Bill Clinton’s $80 Million Payday, or Why Politicians Don’t Care That Much About Reelection August 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, Economic Crisis.
Tags: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, bribes, commodities futures, corey booker, deregulation, derivitives, Economic Crisis, hillary clinton, matt stoller, presidency, roger hollander
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012
“There was a kind of inflection point during the five-year period between 1997 and 2003 — the late Clinton and/or early Bush administration — when all the rules just went away. You went from a period, a regime, where people did have at least some concern about going to jail, to a point where everything is legal, and derivatives couldn’t be regulated at all and nobody went to jail for anything. And looking back I would say that this period definitely started under Clinton. You absolutely cannot blame this on George W. Bush.” – Charles Ferguson of Inside Job
“I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I’ve done reasonably well since then.” Bill Clinton
On December 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill called the Commodities Futures Modernization Act. This law ensured that derivatives could not be regulated, setting the stage for the financial crisis. Just two months later, on February 5, 2001, Clinton received $125,000 from Morgan Stanley, in the form of a payment for a speech Clinton gave for the company in New York City. A few weeks later, Credit Suisse also hired Clinton for a speech, at a $125,000 speaking fee, also in New York. It turns out, Bill Clinton could make a lot of money, for not very much work.
Today, Clinton is worth something on the order of $80 million (probably much more, but we don’t really know), and these speeches have become a lucrative and consistent revenue stream for his family. Clinton spends his time offering policy advice, writing books, stumping for political candidates, and running a global foundation. He’s now a vegan. He makes money from books. But the speaking fee money stream keeps coming in, year after year, in larger and larger amounts.
Most activists and political operatives are under a delusion about American politics, which goes as follows. Politicians will do *anything* to get reelected, and they will pander, beg, borrow, lie, cheat and steal, just to stay in office. It’s all about their job.
This is 100% wrong. The dirty secret of American politics is that, for most politicians, getting elected is just not that important. What matters is post-election employment. It’s all about staying in the elite political class, which means being respected in a dense network of corporate-funded think tanks, high-powered law firms, banks, defense contractors, prestigious universities, and corporations. If you run a campaign based on populist themes, that’s a threat to your post-election employment prospects. This is why rising Democratic star and Newark Mayor Corey Booker reacted so strongly against criticism of private equity – he’s looking out for a potential client after his political career is over, or perhaps, during interludes between offices. Running as a vague populist is manageable, as long as you’re lying to voters. If you actually go after powerful interests while in office, then you better win, because if you don’t, you’ll have basically nowhere to go. And if you lose, but you were a team player, then you’ll have plenty of money and opportunity. The most lucrative scenario is to win and be a team player, which is what Bill and Hillary Clinton did. The Clinton’s are the best at the political game – it’s not a coincidence that deregulation accelerated in the late 1990s, as Clinton and his whole team began thinking about their post-Presidential prospects.
Corruption used to be more overt. Lyndon Johnson made money while in office, by illicitly garnering lucrative FCC licenses. It was the first neoliberal President, Jimmy Carter, who began the post-career payoff trend in the Democratic Party. In 1978, Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas convinced Carter to back ethanol subsidies. After Carter lost to Reagan, he faced financial problems, as his peanut warehouse had been mismanaged and was going bankrupt. AMD stepped in, overpaying for the property. But Carter wasn’t nearly as skilled as Clinton, because he didn’t stay in the club.
Over the course of the next ten years after his Presidency, Clinton brought in roughly $8-10 million a year in speaking fees. In 2004, Clinton got $250,000 from Citigroup and $150,000 from Deutsche Bank. Goldman paid him $300,000 for two speeches, one in Paris. As the bubble peaked, in 2006, Clinton got $150,000 paydays each from Citigroup (twice), Lehman Brothers, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the National Association of Realtors. In 2007, it was Goldman again, twice, Lehman, Citigroup, and Merrill Lynch. He didn’t just reap speaking fee cash from the financial services sector – corporate titans like Oracle and outsourcing specialist Cisco paid up, as did many Israel-focused groups, Middle Eastern interests, and universities. Does this explain the finance-friendly, oil-friendly and Israel First-friendly policies pursued by the State Department under Hillary Clinton? Who knows? But if you could legally deliver millions in cash to the husband of a high-level political official, it wouldn’t hurt your policy goals.
Speaking fee money isn’t just money, it is easy money. In one appearance, for one hour, Clinton can make $125,000 to $500,000. At an hourly rate, that’s between $250 million to $1 billion annually. It isn’t the case that Clinton is a billionaire, but it is the case that Clinton can, whenever he wants, make money as quickly and as easily as a billionaire. He is awash in cash, and cash is useful. Cash finances his lifestyle. Cash helped backstop his wife’s Presidential campaign when it was on the ropes.
And these speaking fees aren’t the only money Clinton got, it’s just the easiest cash to find because of disclosure laws. Apparently, Clinton’s firm apparently had a paid $100k+ a month consulting relationship with MF Global, and Clinton and Tony Blair have teamed up to help hedge funds raise money. His daughter worked for a giant hedge fund and political ally (Avenue Capital). And Clinton has unusual relationships with billionaires and Dubai-based investors.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the best at what they do, but they aren’t the only ones who do it. In fact, this is what politics is increasingly about, not elections, but staying in the club. Erskine Bowles, former White House Chief of Staff, lost two Senate elections. But he’s on the board of Facebook and Morgan Stanley, as well as authoring the highly influential Simpson-Bowles plan to gut Social Security and Medicare. Tom Daschle, who lost a Senate race in 2004, is a millionaire who in large part crafted Obama’s health care plan. Former Senator Judd Gregg is now at Goldman Sachs. Current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made $12 million in between his stint at the Clinton White House which ended in 2000 and his election to Congress in 2002. Former Congressman Harold Ford, now at Morgan Stanley, is routinely on TV making political claims. Larry Summers is on the board of the high-flying start-up Square. Meanwhile, Russ Feingold, a Senator who did go after Wall Street, is a professor in the Midwest. Eliot Spitzer is a struggling TV host and writer.
In other words, Barack Obama and his franchise are emulating the Clinton’s, and are speaking not to voters, but to potential post-election patrons. That’s what their policy goals are organized around. So when you hear someone talking about how politicians just want to be reelected, roll your eyes. When you hear an argument about the best message or policy framework to use for reelection, stop listening. That’s not what politicians really care about. Elections in many ways are just like regular season games in basketball – they are worth winning, but it’s not worth risking an injury. The reason Obama won’t prosecute bankers, or run anything but a very mild sort of populism, is because he’s not really talking to voters. He just wants to be slightly more appealing than Romney. He’s really talking to the people who made Bill and Hillary Clinton a very wealthy couple, his future prospective clients. We don’t call it bribery, but that’s what it is. Bill Clinton made a lot of money when he signed the bill deregulating derivatives and repealed Glass-Steagall. The payout just came later, in the form of speaking fees from elite banks and their allies.
Ironically, Clinton has come to express regret about deregulating derivatives. He has not given the money back.
Would We Be Better Off If John McCain Were President? August 1, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, John McCain.
Tags: 2008 election, democratic party, domestic policy, Economic Crisis, economy, foreign policy, John McCain, obama administration, obama's wars, politics, presidency, Republican Party, roger hollander, war
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corporations behind them. A President McCain may have at least triggered a true
Democrats were united on one issue in the 2008 presidential election: the
absolute disaster that a John McCain victory would have produced.
And they were right. McCain as president would clearly have produced a long
string of catastrophes: He would probably have approved a failed troop surge in
Afghanistan, engaged in worldwide extrajudicial assassination, destabilized nuclear-armed
Pakistan, failed to bring Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to the negotiating table, expanded prosecution of whistle-blowers, sought to
expand executive branch power, failed to close Guantanamo, failed to act on climate change, pushed both nuclear energy and opened new
areas to domestic oil drilling, failed to reform the financial sector enough to prevent another financial catastrophe, supported an extension of the
Bush tax cuts for the rich, presided over a growing divide between rich and poor, and failed to lower the jobless rate.
