Obama on the Precipice: The Ten Worst Things He Could Do When He Takes Over


As Inauguration Day approaches, the citizens of this country are on the edge of their collective seats waiting to see who the real Barack Obama is, and how he will step up to address the worst economic crisis since the Depression. Adding to his burden, Obama is following George W. Bush, who may go down as the most failed and destructive president in history.

As a result, in addition to the financial disaster, Obama inherits two wars and a huge array of counterproductive policies perpetuated by conservatives over the past eight years, many of which are making the resolution of our current problems far more daunting. Obama may very well be facing the most difficult challenges any new president in history has ever faced upon taking office. By any measure, he has an incredibly difficult task. 

Obama moves into the White House as a brilliant, attractive and popular figure, with enormous good will across the globe. But he immediately steps into a maelstrom of crises that have no clear solution, nor an obvious blueprint.

As the economy spirals downward, more people have become jobless in the past three months than have in 38 years, and many millions more Americans are losing their health care -- more than 50 million now. Simultaneously, many states are on the verge of bankruptcy as services in every sector rapidly deteriorate, and businesses across the board suffer setbacks and make layoffs. And every day of decline has the effect of less tax revenue and resources for services and governing, adding to the vicious cycle.

What should, and what will, Obama do? And how could he screw it up, given the fact that pretty much everything is riding on him getting things right the first time in the early stages of his administration? As we all wait to see what happens, there is no question that Obama, at least in terms of getting elected, has been a brilliant politician.

His election to the White House as a young upstart, half-white, half African, one-term senator from Illinois is probably the single most impressive electoral accomplishment in the past 100 years. But the big question on the table is how Obama translates his prodigious skills as a communicator, and his powerful mandate, into a governing strategy that can tackle the gargantuan problems on his plate?  

The Potential Perils of Post-Partisanship 

Obama's well-known and articulated penchant for post-partisanship and compromise, and the signals emerging from his team, suggest he is trying to thread the needle and find just the right combination to balance the political situation and keep everyone on his side. He and is team are also famous for saying, in their self-appointed "pragmatic," post-ideological way, that they only want to do what works.

But therein lies a massive contradiction in the Obama approach. Politico has reported that Obama wants 80 votes in the Senate in favor of his stimulus package, which means a good number of Republicans and the "Blue Dog" business-supporting Democrats voting aye. How many compromises for political expediency will need to be made to produce those votes, and will the expediency come at a cost of what works?

In terms of some of the specifics of the plan that have surfaced, it will contain somewhere in the vicinity of 40 percent in tax cuts. Are large tax cuts doing what works, or are they what will be attractive to the conservatives? As Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future underscores, "tax cuts come in a distant second to public investment in actually creating jobs."

And even though some of the tax cuts will go to a tax credit for low- and middle-income people, it seems pretty clear that with losses in housing values, debt hanging over their heads and retirement accounts ransacked, people will not be spending any small amount of money they might pocket.

And as much as $150 billion will go to business, including the Republicans' desire to allow businesses to write off current losses retroactively against taxes paid on profits over the past five years. Not a recipe for success. 

Centrism Is for Phonies

Politics is almost always about ideology and partisanship as most understand despite Obama's insistence that he prefers to do it otherwise.  But for most, post-partisanship is really another word for "centrism," a theme that has been a centerpiece of inaugural addresses for more than 150 years, Mark Leibovich explained in last Sunday's New York Times. It is standard, rather predictable fare for emerging political figures to bemoan the extremes of both parties and the divisive politics of previous regimes. 

Tom Frank rails in the Wall Street Journal, "There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism," which seems to find its most enthusiastic audience inside the Beltway and in the American media.  "[W]hat the Beltway centrist characteristically longs for is not so much to transcend politics but to close off debate on the grounds that he -- and the vast silent middle for which he stands -- knows beyond question what is to be done," Frank says.

And in reality, "The real-world function of Beltway centrism has not been to wage high-minded war against 'both extremes' but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism's institutional triumphs have been won mainly, if not entirely, within the Democratic Party. Its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own movement as a foil in his great game of triangulation."

Frank bitingly adds: "And centrism's achievements? Well, there's NAFTA, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There's the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. There's the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party's left. Triumphs all."

The Politics of Delay

Perhaps given some time, Obama may have been able to fashion a new style of politics that would transcend the same old, same old. But conservative Republicans dance to a very different drummer than the Democrats, and they have given little indication they are about to change their stripes.

