – thank goodness – isn't George Bush. He doesn't arrive in office with a crew wedded to a "unitary executive theory" of the presidency, or an urge to loose the executive from the supposed "chains" of the Watergate-era Congress, or to "take off the gloves" globally. He doesn't have strange, twisted, oppressive ideas about how the Constitution should work, nor assumedly do visions of a "commander-in-chief presidency" (or vice presidency) dance in his head like so many sugar plums.

    But don't ignore the architecture, the deep structure of the American political system. Make no mistake, Obama is moving full-speed ahead into an executive mansion rebuilt and endlessly expanded by the national security state over the last half-century-plus, and then built up in major ways by George W.'s "team." Despite the prospect of a new dog and a mother-in-law in the White House, the president-elect and his transition team show no signs of wanting to change the basic furniture, no less close up a few wings of the imperial mansion (other, perhaps, than the elaborate prison complex at Guantanamo).

    With so many catastrophes impending and so many pundits and journalists merrily applauding the most efficient transition in American history, no one, it seems, is even thinking about the architecture.

    The GM of Governments

    The New York Times's David Sanger recently reported on what happened when Obama's mini-transition teams of ex-Clintonistas ventured into the heart of our post-9/11 imperial bureaucracy. Many of the team members had worked in the very same departments in the 1990s. On returning, however, they found themselves to be so many Alices in a labyrinthine new Wonderland of national security. Sanger writes:
    "[S]everal say they feel more like political archaeologists. 'The buildings look the same,' one said over coffee, 'but everything inside is unrecognizable.' And as they dig, they have tripped across a few surprises… [F]ew can contain their amazement, chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and national-security apparatus.

    "'For a bunch of small-government Republicans,' [said] one former denizen of the White House who has now stepped back inside for the first time in eight years, 'these guys built a hell of an empire.' Eight years ago, there were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen, each with staff."
    And don't think for a second that most or all of those half-dozen posts aren't likely to be filled by the new administration, or that, four or eight years later, we'll be back to two deputy national security advisers; nor should you imagine that the Homeland Security Department that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is to run, a vast, lumpy, inefficient, ineffective post-9/11 creation of the Bush administration (which now has its own embedded mini-homeland-industrial complex) will be gone in those same years, anymore than that most un-American of words "homeland" is likely to leave our lexicon; nor will Barack Obama not appoint a Director of National Intelligence, another of those post-9/11 creations that added yet one more layer of bureaucracy to the 18 departments, agencies, and offices which make up the official U.S. Intelligence Community.

    Don't hold your breath for that labyrinthine mess to be reduced to a more logical two or three intelligence agencies; nor will that 2002 creation of the Bush administration, the U.S. Northern Command, another militarization of "the homeland" now in the process of bulking up, be significantly downsized or abolished in the coming years.

    On all of this, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to lend a hand to Obama's transition team and, in the process, help institutionalize the imperial transition itself. Like the new money arrangements pioneered in the 2008 elections, it surely will remain part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future. From such developments in our world, it seems, there's never any turning back.

    There's nothing strange about all this, of course, if you're already inside this system. It seems, in fact, too obvious to mention. After all, what president wouldn't move into the political/governmental house he's inheriting as efficiently and fully as possible?

    The unprecedented size of this imperial pre-presidency, however, signals something else: that what is to come – quite aside from the specific policies adopted by a future Obama administration – will be yet another imperial presidency. (And, by the way, those who expect Congress to suddenly become the player it hasn't been, wielding power long ceded, are as likely to be disappointed as those who expect a Hillary Clinton State Department renaissance under the budgetary shadow of the Pentagon.)

    On January 20th, Barack Obama will be more prepared than any president in recent history to move in and, as everyone now likes to write, "hit the ground running." But that ground – the bloated executive and the vast national security apparatus that goes with it (as well as the U.S. military garrisons that dot the planet), all further engorged by George W., Dick, and pals – is anything but fertile when it comes to "change."

