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The Shocking Pattern of Obama Repeating Some of the Worst of George W. Bush

Obama forged a continuation of the Bush years, doubling Bush's war in the Arab world, hiring staff from the Bush Administration, and tossing civil liberties aside for "security."

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Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose hopes once rested with him.

The philosopher William James took as a motto for practical morality: “By their fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots.”

Suppose we test the last two and a half years by the same sensible criterion. Translated into the language of presidential power -- the power of a president whose method was to field a “team of rivals” and “lead from behind” -- the motto must mean: by their appointments shall ye know them.

Let us examine Obama, then, by the standard of his cabinet members, advisers, and favored influences, and group them by the answers to two questions: Whom has he wanted to stay on longest, in order to profit from their solidity and bask in their influence? Which of them has he discarded fastest or been most eager to shed his association with? Think of them as the saved and the sacked. Obama’s taste in associates at these extremes may tell us something about the moral and political personality in the middle.

The Saved

Advisers whom the president entrusted with power beyond expectation, and sought to keep in his administration for as long as he could prevail on them to stay:

1. Lawrence Summers: Obama’s chief economic adviser, 2009-2010. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, 1999-2001, Summers arranged the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated the commercial banks -- holders of the savings of ordinary people -- from the speculative action of the brokerage houses and money firms. The aim of Glass-Steagall was to protect citizens and the economy from a financial bubble and collapse. Demolition of that wall between savings and finance was a large cause of the 2008 meltdown. In the late 1990s, Summers had also pressed for the deregulation of complex derivatives -- a dream fully realized under Bush. In the first years of the Obama era, with the ear of the president, he commandeered the bank bailouts and advised against major programs for job creation. He won, and we are living with the results.

In 2009-2010, the critical accessory to Summers’s power was Timothy Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary. Most likely, Geithner was picked for his position by the combined recommendations of Summers and Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The latter once described Geithner as “a very unusually talented young man,” and worked with him closely in 2008 when he was still president of the New York Fed. At that time, he concurred with Paulson on the wisdom of bailing out the insurance giant AIG and not rescuing Lehman Brothers. Obama for his part initiated several phone consultations with Paulson during the 2008 campaign -- often holding his plane on the tarmac to talk and listen. This chain is unbroken. Any tremors in the president’s closed world caused by Summers’s early departure from the administration have undoubtedly been offset by Geithner’s recent reassurance that he will stay at the Treasury beyond 2011.

Postscript: In 2011, Summers has become more reformist than Obama. On The Charlie Rose Show on July 13th, he criticized the president’s dilatoriness in mounting a program to create jobs. Thus he urged the partial abandonment of his own policy, which Obama continues to defend.

2. Robert Gates: A member of the permanent establishment in Washington, Gates raised to the third power the distinction of massive continuity: First as CIA director under George H.W. Bush, second as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, and third as Obama’s secretary of defense. He remained for 28 months and departed against the wishes of the president. Gates sided with General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 to promote a major (called “moderate”) escalation of the Afghan War; yet he did so without rancor or posturing -- a style Obama trusted and in the company of which he did not mind losing. In the Bush years, Gates was certainly a moderate in relation to the extravagant war aims of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative circle. He worked to strengthen U.S. militarism through an ethic of bureaucratic normalization.