Nothing reveals the true state of American politics today more than the fact
that Democratic President Barack Obama has undertaken all of these actions, and
even more significantly, left the Democratic Party far weaker than it would have
been had McCain been elected. Few issues are more important than seeing behind
the screen of a myth-making mass media, and understanding what this demonstrates
about how power in America really works—and what needs to be done to change
First and foremost, McCain would have undoubtedly selected as treasury
secretary an individual nominated by Wall Street—which has a stranglehold on the
economy due to its enjoying 30 to 40 percent of all corporate profits. If he
didn’t select Tim Geithner, a reliable servant of financial interests whose
nomination might have allowed McCain to trumpet his “maverick” credentials,
whoever he did select would clearly have also moved to bail out the financial
institutions and allow them to water down needed financial reforms.
Ditto for the head of his National Economic Council. Although appointing
Larry Summers might have been a bit of a stretch, despite his yeoman work in destroying financial regulation—thus enriching
his old boss Robert Rubin and helping cause the Crash of 2008—McCain could
easily have found a Jack Kemp-like Republican “supply-sider” who would have
duplicated Summers’ signal achievement of expanding the deficit to the highest
levels since 1950 (though perhaps with a slightly higher percentage of tax cuts
than the Obama stimulus). The economy would have continued to sputter along,
with growth rates and joblessness levels little different from today’s, and
possibly even worse.
But McCain’s election would have produced a major political difference: It
would have increased Democratic clout in the House and Senate. First off, there
would have been no Tea Party, no “don’t raise the debt limit unless we gut the
poor,” no “death panel” myth, no “Obama Youth” nonsense. Although there would
have been plenty of criticism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, the fact remains
that McCain, a Republican war hero, would never have excited the Tea Party
animus as did the “Secret-Muslim Kenyan-Born Big-Government Fascist White-Hating
Antichrist” Obama. Glenn Beck would have remained a crazed nonentity and been
dropped far sooner by Fox News than he was. And Vice President Sarah Palin,
despised by both McCain and his tough White House staff, would have been
deprived of any real power and likely tightly muzzled against criticizing
McCain’s relatively centrist (compared to her positions) policies.
Voters would almost certainly have increased Democratic control of the House
and Senate in 2010, since the Republicans would have been seen as responsible
for the weak U.S. economy. Democrats might even have achieved the long-desired
60 percent majority needed to kill the filibuster in one or both houses.
Democratic control of the House and Senate fostered by disastrous Republican
policies would have severely limited McCain’s ability (as occurred with George
W. Bush) to weaken Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance
and other programs that aid those most in need. (Yes, domestic spending might
have been cut less if McCain had won.)
Had McCain proposed “health insurance reform,” because health insurers saw a
golden opportunity to increase their customer base and profits while retaining
their control, the Democrats would at least have passed a “public option” as
their price for support. And possible Health and Human Services Secretary Newt
Gingrich—placed in that position in a clever move to keep him away from economic
or foreign policy—might have even accelerated needed improvements in
computerizing patient records and other high-tech measures needed to cut health
care costs, actions that he touted in his book on the subject.
In foreign and military policy, McCain would surely have approved Gen. David
Petraeus’ “Afghanistan surge,” possibly increasing the number of U.S. troops
there by 40,000 instead of 33,500. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal would probably
have remained at the helm in Afghanistan, since he and his aides would never
have disparaged McCain to Rolling Stone. McChrystal
might have continued a “counterinsurgency” strategy, observing relatively strict
rules of engagement, unlike his successor, Petraeus, who tore up those rules and
has instead unleashed a brutal cycle of “counterterror” violence in southern
Afghanistan. (Yes, far fewer Afghan civilians might have died had McCain
McCain, like Obama, would probably have destabilized nuclear-armed Pakistan
and strengthened militant forces there by expanding drone strikes and pushing
the Pakistani military to launch disastrous offensives into tribal areas. And he
would have given as much support as has Obama to Israeli Prime Minister
Netanyahu’s opposition to a peace deal because he believes that present policies
of strangling Gaza, annexing East Jerusalem, expanding West Bank settlements and
walling off Palestinians are succeeding. (It is possible that a McCain secretary
of state might not have incited violence against unarmed American citizens—as
did Hillary Clinton when she stated that Israelis, who
killed nine unarmed members of the 2010 Gaza flotilla, “have the right to defend
themselves” against letter-carrying 2011 Gaza flotilla members.)
While McCain would have wanted to keep 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan
until 2014, he might have been forced to reduce their numbers, as has Obama. For
McCain would have faced a strengthened and emboldened Democratic Congress, which
might have seen electoral gold in responding to polls indicating the public had
turned against the Afghanistan War—as well as a far stronger peace movement
united against Republicans instead of divided as it now is between the desires
for peace and seeing an Obama win in 2012.
Most significantly, if McCain had won, not only would Democrats be looking at
a Democratic landslide in the 2012 presidential race, but the newly elected
Democratic president in 2013 might enjoy both a 60 percent or higher majority in
both houses and a clear public understanding that it was Republican policies
that had sunk the economy. He or she might thus be far better positioned to
enact substantive reforms than was Obama in 2008, or will Obama even if he is
re-elected in 2012.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933 after a 42-month
Depression blamed entirely on the Republicans. Although he had campaigned as a
moderate, objective conditions both convinced him of the need for fundamental
change—creating a safety net including Social Security, strict financial
regulation, programs to create jobs, etc.—and gave him the congressional
pluralities he needed to achieve them. A Democratic president taking office in
2013 after 12 years of disastrous Republican economic misrule might well have
been likewise pushed and enabled by objective events to create substantive
Furious debate rages among Obama’s Democratic critics today on why he has
largely governed on the big issues as John McCain would have done. Some believe
he retains his principles but has been forced to compromise by political
realities. Others are convinced he was a manipulative politico who lacked any
real convictions in the first place.
But there is a far more likely—and disturbing—possibility. Based on those who
knew him and his books, there is little reason to doubt that the
pre-presidential Obama was a college professor-type who shared the belief system
of his liberalish set: that ending climate change and reducing nuclear weapons
were worthy goals, that it was important to “reset” U.S. policy toward the
Muslim world, that torture and assassination were bad things, that
Canadian-style single-payer health insurance made sense, that whistle-blowing
and freedom of the press should be protected, Congress should have a say in
whether the executive puts the nation into war, and that government should
support community development and empowering poor communities.
Upon taking office, however, Obama—whatever his belief system at that
point—found that he was unable to accomplish these goals for one basic reason:
The president of the United States is far less powerful than media myth
portrays. Domestic power really is in the hands of economic elites and their
lobbyists, and foreign policy really is controlled by U.S. executive branch
national security managers and a “military-industrial complex.” If a president
supports their interests, as did Bush in invading Iraq, he or she can do a lot
of damage. But, absent a crisis, a president who opposes these elites—as Obama
discovered when he tried in the fall of 2009 to get the military to offer him an
alternative to an Afghanistan troop surge—is relatively powerless.
Whether a Ronald Reagan expanding government and running large deficits in
the 1980s despite his stated belief that government was the problem, or a Bill
Clinton imposing a neoliberal regime impoverishing hundreds of millions in the
Third World in the 1990s despite his rhetorical support for helping the poor,
anyone who becomes president has little choice but to serve the institutional
interests of a profoundly amoral and violent executive branch and the
corporations behind them.