    Maybe if the imperial presidency and the national security state worked, none of this would matter. But how can they, given the superlatives that apply to them? They're oversized, over-muscled, overweight, overly expensive, overly powerful, and overly intrusive.

    Bottom line: they are problem creators, not problem solvers. To expect one genuine "decider," moving in at the top, to put them on a diet-and-exercise regimen is asking a lot. After all, at the end of the George Bush era, what we have is the GM of governments, and when things start to go wrong, who's going to bail it out?



    Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] who runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture, has recently been updated in a newly issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best of TomDispatch book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso), which is being published this month.

    Copyright © 2008 Tom Engelhardt

  2. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ninjahedge View Post
    After all, who needs I-95 anyway?
    Ha...well, of course no-one is advocating that..but just not adding more lanes and building new I-95s. A mix of highways and rail for medium distance travel is what is needed. Unless there is an alternative vehicle revolution, highways are forever linked to foreign oil and rail could be run off clean energy (nuclear, wind, solar, natural gas)

  3. #18

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    Several transportation threads here.

  4. #19

    Default Protecting The Inherent 'Rights' of Government

    Paul Moreno
    Obama and the "Second Bill of Rights"


    Have we given up not just the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence as well? An Obama presidency, with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, could go a long way toward the completion of a European-style social welfare state that was begun in the New Deal.

    In a 2001 interview on Chicago public radio, Obama lamented that “the Supreme Court never ventured into the issue of the redistribution of wealth.” The problem, he said, was that the court “didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution… that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberty.”

    In this perhaps unguarded moment, Obama became one of the few liberal politicians candid enough to admit that the Constitution poses a fundamental obstacle to their agenda.

    This is a popular theory in academic circles. It is the fundamental argument of Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School (now on his way to Harvard), who is often mentioned as an Obama adviser and potential Supreme Court nominee, and the author of The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We need it More than Ever.

    The second bill of rights idea derived from two famous speeches that Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave—one at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club during the 1932 campaign and his 1944 annual message to Congress. In the Commonwealth Club address, he spoke of the advent of “enlightened administration,” which would redistribute resources in accordance with an “economic declaration of rights.” In his 1944 message to Congress, Roosevelt said that “our rights to life and liberty”—the negative liberty to which Obama referred, had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” He claimed that “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights.” This bill of rights included the right to a job, the right to food and recreation, the right to adequate farm prices, the right to a decent home, the right to medical care, and the right to a good education.

    Of course, these are not “rights” at all—not in the sense that the framers and ratifiers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution used the term--but entitlements. From the founding until the twentieth century, the American regime assumed that government’s purpose was to secure pre-existing natural rights—such life, liberty, property, or association. Everyone can exercise such rights simultaneously; nobody’s exercise of his own rights limits anyone else’s similar exercise. Your right to life or to work or to vote does not take anything away from anyone else. We can all pursue happiness at once. Entitlements, on the other hand, require someone else to provide me with the substantive good that the exercise of rights pursues. The right to work, for example, is fundamentally different from the right (entitlement) to a job; the right to marry does not entitle me to a spouse; the right to free speech does not entitle me to an audience.

    The New Deal is often described as a “constitutional revolution.” In fact, it was much more than that. It involved a rejection not just of the structure and principles of the Constitution, but those of the theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence—that, as Jefferson put it, governments are instituted in order to secure our rights. Roosevelt envisioned not a new constitution, but a new idea of what Sunstein calls “a nation’s constitutive commitments.”

    As to this problem, Sunstein says that “The best response to those who believe that the second bill of rights does not protect rights at all is just this: unembarrassed evasion.”

    Roosevelt anticipated no constitutional problem for the New Deal, for “Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form.”

    Of course, there were severe constitutional problems with the New Deal, and Roosevelt ended up in a nasty campaign to “pack” the Supreme Court, the political reaction to which effectively ended the New Deal.

