Feb 10 2009

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Truth in the Time of Obama

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An enraptured Maureen Dowd reported during the Inaugural festivities that President Bush’s departure from Washington was, “…like a catharsis in Greek drama, with the antagonist plucked out of the scene into the sky, and the protagonist dropping into the scene to magically fix all the problems.”

Could it have only been three weeks ago?

For all the frivolous hype on “44”, the “wonton lawlessness and arrogance” of the Bush administration seems to have been replaced by the restive impatience of a new crew no less committed to getting their way. West Texas assurance has simply been replaced by Ivy League impertinence.

Of course, that’s all the elite media ever really wanted, arrogance it could relate to.

Examples abound.

Remember all those devious Bush appointees subverting the will of the people, shredding copies of the Constitution at the Justice Department; the dire need to re-establish partisan-free justice and credibility?

Well, in a little noted action, the Obama administration has moved reporting requirements for the 2010 Census – normally housed and managed by the Commerce Department through career civil servants – directly to the White House.  So now, in addition to knowing how many microwaves and toilets the average American has, the President and his political advisors will be in direct control of population apportionment, which decides political apportionment for House seats and state legislatures across the country for the next decade.

Remember ACORN and the legions of disenfranchised illegal aliens, felons and the odd starlet, sports star or cartoon character that were signed up to vote? With the White House in charge and the census politicized, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

And the irrational exuberance of liberals for the power of symbolism is newly revived and well.

Symbolism trumped substance on policy for Guantanamo Bay. How else do you justify closing a terrorist detention facility without a single national security meeting in advance? How else do you justify striking seven years of Executive Orders on detention and interrogation without having bothered to read them? Why else would you unilaterally halt military tribunals legally authorized by the US Congress? Why else would we make hardened terrorists eligible for Geneva Convention protections and a path to US courts with rights of American citizens?

Is a policy that grants terrorists moral equivalency under the justice system a moral policy?

In our rush to impress the Europeans with an “anything-but-Bush” policy, I wonder how Al Qaeda has greeted our gesture of benevolence. Has Al Jazeera broadcast any press statements regarding new procedural safeguards before the ritualistic terrorist beheadings?

This is the only time I can remember where an American President has stated that closing a facility holding America’s most dedicated enemies was in the American national security interest.

And the ebullient symbolism flows to government ethics with similar ready-shoot-aim results.

Breathless media reports state that Obama signed the most stringent ethics rules on his appointees since the invention of government. But what is the value of a policy if it is not uniformly applied?

No sooner was Obama trumpeting his new tough standards than word leaked of waivers that would be provided to “must hire” employees with apparently irreplaceable skills, thoroughly undermining the ethics argument. Administration press flack Robert Gibbs seemed genuinely mystified that the media gaggle wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the need for exceptions. Gibbs apparently lacked the sophistication to see how the exceptions undermine the policy.

That double standard seems to have taken hold with the fact-checkers of Obama nominees.  While secular rapturists keep searching for new parallels between the President and Honest Abe Lincoln, it is Leona Helmsley, who haunts the personnel vetters at the White House with their apparent “only the little people pay taxes” attitude.

Six nominees for consequential positions have been in some form of ethical or taxable distress over the past weeks, leading to resignation, stagnation or clouds of controversy.

Despite his ostensible role as the nation’s chief tax collector, a five figure, past due tax bill didn’t stop the confirmation of the Treasury Secretary based on the debatable logic that his financial skills at saving markets made his personal skills in reporting his income accurately, irrelevant.

A six figure service bill for a high-end car service did kill Tom Daschle’s nomination at HHS as he didn’t know the pricey perk was considered taxable income.

Additionally, the President’s pick for the nation’s Chief Performance Officer wasn’t performing at peak when she resigned under a virtual cloud of tax issues. Now the presumptive Labor Secretary is trapped in Committee by her husband’s tax lien, placing her in the same league as Joe the Plumber.

Adding insult to injury, “Mr. Clean,” Leon Panetta, has come under review for eye-popping fees paid for speeches and potential pseudo-lobbying activities that may have required unfiled government reporting.

Let’s not even talk about the Commerce nomination, withdrawn under a growing cloud of corruption that was plain to see when the nominee was made public.

“Spreading the wealth around,” as Obama once said – taking leave of his talking points and admitting his true intentions – seems to be the equivalent of prisons and landfills among Democratic office seekers; everyone agrees we need them, just not in our backyard.

And no word yet from Vice President Biden on this viral taxpaying revolt among the new governing elite. How does he square the behavior of the Administration’s highest nominees with the Democrats’ newest civics requirement?