The U.S. executive branch functions to promote its version of U.S. economic
and geopolitical interests abroad—including engaging in massive violence which
has killed, wounded or made homeless more than 21 million people in Indochina
and Iraq combined. And it functions at home to maximize the interests of the
corporations and individuals who fund political campaigns—today supported by a
U.S. Supreme Court whose politicized decision to expand corporations’ control
over elections has made a mockery of the very notion of “checks and balances.”
The executive branch’s power extends to the mass media, most of whose
journalists are dependent on executive information leaks and paychecks from
increasingly concentrated media corporations. They thus serve executive power
far more than they challenge it.
No one more demonstrates what happens to a human being who joins the
executive branch than Hillary Clinton, a former peace movement supporter whose
1969 Wellesley commencement address stated that “our prevailing, acquisitive, and
competitive corporate life is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for
more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living”; praised “a lot of the
New Left [that] harkens back to a lot of the old virtues”; and decried “the
hollow men of anger and bitterness, the bountiful ladies of righteous
degradation, all must be left to a bygone age.” Clinton the individual served on
the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, promoted helping the poor at home and
Third World women abroad and at one point was even often compared to Eleanor
Although her transformation began once she decided to try to become
president, it became most visible after she joined the executive branch as
secretary of state. The former peace advocate has now become a major advocate
for war-making, a scourge of whistle-blowers and a facilitator of Israeli
But while rich and powerful elites have always ruled in America, their power
has periodically been successfully challenged at times of national crisis: the
Civil War, the Progressive era, the Depression. America is clearly headed for
such a moment in the coming decade, as its economy continues to decline due to a
parasitic Wall Street, mounting debt, strong economic competitors, overspending
on the military, waste in the private health care sector and elites declaring
class war against a majority of Americans.
Naomi Klein has written penetratingly of Disaster Capitalism, which
occurs when financial and corporate elites benefit from the economic crises they
cause. But the reverse has also often proved true: a kind of “Disaster
Progressivism” often occurs when self-interested elites cause so much suffering
that policies favoring democracy and the majority become possible.
The United States will clearly face such a crisis in the coming decade. It is
understandable that many Americans will want to focus on re-electing Obama in
2012. Although Democrats and the country would have been better off if McCain
had won in 2008, this is not necessarily true if a Republican wins in
2012—especially if the GOP nominates Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann.
But however important the 2012 election, far more energy needs to be devoted
to building mass organizations that challenge elite power and develop the kinds
of policies—including massive investment in a “clean energy economic
revolution,” a carbon tax and other tough measures to stave off climate change,
regulating and breaking up the financial sector, cost-effective entitlements
like single-payer health insurance, and public financing of primary and general
elections—which alone can save America and its democracy in the painful decade
the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and other
publications. He is the author of several books on the Indochina War.
Sullivan’s defense of presidential assassinations October 3, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Africa, Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Democracy, Human Rights, Kenya, War on Terror.
Tags: 9/11, al-Qaeda, andrew sullivan, anti-terrorism, assassination, awlaki, civil liberties, constitution, Criminal Justice, due process, executive power, glenn greenwald, human rights, kenya, nairobi bombing, Obama, presidency, roger hollander, rule of law, state secrets, terrorism, treason, war on terror
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Saturday, Oct 2, 2010 09:03 ET
During the Bush-era torture debates, I was never able to get past my initial incredulity that we were even having a “debate” over whether the President has the authority to torture people. Andrew Sullivan has responded to some of the questions I posed about his defense of Obama’s assassination program, and I realize now that throughout this whole assassination debate, specific legal and factual issues aside, my overarching reaction is quite similar: I actually can’t believe that there is even a “debate” over whether an American President — without a shred of due process or oversight — has the power to compile hit lists of American citizens whom he orders the CIA to kill far away from any battlefield. The notion that the President has such an unconstrained, unchecked power is such a blatant distortion of everything our political system is supposed to be — such a pure embodiment of the very definition of tyrannical power — that, no matter how many times I see it, it’s still hard for me to believe there are people willing to expressly defend it.
Moreover, it’s almost impossible to ignore how similar are the rhetoric and rationale between (a) Bush supporters who justified presidential torture and (b) Obama supporters who now justify presidential due-process-free assassinations. Please read Daniel Larison’s argument about that, responding to Sullivan’s post. He’s exactly right.
The central rhetorical premise of Bush defenders was that if they just scream “Terrorist!!’ and “we’re at war!!!!” enough times, and loudly enough, then it would make basic precepts of due process, Constitutional safeguards and the rule of law disappear. If they demonized their targets enough (this is a really bad Terrorist who wants to kill Americans, with nukes if he can!!) — or manipulatively invoked 9/11 enough times (note Andrew’s prominent display of a smoldering WTC photo strategically placed at the top of his argument) — then it would mean that anything goes, that no compliance with law is or should be required to do anything to them (a claim that always led to the unanswerable question: if it’s really so obvious that this is a really bad Terrorist, then why not prove it in court?).
And if you just toss enough insult-strawmen at those who insist upon basic rights even when “we’re at war!!,” then you can marginalize them to the point of invisibility (I wasn’t around in 2003 and thus never got to be accused by Andrew of being a Far-Leftist-pacifist-unwilling-to-fight-the-menace-of-Islamic-Evil, so I guess it’s nice that I’m making up for that now. I always thought a “pacifist” was one who opposes the use of force under all circumstances, even self-defense [a view to which I do not subscribe]; I never knew that one becomes a “pacifist” by believing that the President lacks the power to order his own citizens assassinated far from any battlefield without due process). Just read Andrew’s post to see how reliant he is on these same tactics to justify Obama’s program: quite ironic, given how often he has had these same tactics used against him during his steadfast, eloquent opposition to torture.
In any event, I was going to address a few of Andrew’s specific claims, because some of them are factually inaccurate (I don’t believe that’s intentional, but merely the by-product of the fact that Andrew doesn’t write about the legal issues raised here very often). And I still will do that below, but before I do: as I was writing this, I received an email from a Kenyan lawyer, David Majanja, that so perfectly illustrates how far America has fallen on these issues of basic liberty as compared to much of the rest of the world, and what authoritarian extremists many Americans have become on these questions, that I want to feature it first.
As Majanja noted in his email to me, Kenya faces a massive threat from terrorism. Radicals bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and attacked an Israeli-owned tourist resort and Israeli airliner in Mombasa in 2002, and that country has repeatedly been under Terrorist threats for the last decade. Nonetheless, consider this court decision that was just issued in Nairobi on Thursday. A Kenyan Muslim, Mohamed Sulemein, was detained in August — without any charges or due process — by Kenyan anti-terrorism agents (the ATPU), accused of having participated in the horrific June World Cup bombings in Kampala, Uganda, which killed 74 innocent people. He had his passport seized and was told he would be sent to Uganda without any opportunity to contest the accusations against him. His wife filed a habeas corpus petition in a Kenyan court, demanding that “he be treated in accordance with the laws and Constitution of Kenya,” which, among other things, guarantees the right to be charged with a crime within 24 hours of arrest and not to be shipped outside the country without a hearing.
The Kenyan Court agreed, and ruled that the due-process-free extradition of this accused Terrorist to Uganda was illegal and unconstitutional. Just read what the court said to see what’s so profoundly absent from American political thought; this, to me, is the crux of all of these debates, including the one over presidential assassinations:
The person whose rights were denied there is accused of Terrorist acts every bit as reprehensible and dangerous as the accusations aimed at Anwar Awlaki. His rights were denied to a far less extreme degree than what is being done to Awlaki (rendition to Uganda for trial v. being targeted for due-process-free assassination). Kenya faces a Terrorism threat at least equal to what the U.S. faces, and several times has suffered atrocious attacks on its soil. But they are nonetheless able to recognize that citizens “are not exempted from the ordinary protections of law” by virtue of being a Terrorism suspect, and that “the preservation of liberties [even for Terrorist suspects] is the only way to reinforce this country’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights.” If only that recognition were equally widespread in the U.S., which still holds itself out as “the leader of the free world.”