For virtually their entire eight years, the Bush administration paid no attention to the Democrats. They rammed home a rash of highly ideological and destructive deregulations, tax cuts and executive policies that in the end were shocking in their disregard for the future, leaving us in the worst social and economic situation in 75 years. Yet it is these same discredited and marginalized politicians -- particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio -- who are already calling for frankly absurd elements in a stimulus package, including their tired old quest for a permanent reduction in capital gains and income taxes for business and the wealthy.

In case no one has noticed, the Democrats have the biggest majorities in both houses since 1981. With Roland Burris now seated from Illinois, and Al Franken likely to seated from Minnesota, Democrats will have 58 votes in the Senate, two shy of the 60-vote support majority needed to cut off debate, according to Senate rules. It would be shocking if Obama, with all his political skills and the pressure of this gigantic crisis, can't get 60 votes for the strongest stimulus possible.

A further problem is post-partisanship translates to delay; it is a style of inclusion, compromise and deliberation, which runs contrary to the state of emergency we find ourselves in. Obama insists that we need swift and bold action, and many Democrats were talking about having legislation on his desk when he takes over. But that was ludicrously optimistic.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California is now saying she wants a completed bill on the president's desk by mid-February or else no spring break for the members. Time will tell if no vacation is enough of an incentive for the Republicans, but the prospect is a bit dubious. The Republican leaders are calling for hearings and scorn speed.

Borosage points out: "Delay will simply embolden lobbyists swarming to get their special interests built into the plan." That is the situation we find ourselves in.

The 10 Potential Mistakes 

Mistake I: Screwing Up the Stimulus Plan

We do not know what will work in terms of jump-starting the economy, but there is growing consensus that if there will be an error, it will be because an economic stimulus is too small, not too big.

Screwing up the stimulus could be a combination of factors including: watering it down and making it too small because of Republican resistance, or larding it up with tax breaks that will not provide the necessary kick to the economy; not spending the money in the most efficient ways, the methods that will bring the most bang for the buck; focusing too much on building highways and perpetrating a culture that will undermine efforts to address climate change; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, to try to escape the perpetual quick-fix mentality that has dominated economic, social and corporate  policy for so long. 

James Galbraith emphasizes in his article, "Stimulus Is for Suckers: We Need a Recovery Plan that Will Last for Years": 

"The historical role of a stimulus is to kick things off, to grease the wheels of credit, to get things 'moving again.' But the effect ends when the stimulus does, when the sugar shock wears off. Compulsive budget balancers who prescribe a 'targeted and temporary' policy, followed by long-term cuts to entitlements, don't understand the patient. This is a chronic illness. Swift action is definitely needed. But we also need recovery policies that will continue for years.

"First, we must fix housing. We need, as in the 1930s, a Home Owners' Loan Corporation to restructure failed mortgages on sustainable terms.

“Second, we must backstop state and local governments with federal funds. Otherwise, falling property (and other) tax revenues will implode their budgets, forcing destructive cuts in public services and layoffs.

“Third, we should support the incomes of the elderly, whose nest eggs have been hit hard by the stock market collapse.

“Fourth, we should cut taxes on working Americans. Obama has proposed to effectively offset the first $500 of Social Security taxes with a refundable credit. It's a good idea, but can be expanded.

“Finally, we must change how we produce energy, how we consume it, and above all, how much greenhouse gas we emit. That's a long-term proposition that will require research and reconstruction on a grand scale." 

In terms of the efficiency of the spending, according to an analysis by economist Mark Zandi of Moody's (who happens to be a conservative Republican), a dollar spent on infrastructure gives the economy a boost of $1.59; a dollar in aid to cash-strapped states gets $1.36 back in economic activity, and each buck spent on food stamps provides $1.73 worth of stimulus. Meanwhile, each dollar spent on corporate tax breaks results in an economic boost of 30 cents; a dollar for reducing capital gains taxes results in 37 cents worth of stimulus, and each dollar in lost revenues from making Bush's tax cuts permanent gives the economy a miniscule 29-cent lift.

Where Obama puts his money really matters. Sara Robinson writes, "It's got to be big. And it's got to be now. Anything too small -- or too late -- and the American economy will be at serious risk of stagnating the same way Japan's did in the 1990s." 

Mistake II: Escalate the War in Afghanistan & Continue the Occupation in Iraq 

Does Obama feel like he has to appear tough with his own war, oddly known as the good war, but one that huge numbers of experienced hands make clear is a recipe for huge disaster? Looking at history, it seems like the word quagmire was created for Afghanistan. You would think that Obama would grasp that with our unbelievable economic challenges, we can't even afford to escalate in Afghanistan, regardless of moral issues or questions of national interest. 