And not that anyone’s keeping score, but the “lawless” Bush regime lost only one nominee to a tax problem in 2001. An FBI investigation after the fact cleared Linda Chavez of any wrongdoing.  A tax-hostile Administration with tax paying appointees?  Say it ain’t so….

In other areas, new is old. The President promised a new way in the Middle East, but his policy on Israel and Hamas is indistinguishable from the previous “divisive” Bush policy. Bibi Netanyahu, a likely new Prime Minister in Israel may end the Obama dream of comprehensive Middle East peace before George Mitchell touches down in Tel Aviv.

It’s a reminder to Obamaphiles, still waiting for the waters to recede and the sick to be healed, that local events beyond the presidency often determines the limits of American power.

And amid all the activity it appears that intrigue has returned to Foggy Bottom.

Richard Holbrooke, the perennial bride’s maid for the SecState post for at least a decade, has maneuvered the well-known but the geo-politically challenged Chris Hill – an Asia expert for crying out loud – into the Ambassadorship in Iraq, squelching the experienced and capable first choice of both the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, and the Vice President of the United States.

Using Foreign Service prerogative as window dressing for unseemly ambition, Special Envoy Holbrooke clearly did not want a strong presence in Baghdad that might conflict with his ability to shape regional policy – a new opening to Iran perhaps – with dreams of a Noble Prize and perhaps one last shot at Mrs. Clinton’s current gig.

And where was POTUS on this most important Ambassadorial posting anyway? Though Holbrooke would certainly disagree, there is ample daylight between American national interest in Iraq and the Special Envoy’s personal agenda.

As for our Secretary of State, well, there are so many special envoys appointed covering every major crisis area that you have to wonder if there is an Administration confidence gap in Mrs. Clinton’s abilities. Claiming what is left as her own, Hillary Clinton’s first trip overseas will be to Asia, nostalgically rich with Clintonian back dealing in shady campaign contributions and technology transfers from the 90s.  Remember “no controlling legal authority?”  The more things change….

Still, with a tenuous political situation with North Korean nuclear ambitions, we might expect direct Secretarial involvement. Instead, Madame Secretary will be talking climate change, strangely putting her on the same level as Carol Browner, and adding more mystery to the riddle of Clinton’s decision to take the job in the first place.

And the Vice President debuted the new and apparently more sophisticated US foreign policy in Europe this past week by appeasing the Russians and bullying the allies.

Bidenesque diplomacy has acquiesced to Russian bullying and threats with regard to a missile defense system on the sovereign territory of a NATO ally, designed, ironically, to counter the Iranians.

American appeasement of the Russians hardly sated the Europeans, who thought that Obama understood European sophistication in world affairs is defined through their unrestricted right to criticize US policy without the expensive and burdening responsibilities of free societies to the common defense, in this case, Afghanistan.

And of course there is the stimulus package. That it won’t be stimulating anything but government spending seems almost beside the point. Reaching back to stale rhetoric and the zero sum politics that so many Democrats derided during as an invention of the Bush years, Obama is now going to scare America into supporting a package unworthy of its name.

And this is only the beginning of the spending spree.

Politicizing the Census? Prisoner detention policies that don’t resolve prisoner detention issues? Tougher ethics laws riven with exceptions? A wealth-redistributing Administration staffed by tax cheats?  A foreign policy that decries the policies of the past while embracing them? Fresh Foggy Bottom intrigue and foreign policy retreat in Europe? And a stimulus program that serves only as window dressing for far more dramatic expansion of government control?

In all seriousness, the sad fact is that the President’s team, in its rush to be different is not thinking through the consequences of its actions. Short term satisfaction at overturning Bush policies has at least partially substituted for a genuine and serious review of options. This ad hoc approach may work for now, but it cannot be the basis of serious policy development for the long haul.

During the campaign, Team Obama  presented an almost charming self consciousness. Remember the Obama campaign podium “seal” after he’d secured the nomination? The Greek Revival pillars in Denver? And how about that “Office of the President-Elect” podium moniker – an office which doesn’t officially exist by the way? It was as if Obama alone wasn’t quite serious enough and the props provided the blanket of gravitas.

Long months of serious planning, organization and canny campaigning have landed Obama in the Oval Office. He has the Seal – the real one – and the authority. But does he have the judgment to know what to do with it?

It was the unanswered question of the campaign that an election win does not resolve. It is a more urgent and pressing matter now when rally rhetoric is replaced by the needs of governance.

The captain has turned on the fasten seatbelt sign.  Expect turbulence ahead.


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