* * * * *
As for Andrew’s specific claims: I realize that it’s not possible for him to address every point I made and that he made a good faith effort to answer the questions I asked, but I was still disappointed to see him ignore these questions, because these are the same ones I could never get Bush supporters to answer either: (1) would you also be comfortable with having a GOP President — such as Sarah Palin — vested with the unchecked power to order American citizens killed far from any battlefield, with no due process and no obligation to prove the accusations?; (2) Andrew says that the President does not have the right to kill American citizens on U.S. soil, but what rationale can justify that limitation once you endorse the view that the President can order citizens killed anywhere they are found via the mere accusation of Terrorism?; (3) shouldn’t the long and disturbing record of serious error and/or abuse on the part of both the Bush and Obama administrations — whereby numerous individuals, a majority, have been falsely accused of Terrorism — lead a rational person to refuse to vest faith in the President’s ability to decide who is a Terrorist without due process or oversight?; and (4) how could Bush’s oversight-free detention or eavesdropping of citizens be so dangerous, whereas Obama’s oversight-free killing of them isn’t?
Then there are several factually inaccurate assertions. Andrew claims that Obama has “expanded judicial review of this kind of military action,” which is the only reason Awlaki’s case is in court. The claim that these assertions of power are being reviewed by courts due to Obama’s beneficence is absolutely false; they’re in court because Obama — like Bush — has been sued for acting illegally and unconstitutionally, and Obama — like Bush — has asserted that no courts can review his conduct due to secrecy and standing (see this article from the Obama-friendly TPM site — headlined: “Expert consensus: Obama mimics Bush on state secrets” — to see how identical the conduct is). Obama’s argument is the exact opposite of what Andrew claims: it’s that courts have no right and no power to review his decisions about which citizens are assassinated.
Then Andrew cites Ex parte Quirin  to claim that “it is utterly uncontroversial that the military can kill a US citizen abroad if he is waging a treasonous war against the United States,” but even that case — long considered quite radical and a favorite of the Yoo/Addington camp — came only after the defendants were charged in a military commission of being saboteurs, and the Supreme Court merely held that military commissions constitute sufficient due process for the offenses with which they were charged. Here’s what the Court actually said (emphasis added):
The President, as President and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, by Order of July 2, 1942, appointed a Military Commission and directed it to try petitioners for offenses against the law of war and the Articles of War . . . On July 3, 1942, the Judge Advocate General’s Department of the Army prepared and lodged with the Commission the following charges against petitioners, supported by specifications: . . . The Commission met on July 8, 1942, and proceeded with the trial, which continued in progress while the causes were pending in this Court . . .As announced in our per curiam opinion we have resolved those questions by our conclusion that the Commission has jurisdiction to try the charge preferred against petitioners. . . .
We are concerned only with the question whether it is within the constitutional power of the national government to place petitioners upon trial before a military commission for the offenses with which they are charged. . . . Lawful combatants are subject to capture and detention as prisoners of war by opposing military forces. Unlawful combatants are likewise subject to capture and detention, but in addition they are subject to trial and punishment by military tribunals for acts which render their belligerency unlawful. . . . We hold only that those particular acts constitute an offense against the law of war which the Constitution authorizes to be tried by military commission.
Aside from the fact that these defendants were caught in the act of engaging in hostilities — not sleeping or driving in a car with their parents, as Awlaki might be doing when he’s killed — this case doesn’t remotely justify assassinating citizens without any due process, and I really hope Andrew would retract the suggestion that it does. The whole point of Ex parte Quirin — as anyone can see — is that these defendants were given due process: a military tribunal which the court found constitutionally adequate under the circumstances. That’s the opposite of Obama’s due-process-free assassinations.
Then Andrew says this:
I agree that the Obama administration’s decision to shut down inspection of the evidence behind the decision to regard Awlaki as someone waging an active war against the US under “state secrets” is a step way too far. I think the president has a duty to explain in court why he believes this person must be treated as an active enemy at war with the US, and therefore treated as all such enemies in wartime as someone to be killed.
But this is the crux of the whole dispute. Once one concedes this, what disagreement is left with critics of Obama’s conduct? What Andrew says Obama has a “duty” to do — “explain in court why he believes this person must be treated as an active enemy at war with the US” — is precisely that which Obama is steadfastly refusing to do. Rather than indict or charge Awlaki, or even respond to his lawsuit with evidence of his guilt, he’s simply asserting the right to kill him without any oversight. Indeed, before Awlaki’s father filed suit, that’s exactly what Obama has been trying to do: kill this American citizen without any due process whatsoever (along those lines, Andrew’s announcement that he’s “sick of the left treating Obama as if he has done nothing to change the dictatorial, illegal and indecent policies of his predecessor” is very odd, given that Andrew himself — in a post from several weeks ago which he entitled “The Untamed Prince” — called for the prosecution of Barack Obama as a war criminal, and wrote: “Obama as executive quickly co-opted the kind of blanket secrecy and protection of the national security apparatus from the rule of law that plagued us in the Bush-Cheney administration“; those are Andrew’s words, not the words of “the left”).
But the most telling part of his response is where Andrew replies to my question about how he knows that Awlaki is actually an “Al Qaeda Terrorist” who deserves to die:
There is much public information about Awlaki, and I urge readers to go to Wiki and examine the public record and sources in detail to make their own minds up. . . . But seriously, is Glenn honestly saying that a man who has committed treason, has had multiple direct contacts with al Qaeda, including the 9/11 mass-murderers, has been directly connected with inciting American citizens to kill others in terror attacks is not, self-evidently, an al Qaeda terrorist who poses a direct and imminent threat to innocent human beings, motivated by a poisonous religious ideology that was responsible for the murder of 3,000 people on 9/11?
This is what we’re reduced to in America: trial by Wikipedia. Apparently, as long as there are enough links on your Wikipedia page to other accused Terrorists, then the President can wave his imperial wand and impose the death penalty on you. Aside from the fact that most of what is on “Wiki” comes from unproven government accusations, and aside from the fact that it’s almost all rank guilt by association (Andrew: “Witnesses report he was a spiritual adviser to and met with two 9/11 mass-murderers, Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Almihdhar“), this claim raises the painfully obvious question: if the evidence is so clear and overwhelming that Awlaki is a Terrorist who deserves the death penalty, then why are Obama — and his supporters — so afraid to indict him and prove these claims in court? That was always the quandary posed by Bush’s assertion that he could eavesdrop or detain with no judicial oversight, but was doing so only on obvious Terrorists: if it’s so clear that they’re Terrorists, why won’t you go to court and convince a court that they’re Terrorists?
As for Andrew’s claim that Awlaki “has committed treason,” I’ll say this: he may or may not have. But we have this document called “the Constitution,” and it makes as clear as can be that no President has the power to simply decree that someone is guilty of that crime. Right in Article III, Section 3, it explicitly makes clear what must be done if one is to be punished as a traitor:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
What possible justification exists for ignoring that Constitutional provision? Even if we are at war, there is, manifestly, no “war exception” to the Constitution. “War” is not, and never has been, a cognizable excuse for disregarding Constitutional guarantees — at least not in a republic that still adheres to the rule of law.
In general, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the deprivation of “life or liberty . . . without due process of law.” But because of how serious a crime Treason is, the Constitution imposes heightened requirements on proving it in court. It’s not something that is presidentially declared by anonymous press leaks or reading a Wikipedia page. If the rule of law means anything, it’s that explicit Constitutional protections like this one don’t get to be swatted away by yelling “War!!!” or “Terrorist!” or by putting emotionally powerful pictures of 9/11 on your blog. As the Kenyan judge put it: “the preservation of liberties [even for Terrorist suspects] is the only way to reinforce this country’s commitment to the rule of law.” If you’re willing to vest the President with the power to order your fellow citizens murdered as a Traitor without a shred of due process, then, by definition, you simply do not believe in these core principles.