But if we do, we are asking for big trouble. Robert Dreyfuss writes that surging troops into Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, "will only provide the Taliban with many more targets, sparking Pashtun nationalist resistance and inspiring more recruits for the insurgency. Tariq Ali says that pacifying the country would require at least 200,000 more troops, beyond the 62,000 U.S. and NATO forces there now, and that it would necessitate laying waste huge parts of Afghanistan. Many Afghan watchers consider the war unwinnable, and they point out that in the 1980s the Soviet Union, with far more troops, had engaged in a brutal nine-year counterinsurgency war -- and lost." 

Dreyfuss quotes Chas Freeman, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia:

"We need to recall the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place. … Our purpose was to deny the use of Afghan territory to terrorists with global reach. That was, and is, an attainable objective. It is a limited objective that can be achieved at reasonable cost. We must return to a ruthless focus on this objective. We cannot afford to pursue goals, however worthy, that contradict or undermine it. The reform of Afghan politics, society and mores must wait." 

Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times column, "Our interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists bent on attacking us. ... It does not require a wholesale occupation. It does not require the endless funneling of human treasure and countless billions of taxpayer dollars to the Afghan government at the expense of rebuilding the United States, which is falling apart before our very eyes."

And for Obama’s approach to Iraq, the less direct involvement and military presence the United States has in Iraq, the better chance Iraq has to recover, and the better chance the world has to avoid even deeper military conflicts in the region. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was a radical act that continues to send destabilizing shockwaves through the Middle East and geopolitics.

Currently, Obama talks about leaving in Iraq only “noncombat” troops, which is as an oxymoronic concept as “clean coal.” As long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq -- and realistically, all indicators point to at least a semi-permanent presence of tens of thousands of soldiers and constant air patrolling -- Iraq will continue to have major internal political problems and problematic relations with neighboring states in the region. 

Mistake III: Settle for a Health Care Plan That Doesn’t Include a Competitive Government-Sponsored 'Medicare for All' Program 

On the campaign trail, Obama hammered away at the need for lowering health care costs and making care accessible and affordable for all Americans. He promised to establish a National Health Insurance Exchange, which would offer a new public insurance plan alongside existing private options.

Obama's a compromiser, but it's crucial for him to avoid compromising away the public arm of his plan, because offering a competitive, government-paid program -- i.e. Medicare for all -- would drive health care costs down and make insurance companies more accountable. It would expose the sins of our overpriced, profit-driven system and, ultimately, create a future opportunity for a universal, single-payer plan, if the political dynamics changed. 

If the current economic crisis isn't proof enough that free markets can fail, what better way to test conservatives' "government is the problem" theory than by letting private and public plans compete? Here's a snapshot of what would likely happen if everyone woke up tomorrow and saw that Medicare enrollment was open to everyone: 

People who aren't poor enough to qualify for public assistance, yet aren't wealthy enough to purchase their own private insurance on the open market, would sign up in large numbers. Some employers, burdened by the high overhead costs, would jettison existing plans and switch, potentially cutting costs by a third and still keeping employees happy. The uninsured population would drop dramatically, reducing the country's overall health care bill, because the uninsured often steer clear of doctor's offices and forgo preventative care. They see a doctor or visit the ER only when they're extremely sick, which leads to increased costs.

Mistake IV: Fail to Forcefully Defend Workers' Rights to Join a Union and Deal with Corporate America on a Level Playing Field 

One of the dumbest things the incoming Obama administration could do is to fail to forcefully defend workers’ right to join a union and deal with corporate America on a level playing field. 

Today, the United States has by far the greatest level of economic inequality in the wealthy, advanced world. That didn't just happen. Economists Lawrence Mishel and Ross Eisenbrey write, "Wage inequality began to grow at the same time" that the decline in unionization gathered steam in the late 1970s. There's a substantial body of research that shows a clear correlation between falling unionization rates, stagnating wages and increases in inequality and poverty.

Harvard economist Richard Freeman surveyed a number of studies of working people's attitudes in 2005 and found that more American workers want to join a union than ever before -- 53 percent. It's their right -- guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution -- but even as the number who want to bargain collectively with their bosses has increased, the labor movement has continued its deep decline. 

A big step toward reversing this trend is the Employee Free Choice Act. The measure is relatively simple: It beefs up penalties for employers who violate workers' rights under the law, creates a mediation and arbitration system for disputes and allows workers to form a union if a majority simply sign a card saying they want representation.

