The Ghosts at Obama's Side
So many ghosts crowd the inauguration dais that it's not surprising Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his lines and had to be corrected by the man he was swearing in. Look over there, on the right — that jowly fellow with the 5 o'clock shadow and the long, upsweeping nose. It's Richard Nixon on Jan. 20, 1973. He'd swept every state in the union in November's election, except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Listen to him: "As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world." Yet American B-52s were still bombing Cambodia, as they had virtually throughout his administration. One-and-a-half years later he resigned, rather than face impeachment.
Why look! Nixon's smiling. He's just heard Obama call for "a new era of responsibility." He's remembering more lines from his second inaugural in '73: "A person can be expected to act responsibly only if he has responsibility. This is human nature. So let us encourage individuals at home and nations abroad to do more for themselves, to decide more for themselves."
Perhaps Ghost Nixon is smiling because, he can see, four or eight years down the road, how swiftly things might turn for Obama, long on preachments, short on real change, forever trimming before the wind.
Inaugural rhetoric is a currency forever debauched by J.F. Kennedy's appalling excesses in this department. The genre is tired. Pledges of a new day get their ritual airing. America is a beacon of freedom and virtue, a foe whose reach is long and whose wrath implacable.
Obama trod this familiar path, offering a mild version of blood-sweat-and-tears. "We understand that greatness is never a given," he said. "It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted
— for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."
Obama's notion of what "responsibility" may mean in at least one definition was expressed five days before the inaugural (which may end up costing a thoroughly irresponsible $150 million, much of it furnished by taxpayers). Obama told editors at the Washington Post that he's going to convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" in February. This is very bad news. "Fiscal responsibility" in this context means only one thing — an attack on Social Security and Medicare.
The Post wrote that Obama remarked that "some of the difficult choices — particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare
— should be made on his watch. 'We've kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,' he said."
It's an invariable rule of inaugurals that at some point during the interminable proceedings some TV anchor will marvel out loud at the peaceful nature of the transition of power. So it was this time. More than one commentator seemed stunned at the fact that Obama had not been forced to purchase the loyalty of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish him shock troops to winkle Bush and Cheney out of the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But peaceful transitions are invariably tranquil even at the rhetorical level, when those with a serious stake in the existing system are entirely confident that no change detrimental to their interests is going to take place when the new man takes over. Big business soon got frightened by FDR and immediately started planning an armed coup. The tycoons recruited General Smedley Butler, who pretended a interest, then leaked the plan to the press.
Each time a new president strides forth, flourishing his inaugural menu of change, one feels the same gloom at these quadrennial displays of leader-lust. Eight years of complaining about George Bush's arrogation of unconstitutional powers under the bizarre doctrine of the "unitary executive" and here we have the national audience enthusiastically applauding yet another incoming president rattling off the I-will-do's as though there were no Congress and as if he were Augustus Caesar.
The founders, whom Obama invoked in his opening line, produced a Constitution that gives the president, to quote Dana Nelson's useful new book Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, "only a thin framework of explicit powers that belong solely to his office: for instance, the power to grant reprieve and pardons, and to fill any government vacancies during any Senate recess. His other enumerated powers are either shared ... or secretarial and advisory." Enough of the Commander in Chief. All we need is a decent pardoner and a good secretary.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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