UPDATE: In response to numerous reader emails, Andrew posts a couple more brief thoughts on all of this here.
Also worth reading on this: (1) Harper‘s Scott Horton, who says he originally thought the objections of civil libertarians in the Awlaki case were overblown, but has now concluded — in light of the Obama DOJ’s brief — that the Obama program is the embodiment of “tyranny”: “When the executive claims the power to take the life of a citizen without recourse to law and legal process, and seeks to sustain that under vague claims of commander-in-chief authority, that claim is in its essence tyrannical”; and (2) former CIA officer and current novelist Barry Eisler, who examines other dubious claims made by Sullivan in defense of Obama’s program.
Obama argues his assassination program is a “state secret” September 27, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice.
Tags: anwar awlaki, assassination, civil liberties, constitution, david rivkin, doj, due process, executive power, glenn greenwald, Obama, presidency, state secrets, treaso
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Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 15:26 ET
At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims. That’s not surprising: both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.
A very intense case of food poisoning in New York on Thursday, combined with my traveling home all night last night, prevents me from writing much about this until tomorrow (and it’s what rendered the blog uncharacteristically silent for the last two days). But I would hope that nobody needs me or anyone else to explain why this assertion of power is so pernicious — at least as pernicious as any power asserted during the Bush/Cheney years. If the President has the power to order American citizens killed with no due process, and to do so in such complete secrecy that no courts can even review his decisions, then what doesn’t he have the power to do? Just for the moment, I’ll note that The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage, two weeks ago, wrote about the possibility that Obama might raise this argument, and quoted the far-right, Bush-supporting, executive-power-revering lawyer David Rivkin as follows:
The government’s increasing use of the state secrets doctrine to shield its actions from judicial review has been contentious. Some officials have argued that invoking it in the Awlaki matter, about which so much is already public, would risk a backlash. David Rivkin, a lawyer in the White House of President George H. W. Bush, echoed that concern.
“I’m a huge fan of executive power, but if someone came up to you and said the government wants to target you and you can’t even talk about it in court to try to stop it, that’s too harsh even for me,” he said.
Having debated him before, I genuinely didn’t think it was possible for any President to concoct an assertion of executive power and secrecy that would be excessive and alarming to David Rivkin, but Barack Obama managed to do that, too. Obama’s now asserting a power so radical — the right to kill American citizens and do so in total secrecy, beyond even the reach of the courts — that it’s “too harsh even for” one of the most far-right War on Terror cheerleading-lawyers in the nation. But that power is certainly not “too harsh” for the kind-hearted Constitutional Scholar we elected as President, nor for his hordes of all-justifying supporters soon to place themselves to the right of David Rivkin as they explain why this is all perfectly justified. One other thing, as always: vote Democrat, because the Republicans are scary!
* * * * *
The same Post article quotes a DOJ spokesman as saying that Awlaki “should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions.” But he’s not been charged with any crimes, let alone indicted for any. The President has been trying to kill him for the entire year without any of that due process. And now the President refuses even to account to an American court for those efforts to kill this American citizen on the ground that the President’s unilateral imposition of the death penalty is a “state secret.” And, indeed, American courts — at Obama’s urging — have been upholding that sort of a “state secrecy” claim even when it comes to war crimes such as torture and rendition. Does that sound like a political system to which any sane, rational person would “surrender”?
Marcy Wheeler has more on other aspects of the DOJ’s arguments, and I’ll have more tomorrow as well.
UPDATE: As a reminder: Obama supporters who are dutifully insisting that the President not only has the right to order American citizens killed without due process, but to do so in total secrecy, on the ground that Awlaki is a Terrorist and Traitor, are embracing those accusations without having the slightest idea whether they’re actually true. All they know is that Obama has issued these accusations, which is good enough for them. That’s the authoritarian mind, by definition: if the Leader accuses a fellow citizen of something, then it’s true — no trial or any due process at all is needed and there is no need even for judicial review before the decreed sentence is meted out, even when the sentence is death.
For those reciting the “Awlaki-is-a-traitor” mantra, there’s also the apparently irrelevant matter that Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution (the document which these same Obama supporters pretended to care about during the Bush years) provides that “No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.” Treason is a crime that the Constitution specifically requires be proven with due process in court, not by unilateral presidential decree. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the same document — the Constitution — expressly forbids the deprivation of life “without due process of law.” This one sentence from the Post article nicely summarizes the state of Obama’s civil liberties record:
The Obama administration has cited the state-secrets argument in at least three cases since taking office – in defense of Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, surveillance of an Islamic charity, and the torture and rendition of CIA prisoners.
And now, in this case, Obama uses this secrecy and immunity weapon not to shield Bush lawlessness from judicial review, but his own.
Obama’s Royal Scam and The Iron Fist Of Rahm January 2, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
Tags: audacity to hope, audacity to win, Barack Obama, bmaz, change, david plouffe, democracy, democratic party, hope, howard dean, Obama, obama campaign, Obama presidency, presidency, Rahm Emanuel, roger hollander
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Audacity To Hope
Change We Can Believe In
Rule of Law
Freedom From Lobbyists and Special Interests
Harm From Illegal Surveillance
Predatory Business Practices
Withdrawing From Iraq and Afghanistan
These are but some of the major buzzwords, issues and concepts Barack Obama based his candidacy and campaign on to convince the American electorate to sweep him in to office. Mr. Obama, however, has gone significantly in the opposite direction on each and every one since taking office. As Frank Rich noted, there is a growing “suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image – a marketing scam…”.
Is there support for this allegation other than anecdotal evidence? Yes, and Micah Sifry has an excellent piece out detailing the basis:
After all, the image of Barack Obama as the candidate of “change”, community organizer, and “hope-monger” (his word), was sold intensively during the campaign. Even after the fact, we were told that his victory represented the empowerment of a bottom-up movement, powered by millions of small donors, grassroots volunteers, local field organizers and the internet. …. The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. And this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn’t happen, in the first year of Obama’s administration. The people who voted for him weren’t organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests-banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex-sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting. …. Should we really surprised that someone with so much early support from Wall Street and wealthy elites overall might not be inclined to throw the money-changers out of the temple? …. When it came to planning for being in government, it turns out that Plouffe, along with David Axelrod, was a chief advocate for bringing in then Rep. Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff. He writes, using a baseball analogy: “Rahm was a five-tool political player: a strategist with deep policy expertise, considerable experience in both the legislative and executive branches, and a demeanor best described as relentless.” (p. 372) Note that nowhere in that vital skill-set is any sense of how to work with the largest volunteer base any presidential campaign has developed in history. Rahm Emanuel came up in politics the old-fashioned way; organizing and empowering ordinary people are the least of his skills.
It is an extremely interesting piece by Sifry, and I recommend a read of the entirety. For those that have not read David Plouffe’s book on the campaign, The Audacity To Win, or one of the other long form reports of the Obama 2008 campaign, Sifry lays open the hollowness of Obama’s “grass roots”. Use em and lose em appears to have been the Obama modus operandi. The American people were desperate for something to latch onto, and Obama and Plouffe gave them a slickly tailored package.
As Digby notes, this line by Sifry really sums it up:
Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it’s no longer in Obama’s favor. That’s because you can’t order volunteers to do anything-you have to motivate them, and Obama’s compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating.
I think that is exactly right, and the needle in much of the activist base is moving from “demotivated” to downright demoralized and antagonistic. Yet Obama and his administration, notably Rahm Emanuel, indignantly continue to poke sticks in the eyes of the activist base and boast about it; and it is not from necessity, it is from design and pleasure.