This bill alone won't reverse the long decline of American labor -- union organizers say more is needed to create a truly level playing field -- but it would be a huge step in the right direction. 

Mistake V: Continue the Destructive, Discredited, So-Called War on Drugs 

Will Obama acknowledge that the war on drugs is a failure and that it is an epic waste of time and resources? Nationally, around half a million people are in prison on nonviolent drug charges.

Although Obama has signaled a move to push for sentencing reform and rehabilitation versus incarceration policies, he has some key members on his team with a history of pushing hard on the drug war: Most visible of all is Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who is responsible for creating numerous harsh drug policies. 

According to a recent World Health Organization survey, 42 percent of Americans have used marijuana -- by far, the highest rate for all 17 developed countries surveyed.

The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report shows that in 2007, police arrested more than 872,000 U.S. citizens for pot, a 5 percent increase over the total number of Americans busted in 2006. More than three times the number of citizens charged with pot violations 16 years ago.

And 12.7 percent of state inmates and 12.4 percent of federal inmates incarcerated for drug-abuse violations are serving time for marijuana offenses. That's the equivalent of arresting and ruining the lives of every man, woman and child in the state of North Dakota, plus every man, woman and child in Des Moines, Iowa, on marijuana charges every year.

A study by Jon Gettman, Ph.D. concludes that the war on pot costs $42 billion a year -- $10.7 billion in direct law enforcement costs, and $31.1 billion in lost tax revenues. The answer is quite clear: Regulate marijuana just as we do beer, wine and liquor. 

Mistake VI: Fail to Prioritize Climate Change and Continue Fantasies About 'Clean Coal' 

Obama's Senate record, and many of the proposals for his new administration, show a seriousness in addressing global warming at a time when the world desperately needs the United States to be a leader on the issue.

But with a financial meltdown on his shoulders, Obama needs to stay committed to the idea that good environmental solutions are also good economic solutions and not ignore our climate crisis in the face of a monetary one. 

Unfortunately, there are signs that Obama is buying into some myths that will not produce the solutions we need. One of these is his position on coal, our dirtiest source of energy and a major contributor to climate change. 

One of Obama's stated energy plans is to "develop and deploy clean coal technology." But "clean coal," Fred Pearce wrote for the Guardian, "is the most toxic phrase in the greenwash lexicon" and is "up there with the safe cigarette." In fact, "clean coal" is only a part of our vocabulary thanks to a $35 million advertising campaign. 

While the media is liable to fall prey to such dirty tricks, it is shocking that the president-elect has taken the bait. 

The basic idea behind "clean coal" is being able to capture carbon emissions after the coal is burned and then store them somewhere, probably underground. A commercial application of this does not exists and may not for quite some time, if the technology is ever able to be viable at all. 

But what is so shocking about the promotion of "clean coal" is that it only deals with part of coal's dirty legacy -- the burning. The other big part is extraction, and there is really no way to make blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the waste into valleys and streams a clean affair.

And after two recent spills of coal waste from Tennessee Valley Authority power plants, one of which that may go down as the largest man-made environmental disaster in our country's history, it's time to bury the "clean coal" idea once and for all and focus on truly clean forms of energy that will aid us in our fight against global warming. 

Mistake VII: Fail to End Torture and Return the Country to Its Founding Principles on Human Rights and the Rule of Law

Obama would be making a major error if he didn't bring the country back to basic principles when it comes to human rights and the rule of law, such as shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, eliminate Bush's sham trials process for suspects in the war on terror, end the process of extraordinary renditions and remove all possibilities of torture.

The so-called war on terror ushered in a dark period in this country's history, one that codified indefinite detention and the endemic torture of prisoners across the globe. It would be enormously problematic for our own civil liberties and international human rights if Obama stopped short of ending these abuses and bringing those who perpetrated them to justice.

 For starters, this means closing Guantanamo quickly -- Obama has indicated he plans to shut it down, but that it could take time. Meanwhile, human rights advocates and attorneys argue that closing the prison camp is not that difficult: 500 prisoners have already been released, and the remaining 250 should be tried in federal courts or let go.

It is also critical that Obama make good on his pledge to dismantle the unconstitutional military commissions process -- and fast. It is inextricably linked to torture -- and while much has been made of the possibility of a 9/11-style truth commission to investigate the torture that took place under Bush, Obama should go further and heed the call to assign a special prosecutor to investigate and press charges against the White House's torture team, if warranted.

This is the number one issue being pushed on Obama's Change.gov site, reflecting widespread public demand for prosecuting war crimes from the Bush era. Obama has thus far shown reluctance to pursue prosecutions, saying he has too many problems to solve to embark on a campaign that would smack of a "partisan witch hunt."

