Obama’s Last Chance

by Alexander Cockburn

Back to town comes Barack Obama, to plummetingpolls and sour columns rolling his presidencyinto the hearse. The memory doesn’t offermuch comfort, but the previous two Democraticpresidents endured similar re-entries tothe nation’s capital.When Bill Clinton returned from his outing toMartha’s Vineyard in the late summer of 1993, the collapse ofhis administration was already three months old. He was wellinto his rebirth cycle as a committed Republican. As a progressivechallenge to business as usual, even by the wan standardof its own timid promises, his presidency had decisively failedby the closing week of May, on the last Saturday of which hesignaled surrender by recruiting the old Nixon/Reagan/Bushhand David Gergen as his new public relations chief.Jimmy Carter achieved his zenith as an agent of positivechange on his third day in office: “I, Jimmy Carter, Presidentof the United States, do hereby grant a full, complete andunconditional pardon to: (1) all persons who may have committedany offense between Aug. 4, 1964, and March 28, 1973,in violation of the Military Selective Service Act … and (2) allpersons heretofore convicted, irrespective of the date of conviction,of any offense committed between Aug. 4, 1964, andMarch 28, 1973 in violation of the Military Selective ServiceAct, restoring to them full political, civil and other rights.”On Aug. 6, 1979, Carterformally surrenderedpower by installing PaulVolcker as chairman of theFederal Reserve, taskedwith waging war on inflation,with large sacrificesimposed on those who had voted for Carter.In terms of popularity and political strength, Clinton peakedat the time of the Democratic Party convention in New York.Decline was not long delayed. By the time of his official electionin November, the long sunset had already commenced. Bythe time of the inauguration, the Clinton administration wasalready low in the water. The president-elect and his advisershad destroyed their room for maneuver in the formulationof economic policy. They fanned budget-cutting hysteria byaccepting the silly Republican claim that — surprise! — theprospective deficit was going to be more severe than expected.By the time he gave his presidential oath, Clinton’s presidencywas, as anything other than a vehicle for economic orthodoxyand Wall Street wisdom, in the ditch. A few days later,he pushed the wreck into the crusher by catastrophic handlingof the issue of gays in the military. Before the week was out,the Pentagon had its majority in Congress and the Christianright was trumpeting renewal and victory. The health insurance debacle toppled all surviving hopes for constructive change.

It’s hard to know when Obama peaked. Was it at the convention inDenver? Or the Election Night rally in Chicago? Or his formalinauguration in January? But by the day of his election, he had alreadysigned on to Paulson’s bailout of the banks. By the hour Chief JusticeRoberts swore him in, he’d chosen as his chief economic advisers thebankers’ men, Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner, with Volcker on thesideline. By the end of his first month, we knew Wall Street andGoldman Sachs were firmly in control. Here we are in September and what have Obama’s liberal supporters gotto cling onto, by way of evidence that positive change is on the way?Economically, we seem to be heading — well ahead of schedule — into1937, the year the New Deal crashed onto the rocks. The energy bill, driven by junk science and junk nostrums, has been adetour into disaster. Health reform is levitating towards thegraveyard, borne along by Blue Dog Democrats, nerveless salesmanship bythe White House and as ripe an eruption of insanity by the knownothinglegions as I’ve ever witnessed. In a way, it’s inspiring to see ideological principle trump rawself-interest. Night after night, one can see men tottering out frommillion-dollar life-saving procedures in the VA hospital to hurlinvective against “socialized medicine.” Who’d have thought that the “health care debate” would be the beard forKlan rallies? Many Obama dreamers hoped that their man would introducesome minimal shift for the better in America’s relationship to the restof the world. Now all they have to look forward to is Gen. StanleyMcChrystal marching up to Capitol Hill and into the Oval Office todemand more troops for Afghanistan. In relations with Russia, Obama andVice President Biden have remained substantively committed to NATOexpansion ism.

InLatin America, the handling of the coup in Honduras and warm relationswith Colombia’s Uribe suggest a sinister larger strategy ofcounter-attack on the leftist trends of the past few years. It’sa dark vista overall. Some big opportunities — like a frontal assaulton the power of the banks and of Wall Street — will never return. Whatcan Obama do to regain the initiative? There are two men capable ofuniting large numbers of Americans in detestation: Dick Cheney andGeorge Bush, in that order. Typically, Obama has hopped from foot tofoot on his administration’s posture towards our Home Team torturers.Now, Attorney General Eric Holder has gingerly inclined to the viewthat maybe, perhaps, the US government should inch toward the legalstandard on prosecution of torturers required of it by a law signed byRonald Reagan, not to mention the Geneva Protocols. With theirdrive for impeachment, the Republicans dominated the headlines and allbut paralyzed the Clinton White House for two years. Now it should bepayback time. Obama’s pledge to the American people: Cheney and Bushbehind bars by 2012, plus Gonzales, Yoo, Addington and the rest of thepack. We crave drama. From Obama, we’re not getting it, except in theform of racist rallies. This is his last, best chance. Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by othercolumnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com