Quite frankly, the seeds of this should have been seen coming. I have never forgotten the shudders I felt when I read two interrelated articles by Matt Stoller and David Dayen discussing how, heading into the 2008 general election, Obama was not just benefitting from, but devouring and commandeering broad swaths of Democratic base activist groups and their power, and actively working to marginalize and cripple those that didn’t assimilate into his Borg.
This isn’t a criticism; again, Obama made his bet that the country isn’t into ideological combat and wants a politics of unity and hope, and he has won at internally. In terms of the ‘Iron Law of Institutions’, the Obama campaign is masterful. From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change. … All I’ll add is that it’s time to think through the consequences of a party where there is a new chief with massive amounts of power. I’ve been in the wilderness all my political life, as have most of us. The Clintonistas haven’t, and they know what it’s like to be part of the inside crew. We have a leader, and he’s not a partisan and he can now end fractious intraparty fights with a word and/or a nod. His opinion really matters in a way that even Nancy Pelosi’s just did not. He has control of the party apparatus, the grassroots, the money, and the messaging environment. He is also, and this is fundamental, someone that millions of people believe in as a moral force. When you disagree with Obama, you are saying to these people ‘your favorite band sucks’.
There’s nothing shadowy about this – it’s an extension of what the Obama campaign has been doing since he entered the race. He’s building a new Democratic infrastructure, regimenting it under his brand, and enlisting new technologies and more sophisticated voter contacting techniques to turn it from a normal GOTV effort into a lasting movement. The short-term goal is to increase voter turnout by such a degree that Republicans will wither in November, not just from a swamp of cash but a flood of numbers. The long-term goal is to subvert the traditional structures of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s, subvert the nascent structures that the progressive movement has been building since the late 1990s, and build a parallel structure, under his brand, that will become the new power center in American politics. This is tremendous news.
However, despite his calls that change always occurs from the bottom up, these structures are very much being created and controlled from the top down.
Stoller and DDay, although both seemed to have a nagging question or two, both thought that the gathering “Obama Nation” was a good thing and that once he took office the immense consolidated power and organization would, in fact, as Obama was jawing, be used to end the age old grip of corporate money and influence and propel good new and different policies into action. This pie in the sky was directly defied by passages in their own articles though. Not only was Obama consolidating Democratic power to serve only him from the top down, he was taking out people and groups that didn’t step in to his line.
I have heard from several sources that the Obama campaign is sending out signals to donors, specifically at last weekend’s Democracy Alliance convention, to stop giving to outside groups, including America Votes. The campaign also circulated negative press reports about Women’s Voices Women’s Vote, implying voter suppression. … He has bypassed Actblue, and will probably end up building in a Congressional slate feature to further party build while keeping control of the data. … The campaign has also, despite thousands of interviews with a huge number of outlets, refused to have Obama interact on progressive blogs. … I’m also told, though I can’t confirm, that Obama campaign has also subtly encouraged donors to not fund groups like VoteVets and Progressive Media. These groups fall under the ‘same old Washington politics’ which he wants to avoid, a partisan gunslinging contest he explicitly advocates against.
But wresting away ALL the power and consolidating it is I think a misunderstanding of how inside and outside groups can be mutually reinforcing and part of a more vibrant cultural and political movement, and how the culture is moving toward more decentralized, more viral, looser networks to organize. Obama’s movement, based on unity and hope, is working because politics is of the moment, a fad, Paris Hilton. To sustain that, you must institutionalize engagement, civic participation, awareness and action, even in a non-horse race year, as a necessary facet of citizenship. And there’s no reason to shut down reinforcing progressive structures that can keep it fun and interesting and vital.
Shutting down Democratic and progressive structures that do not toe his line is exactly what Obama and his right hand man, Rahm Emanuel, have done since the election. As Stoller and DDay noted, they actually started even before the election and accelerated after it. The deal was sealed when, immediately after the election, Obama chose the iron fist of DLC strongman Rahm Emanuel to lead his administration, immediately dumped Howard Dean and began shuttering Dean’s wildly successful fifty state apparatus.
There was only one reason to do that, and it was not to germinate a new grass roots policy force; it was to consolidate power and kill off any other voices and/or authority within the party. As Micah Sifry demonstrated, consolidation and exclusion were always a part of the Obama plan. Almost more disconcerting than Obama’s singular cornering of all the power and movement is his refusal to use it to propel new policies. Not even on healthcare did Obama even attempt to truly energize and mobilize the vaunted Obama network, preferring instead to leave it up to the lobbyists, in the bag Congressmen like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman and corporate interests.
This is exactly what has made the progressive campaign and voice of Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uygur, Firedoglake and other awakening progressive movements so critical. It is crystal clear the Obama Presidency is less than it was advertised to be; the only route to correction is through power and action; assertion of independent power is the only thing they will respect and acknowledge. The change will not come through old school Washington politicians beholden to corrupt financial institutions, the insurance lobby and corporate interests. Politicians like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.
© 2010 FireDogLake
The Cheney-Like Secrecy of the Obama White House August 9, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Democracy, Dick Cheney, Health.
Tags: bush administration, cheney, cheney energy, government secrecy, health care industry, health care reform, health insurance, healthcare industry, healthcare reform, john nichols, obama administration, official secrecy, pharmaceutical industry, presidency, presidential transparency, roger hollander, transparency, visitor logs, white house visitor
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It also provided an early indicator that darker and dirtier deeds would eventually be done by Cheney and his compatriots. And they were.
So what should we make of the news that the Obama administration is now refusing to release White House visitor logs that detail meetings between members of the new administration and health-care industry insiders?
(The) administration’s multibillion-dollar deals with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies have been made in private, and the results were announced after the fact. Both industries promised Obama cost savings in return for an expanded base of insured patients; beyond that, the public is in the dark about details.In some ways, it resembles what his party criticized President George W. Bush for doing with oil and gas companies as Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a national energy plan in the early days of the Bush administration.
As the Bush White House did, the Obama White House is refusing to release visitor logs that would let people see everyone going in and out during the thick of discussions over major national policies.
There is a lot of talk about the fact that Obama has broken a campaign promise.
But far more serious is the perpetuation of practices of official secrecy that characterized the Bush-Cheney den of iniquity.
When administrations begin to enjoy the benefits of operating in the dark, they become disinclined to end the practice. They also begin to buy into the fantasy that keeping details from Congress and the people is the only way to get things done, as did Obama White House spokesman Reid Cherlin when he tried to explain away a lack of transparency by saying: “Here’s what’s happening: Groups that have steadfastly opposed reform in the past are coming to the table and making concessions — because they know we can’t wait another year to pass health insurance reform.”
Actually, bad players are embracing bad compromises because they have made bad deals with the White House.
And, make no mistake, more bad things will happen.
Only whack jobs who believe that Barack Obama was birthed in Jakarta could imagine that this administration might ever be as corrupt as its predecessor. Bush and Cheney achieved Warren Harding levels of official crookedness.
However, bad-but-not-quite-Cheney-bad is an unacceptable standard.
Official secrecy, especially when it involves meetings by White House aides and representatives of corporate interests that face government regulation, is corrosive. It warps the official agenda and undermines the system of checks and balances — making the legislative branch a weak second to a unitary executive.
Barack Obama promised when he sought the presidency to usher in a new era of openness and transparency. “We’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies,” candidate Obama declared at a Pennsylvania campaign stop two months before the 2008 election.
Now, he is doing the opposite.
Worse yet, he is perpetuating the foul practices of the most corrupt administration in American history.
Copyright © 2009 The Nation
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy – from The New Press. Nichols’ latest book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism.