"My general belief," Obama recently said, when pressed on the issue, "is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past."

 But without accountability, there is no deterrence for future administrations. "People say that prosecuting torture is 'looking backward,' " Michael Ratner, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told AlterNet recently. "But in my view, prosecutions are looking forward -- looking forward so that this doesn't happen again."

Mistake VIII: Ignore the Emerging Water Crises 

Right now, 36 U.S. states are facing water scarcity in the next five years, and over the coming decades global warming will exacerbate our water woes. Gone are the days when just the desert Southwest was susceptible to periods of drought. Now, that region is predicted to hit what scientists are calling "permanent drying" as a result of climate change. And previously water-rich regions like the Southeast are seeing the bottoms of their reservoirs, and the massive groundwater supply under the Great Plains that serves our country's vast agriculture industry is being depleted 10 times faster than nature can replenish it. 

Even with these daunting problems, our water crisis is not just one of quantity; it is also one of quality and infrastructure. This crisis is putting ecosystems and people at risk, but help from the federal government is virtually nonexistent.

Over the last several decades, federal support for infrastructure has fallen greatly in an attempt to privatize the commons. And water has been no exception. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which the federal government is suppose to use to help states keep their water clean, has fallen nearly 70 percent since 1991.

Things are worse on other fronts, too. As a proportion of overall spending on wastewater infrastructure, federal dollars made up 78 percent of funding in 1978, but now makes up only 3 percent. 

These numbers are reflected every day in beach closings and water advisories from sewage overflows, in waterways that don't meet federal safety standards and in municipalities turning to private companies to run their public water systems because they can't keep up with the costs.

Thirty-five years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, our progress is beginning to erode in a big way. Unbelievably, almost half of our waterways in the United States don't meet water-quality standards. 

We have 72,000 miles of pipes in this country, and we need a way to keep them in shape and keep our water drinkable, safe and publicly controlled. And we need a national water management policy to prepare for water scarcity and climate change. These items should be priorities for Obama's allocations on building sustainable infrastructure, creating jobs and protecting the environment. 

Mistake IX: Continue the Bush Administration’s Warped View of How to Approach the Israel-Palestine Conflict 

It would be a stretch to imagine President Obama radically altering U.S. policy toward Israel and the Occupied Territories. It's unlikely that he will ever tout the Palestinians' right to self-defense, call on Israel to recognize their statehood or mention their need for security, as politicians across the spectrum routinely do when discussing Israel. 

But in the most powerful state in the world, a modest change of course can have a dramatic effect. For 30 years, before the Bush administration came to power, the United States was seen as being slanted toward the Israeli position on most issues, but not to a degree where it became impossible for it to play the role of a broker in the peace process. That changed when the Supreme Court elected Bush in 2000. 

For example, until the Bush administration reversed the policy, the United States had long deducted a dollar in aid to Israel for every dollar spent on expanding Israel's illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. It was a small nod to international law, but the Bush administration's reversal was seen as a significant departure from the approach previous administrations had taken. 

Having the United States be at least a minimally honest broker is vitally important for both sides of the conflict. It's long been the case that public opinion among both Israelis and Palestinians has favored some sort of deal embracing the concept of "land for peace."

There are, tragically, extremist minorities on both sides of the conflict that reject any effort to negotiate a settlement. The United States has put unrelenting pressure on the Palestinians to renounce their rejectionists, but next to none on the Israelis. What's more, by insulating Israel from international condemnation, Washington has essentially given the Israeli majority no incentive whatsoever to rein in its violent fringe. This is a formula for endless conflict, and Obama would be unwise to continue it.

Mistake X: Continue to Detain Nonviolent Immigration Offenders

Regardless of Obama’s views on the larger debate over immigration, Bush’s push to automatically lock up those suspected of immigration offenses while they are waiting for their cases to be heard is one of the most boneheaded policy shifts of the last decade, and it has to be reversed.

It's not just a matter of ethics, separating people who are suspected of having committed a misdemeanor from their families, sometimes leaving children uncared for. According to Detention Watch, the "supervised release" of immigrants while their cases are pending costs as little as $12 dollars per day, and 93 percent of them do show up for their day in court. Each of the tens of thousands of detainees held in ICE's nationwide prison network costs taxpayers $95 per day, or about eight times as much.

With more than 1.5 million people currently in immigration proceedings, a Washington Post analysis found that ICE "holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines."

At $95 bucks a day, that's a policy that just doesn't add up.

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