    The economic bill of rights agenda has proceeded in fits and starts ever since, under the labels Fair Deal, Great Society and, it may be, whatever slogan will attach to “spreading the wealth around.”

    Obama and academic liberals lament that the Supreme Court, once under the control of liberals in the Warren years, didn’t do more to advance economic equality. And most observers think that Obama will only have the chance to replace retiring liberals with new liberals on the current Court. The larger point is that liberals won’t need the court to implement the economic bill of rights, so complete will their majority be in the political branches.

    Thus the real “change” for the American people, as Obama so candidly put it, is whether we want to repeal not just the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, in order to establish an entitlement state, or not.

  5. #20

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jasonik View Post
    [B]
    Have we given up not just the Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence as well? An Obama presidency, with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, could go a long way toward the completion of a European-style social welfare state that was begun in the New Deal.
    I'll take it.

  6. #21

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    You can take it with you when you join your fellow Loyalists in Canada...

  7. #22

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    I'll take a Canadian Loyalist over an American Republican any day of the week!
    (OMG-1000 posts!)
    Last edited by scumonkey; December 17th, 2008 at 03:18 PM.

  8. #23

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jasonik View Post
    You can take it with you when you join your fellow Loyalists in Canada...
    Stuck in the Eighteenth Century?

    Jasonik, isn't that a problem?

    A problem for all of us?

    U.S. is no longer cutting edge. Far from the forefront of social and political progress.

    This is the Twenty-First Century.

    Maybe the Eighteenth Century is our albatross.

  9. #24

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    Quote Originally Posted by ablarc View Post
    U.S. is no longer cutting edge. Far from the forefront of social and political progress.
    Personal Liberty not cutting edge enough?

    Is it really progress to advance the concept of Governmental Liberty?

    We would do well to relearn the meaning of such antiquated notions as Tyranny and Usurpation.

    ablarc, I thought you usually had the good sense to see through the 'cult of newness' -- Progress as it's called?

  10. #25

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    ^ I can also see what's old. History moves on, and we're being held back by fetishizing as timeless the maunderings of gents in periwigs and silk stockings.

    Their ideas were once fresh, but they grow increasingly stale.

    Progress is only as real as we allow it to be; a lot of our social backwardness is a result of hauling around a ball and chain. The pretense is that the ideas are timeless --and maybe some are-- but just as many are mired in the age of tricorn hats. Fundamentalist Christianity falls into the same trap.

    Time to get on to the next stage of human development.

  11. #26

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    "The next stage of human development" is what?

    Replace Personal Liberty with what, serfdom to the Mobocratic State?

  12. #27

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    ^ You better not put words in my mouth, bo' . You know what that's the first step of ... right? (Hint: it starts with "straw".)

    Who said freedom is bad? Did I?

    Did freedom's definition and source get immutably chiseled into granite in the 1700's?

    As to social progress: much of it is itemized in the article you posted --though the author feels obliged to condemn it.

    He's a social luddite.

    Stay out of that trap; it's a purely intellectual construct.

    I'd rather have social security than trust my fate to Bernie Madoff.

  13. #28

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    Jasonik: do you think Europeans are not free? Are Americans more free than Europeans?

  14. #29

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    ^ As you well know, Fabrizio, it's a common conceit among Americans to think this country has a monopoly on freedom --either real (the "Patriot" Act?) or imagined (the sacrosanct "guarantees" of the Constitution ).

    It's one of the many things about naive Americans that doubtless has the power to cause amused smiles in Europeans.

  15. #30

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    Perhaps The US Government just needs to go though their own Fascist and Nazi adolescence with decades of domestic factional warfare before emerging enlightened and free like Europe. I can't wait...

    I wasn't presenting a strawman, I was presenting the status quo in unvarnished terms. This article best presents my position of cynical anti-statism. Rather than having a rose-colored view of American government and freedom, it's rather quite jaundiced.

    I'm all for improvement and human development, but let's get the foundation of Personal Liberty set first. This is what I mean.

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