The Great Miscommunicator July 29, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
Tags: communications, communications strategy, mass communications, Media, michael green, Obama, obama speeches, presidency, press conferences, roger hollander
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When Barack Obama became president I wondered whether he would have the courage and integrity to bring long absent progressive politics back to the fore in America. Unhappily, that question has now more or less been answered, though of course anything can happen in the remaining three-and-a-half or seven-and-a-half years of his presidency.
Here’s what I didn’t wonder about: whether his administration would be competent, and whether he would be skilled at the using the most powerful and important tool at a president’s disposal, mass communications and the bully pulpit.
Turns out I shoulda, as Obama so far has failed on both fronts. This presidency is centrist in every respect, except on those occasions when it is as regressive as George W. Bush’s. That’s a huge disappointment, but not a shocker by any means. Far more surprising, however, is the ineptness of the administration, particularly concerning its communications strategy.
This should never have happened. Obama is rightly considered one of the most eloquent and moving speakers in American political history. I came to that conclusion with some skepticism, too, having seen him campaign in person, and having watched his 2004 convention speech that everyone thought was so spiffy. I was unimpressed with both. But since then, Obama has astonished me on a couple of occasions, beginning with his race speech in Philadelphia, and perhaps most recently with his talk in Cairo. Importantly, it is not the delivery of these addresses – which is actually fairly muted, as political speeches go – but rather their content that shines. It’s been so long since an American politician spoke to the public with this degree of honesty, and demanded as much maturity from listeners, that I couldn’t help but be struck by these powerful orations.
Otherwise, however, I would rate the communications ability of this White House at just slightly above catastrophic. These failures were on full display last week with the healthcare press conference disaster, but, in fact, they have been in the making right from the beginning.
In fact, they began in the very first minutes of the administration. Remember the Lincolnesque eloquence and profundity of the inaugural address? Yeah, me neither. That speech was an unbelievably blown opportunity to give a forceful, game-changing oration that could have brought along tens of millions of people through the majesty and power of the occasion. All the elements were there: the massive crowds, the global attention, the momentous development of our first black president, the much promised “change”, the many crises warranting it, and the overwhelming public desire to turn away from a disastrously failed prior regime.
But instead of a majestic oration charting a new course and calling upon us to be the change we need, Obama gave a short and not at all sweet speech to his planetary audience. It was a talk that was most notable for not being notable. Do you remember anything from it? Any of the amazing turns-of-phrase that marked Lincoln’s or Kennedy’s inaugural prose? Any of the courageous willingness to call out the economic predators who are destroying the country, as FDR did, or that’s president’s courage-inducing language, giving hope to a despondent nation? I don’t. In fact, I don’t remember a single word or theme from Obama’s inaugural speech.
Oh well. I figure everyone’s entitled to a dropped ball now and then, though it would be preferable to have that happen some time other than at the most watched political moment of the decade.
The problem is, of course, that this wasn’t just a one-off screw-up. The essential theme of the last six months is simply this: Barack Obama has not taken control of the political agenda in America.
He waited far too long in his new presidency to give a major speech on what ails the country and how we ought to proceed, and when he finally addressed a joint session of Congress for this purpose, he was only somewhat better than at his inaugural address. Again, does anyone remember anything memorable from that event? Can anyone list his topics, without making obvious retrospective guesses (it’s the economy, stupid)? Can anyone identify from that virtual state of the union address one call to action, one bold assertion, one controversial claim for which the president was willing to spend political capital? I honestly cannot.
Since then, Obama has given a couple of pretty memorable speeches, like the Cairo address, the Arizona State commencement, or the Notre Dame abortion speech. But even these are deficient, because they smack of lofty verbiage unsupported by serious policy – sort of one-off flights of rhetorical fancy. For example, in Cairo Obama somewhat forcefully (or as forceful as, pathetically, these things go) told the Israelis to stop expanding their West Bank settlements. Leave aside for the moment that this is about the least that could or should be demanded concerning these incredibly unhelpful actions exacerbating already illegal developments which, by the way, do absolutely nothing for Israeli security. Nevertheless, now that Israel has essentially told the president where he can stick his pretty words, do you expect Obama to act? Will he throw any carrots or sticks toward Jerusalem to get what he wants from an ally for whom the US has done so much? I’d be plenty surprised if he were to actually back even this minuscule demand with action.
These speeches, much as I admire them at one level – and I really do – are also narrowly focused and essentially athematic. That can be okay, up to a point. Certain problems exist in relatively contained isolation, and can be addressed, to some real degree, apart from others. Yet, there are also many good reasons for an administration to tell the American people a grand story or two, and to root their more specific policies and actions within the context of those larger themes. George Bush, for example, told us the tale of the war on terrorism, and he got tremendous legislative mileage and popular support from that unifying theme.
It was almost entirely deceitful, of course, and it caused horrific damage here and abroad. But that is no reason necessarily to throw out the communications approach, any more than we should dispense with having presidents because Bush was such a bad one. In fact, there are good and true and real unifying, thematic stories Obama could be telling, and they would benefit the country enormously. Imagine, for example, if there was a war on greed, instead of a phony and destructive war on terrorism. Imagine how far that might go toward framing solutions to so many of our problems, from the economic crisis, to healthcare, to foreign policy militarism, to global warming.
Of course, the absence of such a recurrent motif – that one in particular – has everything to do with Obama’s bigger problems, his utter lack of progressive principle, and the concomitant political courage needed to drive them home. But what is more astonishing about this administration is the degree to which they can’t even get the little stuff right – the things that don’t cost you anything, but determine your fate, not least including your chance of getting a second term.
For instance, Obama has now given something like four or five prime-time press conferences as the primary vehicle to sell his agenda (assuming anyone can figure out what that is – but more on that question in another piece). Forget for a moment all questions of content and courage. This approach is just plain strategically stupid, no matter what you’re trying to sell.
It’s catastrophically dumb, for at least two reasons. The lesser of these is that, while Obama seems relatively comfortable in these sessions, they are absolutely not his best communications element. Nor, likely, would they be anybody’s. What will be a stronger, more forceful argument to the public – on any subject – a precisely tailored and carefully delivered address to the nation, or a semi-spontaneous two-minute response to a reporter’s question? And that assumes, of course, that you’re capable of a two-minute response, which Obama evidently is not. His long, passionless, academic disquisitions, riddled with hesitations, ums, ahs and uhs, sell no one on nothing.
There actually was, remarkably, a take-away from his press conference last week, but unfortunately, it had almost nothing to do with the intended content of the press conference. Viewers – especially those who are smart enough not to devote their lives to being political junkies and policy wonks – got nothing from the investment of their time, save perhaps a reluctance to listen to this guy next time around. They got no healthcare plan from the White House, they got no clarification as to who are the white hats and who are the black hats on this issue, they got no meta-story about responsibility, sacrifice and greed, and they got no rallying call to action.
What they did get was a presidential cock-up of the first order. This was the take-away alluded to above, it was as big a digression as is imaginable, and it succeeded in completely undoing everything the press conference was meant to achieve. This, of course, was the president’s foolish commentary on the Henry Louis Gates debacle. Why he needed to wade into the waters of the particulars of a minor league arrest by a small-town police department (as opposed to, say, a discussion of racial profiling in the abstract) is beyond me, as is why he employed the inflammatory language that he did, especially since he noted then and has conceded in his subsequent apology that part of the problem may have been inappropriate behavior on the part of Gates, not just the cop who (yes, stupidly) arrested him.
But even had Obama not erred so egregiously, there is a broader strategic question here, which underpins the circumstance leading to this ignominious scene. And that question is, why – even beyond the fact that Obama’s performance is usually only okay at press conferences – why in the world would the White House be using press conferences to sell their agenda??? The very nature of the forum is built around the concept that the audience in the room controls the event. The press not only control what themes get asked about (what if Obama had gotten questions on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gates affair, or global warming – and none about healthcare?), but they also choose what specific questions to ask, and how to frame those questions. Maybe the president wanted to talk about getting universal coverage for the public, but the press asked instead about the party politics of the legislation on Capitol Hill. Maybe Obama wanted to exert leadership on the topic, but the press asked questions that made him out to have lost control of the issue’s agenda.
