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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
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Clouds in the Dawn of Obama-Time


Looking back on the dawn of the Clinton administration in 1993, supporters of President Obama must surely feel gratified at their man's performance to date. They contrast the chaos of Clinton's lift-off with the disciplined tempo of the new crowd taking over the White House. They can savor the dispatch with which the 44th president has pushed forward with the stimulus program and even tossed a few bouquets to the left — curtailment of official torture by the CIA, refreshing edicts on ethical guidelines and on equal pay.

Perhaps even more inspiriting by contrast with the 42nd president and his spouse, the Obama family presents an image of relaxed stability unrivalled since Norman Rockwell's depictions of domestic felicity in the "Four Freedoms" covers he painted for the Saturday Evening Post in the second world war. No longer do the White House private quarters echo with profane altercation or the furtive sighs of yet another illicit tryst. In the national consciousness, in Clinton-time at least, it was like having a quarreling couple permanently lodged in the next hotel room. If the nuclear family needs a poster couple, the Obamas surely qualify.

Progressives exult that "we are standing at the precipice of a historic period of reform," and the Internet vibrates with voices urging the left to rally behind Obama's economic program. Would that it were so! We are indeed on a precipice, but the signposts being set in place by the new administration point mostly in the direction of continued, indeed accelerating disaster.

Is it churlish to come to this judgment when the inaugural bunting has scarcely been taken down? No. We have the evidence of Obama's mostly dismal cabinet appointments, and the menacing outlines of his strategy to deal with the banking crisis.

The number of seemingly decent nominations has been pathetically small: Hilda Solis is a promising pick as labor secretary; Leon Panetta as CIA chief seems good. No doubt there are more among the hundreds of new officials. But the symbolism has been overwhelmingly negative. Obama has methodically surrounded himself with ranking members of the party of permanent war and with the economic strategists who have blazed the path to the nation's present ruinous state.

With the possible exception of George Mitchell, now on assignment for Obama in Israel/Palestine, Obama has the usual passel of lobbyists for Israel at his elbows. Not nearly enough commotion has been raised about the grotesque decision to leave Robert Gates in charge of the Department of Defense. Why not simply post a sign at the main entrance to the Pentagon: "Open for Business as Usual"? The Pentagon is the prime sinkhole of budgetary corruption in the economy, and even before he took the oath of office, Obama flashed the message he wasn't going to lay a finger on it.

The progressives looked for comfort to the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, which supervise vast slabs of the homeland.

At Ag, they got the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, who'd opposed Obama in the primaries and who is best known as being a fanatical lobbyist for genetically engineered biocrops and ethanol. He's Monsanto's pinup boy and comes factory guaranteed as a will-do guy for the agrochemical complex. Interior went to Colorado's senior senator, Ken Salazar. He's a born heel-clicker to the Money Power, always hatching deals with the coal industry and big ranching interests.

Though he would betray her, Bill Clinton appointed the estimable Jocelyn Elders as surgeon general. But who is frontrunner now as Barack Obama's pick as the nation's chief public health officer, to symbolize his priorities on health care? He put up a TV doc in the form of CNN's Sanjay Gupta, a shill for drug companies, an ignoramus about public health issues and a known foe of single-payer health care.

At almost every level, Obama's choices have been calibrated to appease the establishment.

The nation is in the midst a fearsome economic crisis. Every week brings fresh indices of accelerating catastrophe. The economy contracted violently in the last quarter of 2008 and is plunging. If Obama's plan to create 3 million jobs over the next two years works, it would still barely recover those that vanished over the previous two.

The core of the disaster is the collapse of the banks. It's not hard to envisage a course of bold, decisive action: Obama should confirm publicly that the banking system is in ruins, too far gone to warrant more injections of public money. The positive assets of the banks should be marshaled into nationalized banks, the top brass fired and the bad paper and stockholder equity dispatched to the knacker's yard.

Yet what are Obama and his pathetic Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner hatching up? Another trillion-dollar bailout package! Worse still, Obama's economic team is alerting reporters to their increasing enthusiasm for a so-called "aggregator" bank that would take over the banks' worthless assets at face value.

As in Europe, the left here should be on the streets, coaxing smoldering public fury at Wall Street into a blaze. As in the early '30s, there should be fierce congressional hearings into Wall Street's crimes, not just a yap or two from Obama about Wall Street bonuses.

Abroad, Obama heads towards quagmire and catastrophe, pledging to double the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, converting a bogus hunt for Osama into a wider war on the Pushtun tribes, seeping ever deeper into Pakistan. For those who entertained scant hopes for Obama-time, the reality thus far is worse than they ever feared.

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 To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
You want to nationalize the banking industry? Please keep writing and promise never to run for public office, comrade.
Comment: #1
Posted by: pete
Sat Feb 7, 2009 11:35 AM
Jeez, Cockburn, can't you cast a crumb of hope once in a while? Why don't we all just go find a bridge to jump off of and end it all now?
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Sat Feb 7, 2009 6:57 PM
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