The point is that, even if Obama was especially skilled at press conferences, like Jack Kennedy was, this is absolutely the wrong forum for the purpose of rallying support around an issue critical to both the nation and the fate of his presidency. Instead, you give a televised address from the Oval Office, or a high profile speech somewhere appropriate. By doing so, you control the content, you think out ahead of time precisely what you want to say, you pick the emotional pitch of the delivery, you design the setting to maximize the impact of whatever message you’re trying to get across, you get the bonus of presidential gravitas inherent to the setting, and you stage manage everything about the presentation to align with the communications goals for it that you pre-establish before the first word of the speech is even composed. Alternatively, if you utilize the press conference format instead, you lose every single one of these benefits, in part or in whole.
The second most astonishing thing about the failure of the Obama people to get this is that presidents have understood these principles at least since FDR gave his fireside chats. Moreover, ever since Michael Deaver and Ronald Reagan brought Hollywood methods (and values) to the presidency, political pros have not only understood these principles, but have mastered them to enormous effect (and often enormously pernicious effect – a la Reagan, or Bush with the bullhorn on the World Trade Center pile). How is it possible, in 2009, that the Obama people don’t know how to do the same? I mean, picking the appropriate medium for the message you’re trying to convey is Presidential Communications 101.
Which brings us to the first most astonishing aspect of this failure. Are these really the same people – including Obama himself – who brought this guy out of nowhere and got him to the White House?!?! Are these really the same folks who ran a strategically brilliant, highly disciplined and nearly flawless campaign, one that no one saw coming, and one in which a relative unknown whose national experience consisted of one big speech and two years time in the Senate managed to topple a shoe-in heir-apparent and vanquish a highly regarded war hero?!?! Really?
I don’t even recognize these people anymore. It’s disappointing enough that their politics are so dismal (why bother toppling Hillary, only to reprise Bill, who’s hardly any different than George?). But could they really be so incompetent and anemic at the basics of governing as well?
Of course, the two questions are not unrelated.
Indeed, it may well be that the Obama administration is so weak at marketing precisely because it realizes that a strong marketing campaign would instantly reveal that they actually have almost nothing to sell.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (mailto:email@example.com), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.
Obama’s Failure as a Leader July 22, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, War.
Tags: Barack Obama, candidate obama, health, health care, health care reform, health insurance industry, healthcare, healthcare reform, leadership, politics, power, presidency, president obama, roger hollander, single payer
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www.rogerhollander.com, July 22, 2009
To quote John Lennon, “Imagine!” Imagine Barack Obama giving a nationally televised speech on health care reform. In it he outlines the advantages of a single-payer plan. He gives the statistical evidence to demonstrate the enormous savings by eliminating private health insurance. He discusses the German, French, British and Canadian systems. He acknowledges some drawbacks, but shows clearly how they achieve the fundamental objectives of universal accessibility, choice, and cost savings. He directly challenges the medical, health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and exposes their high priced media propaganda for what it is: distortion and lies. With most American already having a predisposition towards universal coverage, and with the myths dispelled and replaced with hard undeniable facts, the pressure from the public on Congress to achieve a single-payer option would be irresistible.
Barack Obama wouldn’t be President of the United States today if he hadn’t been the pragmatic, hard-ball, Chicago-bred politician that he is. His failure, or his inability, or his lack of will – call it what you like – to withdraw from the country’s imperialist (criminal and destructive) war adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan or to hold the Bush administration accountable for its high crimes and misdemeanors is eminently predictable and in entirely in character. That many expected more, a hell of a lot more, is due entirely to his campaign rhetoric, which was calculated and for the most part fraudulent.
But this is no reason to not render critical judgments about the Obama presidency despite the fact that we are still quite early into his tenure. There is no doubt that we can expect more of the same. There is a principle to the effect that the practical should be judged by the ideal, and not vice versa. Following this principle is the keystone of leadership. President Obama violates this principle on a daily basis.
Obama knows what leadership is. Candidate Obama demonstrated the epitome of leadership as he led the nation to an electoral victory over a McCain/Palin ticket that had the potential to give the country a government even more disastrous than that of Bush/Cheney – virtually inconceivable but true.
He gave the country its first Afro-American president. However, once elected, he cast off the leadership role as a snake sheds its skin.
President Obama is fond of saying something to the effect of not letting the perfect get in the way of achieving the possible. Politics is the art of the possible, as common wisdom has it. In other words, judge the ideal by the practical, which is to my mind a cynical and nihilistic form of non-leadership.
In a sense, a leader’s role is to remain to a large degree above the fray. A leader reflects the needs, hopes and aspirations of the people. A genuine leader is not a power broker.
In the U.S. system of government, the Congress makes laws which, once agreed upon by both houses, are presented to the President to sign into law or veto. Apart from skewing factors such as massive corporate lobbying and the infamous Bush “signing statements” that allowed the President to ignore laws passed by Congress, the system as it has evolved does generate legislation, for better or worse.
A president’s role can vary between staying out of the process until a piece of legislation reaches his or her desk, and active participation in creating legislation and stick-handling it through Congress. In modern times presidents have leaned more towards the latter role, thereby sacrificing their capacity to lead rather than to broker.
I would suggest that the proper role for Obama or any other president is to communicate to the general public and to the members of Congress his vision on any given issue that is in the best interests of the nation. In the case of health care reform, for example, that would be for a single-payer option, which is what Canada and European industrial democracies have had in place for decades or longer (and which, despite being virtually ignored by the mainstream media and subjected to massive campaigns based upon outright falsehoods, most Americans believe in). But since that is the “perfect” solution in Obama’s frame of thinking, it is “off the table” presumably so as not to hinder a less than perfect but “realizable” option. This is the way of the defeatism, it is not leadership.
In other words, if Obama were a leader rather than a manipulator, he would go over the heads of Congress and speak directly to the people, and let Congress take the consequences for its action or failure to act. This might entail short term risk (that a flawed reform or no reform at all would result), but surely is the only road to genuine reform in the long term. Leadership is about taking risks; but what is ironic, not to mention tragic, is that by taking the path of power brokering a deal, the only possible results are either a much less than adequate reform or total failure. It is also ironic that the entirely self-interested neo-con (Republican) opposition will go for the jugular on the compromised, brokered solution as if it were the ideal solution (so, why not go for broke if you are going to be viciously attacked in any case?). The pragmatist will argue that the less than adequate reform is an incremental step to genuine reform. This indeed might be the case were it not for the fact that bastardized reforms are the result of catering to special interests (in the case of health care reform the AMA, the insurance and pharmaceutical industries), who having been victorious in fending off genuine reform will only remain further entrenched and less likely to be defeated in the future.
In feudal times there was in some senses a positive relationship between kings and subjects vis-à-vis confrontation with the ruling nobility. At times a serf could go over the head of his Lord and appeal to the king for justice. I am no lover of monarchy and only offer this as an analogy. A president who was a genuine friend of the masses and an ally in their struggles with enormous economic interests and compromised legislatures would be a sight to behold.
The problem, of course, is that the President is just as compromised as the legislatures with respect to the funding required to gain a nomination and to launch a successful presidential campaign. What I find so insidious about the Obama (full disclosure: I voted for him, the alternative was too scary, but I can understand those who bit the bullet and voted for Nader) is that he promoted himself and catapulted himself to the presidency by pretending to be a leader. I have to confess that in spite of my better judgment, there was a part of me that wanted to believe him. This may have been naïve on my part, but at least I kept it to myself.