Barack Obama has a habit of identifying a supposed crisis in collective morality, damning the straw men “them” who engage in such ethical lapses, soaring with rhetorical bromides — and then, to national quiet, doing more or less the exact things he once swore were ruining the country. Washington will always be a city of hypocrisies, as one would expect when astronomical amounts of money and political power collide. What is striking about the recent disclosures about Obama’s tenure is not that his embarrassments are all that different from embarrassments of other administrations, but that they are at odds entirely with almost everything Obama has professed. And that realization is starting to damage his presidency as much as its actual shortcomings.
Take the recent drone memo and the context in which it was leaked. When Harold Koh was dean of the Yale Law School, he used to berate the Bush administration for its supposedly criminal anti-terrorism policy. He went so far as to call President Bush “torturer in chief.” But as State Department legal counsel in the Obama administration, a metamorphosed Koh and others gave President Obama the go-ahead to up the Predator-drone kill tally tenfold over the Bush administration’s, and insisted that it was legal to kill American citizens suspected of al-Qaeda affiliations.
The centerpiece of Obama’s 2008 campaign was the simultaneous unlawfulness and superfluity of the Bush anti-terrorism protocols. But Obama embraced most of them while failing to implement any of his supposed correctives — such as trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City courtroom, transferring Guantanamo inmates to prisons within the United States, and subjecting CIA agents to scrutiny for their enhanced interrogations. So what are we now left with? Historians will see American anti-terrorism policy post 9/11 as a Bush-Obama continuum — albeit with a vast expansion of targeted assassinations by the civil libertarian and Nobel laureate Obama. Oddly, there has never been any acknowledgment by the administration that Obama adopted the policies of his predecessor that he had once damned, much less that in the case of drone assassinations he far exceeded them, while most of his own innovations were quietly dropped.
Obama also promised a radical reform, both legal and spiritual, of the big-money nexus between Wall Street and the federal government. He especially jawboned firms that had taken federal bailout money and then given big bonuses to executives who had overseen losses — while he made frequent promises of implementing fair-share taxation and ending offshore tax avoidance, lobbyists in government, and the revolving door. Obama’s two appointments to the position of secretary of the Treasury scarcely meet his rhetorical flourishes. Timothy Geithner was a confessed tax dodger in a fashion that was both trivial and selfish. Treasury designate Jack Lew took a million-dollar bonus while a grandee at Citigroup, an ailing company that was a recipient of massive infusions of federal cash. Recent disclosures suggest that Lew had Caribbean offshore investments in the very Potemkin building in the Caymans that Obama so dramatically derided as symptomatic of 1-percenter pathology. Former budget director Peter Orszag went from the administration into a six-figure job at Citigroup. By Washington standards, none of this is unusual; but by the standard of Obama’s own sanctimonious rhetoric it is shocking.
Until the advent of the Obama administration, Bush was sharply criticized for adding $4 trillion to the national debt over eight years. His defense that he inherited a recession, that 9/11 sent the economy into a tailspin, and that he was funding two wars fell on deaf ears. Likewise, Bush’s explanation that, as a percentage of GDP, his deficits (on average 3.4 percent of GDP) over eight years were smaller than either Reagan’s (4.2 percent) or his father’s (4.3 percent) likewise was ignored. Yet Obama in just four years borrowed a trillion dollars more than Bush had in eight, and set a peacetime record of serial deficits averaging 8.7 percent of GDP. The problem is not just that Obama took a model of reckless spending and doubled it in half the time — Washington is full of wild spenders, both Democratic and Republican — but that Obama was zealous in his castigation of Bush’s much lower spending (“unpatriotic”) and strident in his vows to stop the borrowing, going so far as to vote against the debt ceiling while in the Senate and to promise as president to halve the deficit by the end of his first term.
It is hard to blame the president when the huge U.S. economy is showing a weak pulse. But Barack Obama did just that in repeatedly damning Bush for the 2007–09 recession. He is now in his fifth year of governance, and the economy has not seen a single month with the unemployment rate below 7.8 percent, when in the prior eight years there was not one month of unemployment above 7.8 percent. After over $5 trillion borrowed, by the end of Obama’s first term, the economy was contracting and unemployment was higher than when he began his presidency.
One of the keystones of Obama’s promised reset foreign policy was the premise that George Bush’s obstinacy had needlessly antagonized our enemies like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela — and, in fact, most of the Arab world. But at the beginning of his second term, Iran refuses even to talk with his administration as it presses ahead with its nuclear program. North Korea just issued a video of an envisioned nuclear strike on New York City. And Syria has suffered 60,000 killed in a cruel civil war. Obama campaigned on the bad war in Iraq and the good war in Afghanistan, but when he entered office the war in Iraq was over, in terms of American losses, while the Afghan war was about to explode, costing more American lives since the end of 2008 than it had in the prior seven years since 2001. Add in the Benghazi disaster and the spread of Islamic extremism across North Africa from Egypt to Mali, and one could argue that the world is a more dangerous place than it was when George Bush left office. Presidents cannot be blamed for such events, but they can be called out for their hypocrisy when they have made the case that prior presidents were in fact culpable for chaos abroad.
There is a pattern here, and the list could be expanded: the Affordable Care Act, which will send health-insurance premiums skyrocketing; the bragging about new oil and gas development that came despite, not because of, administration action; the moralizing about the selfish and high-living 1 percent amid the president’s vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, lavish entertaining, and golfing at tony links; and the platitudes about a new civility and a new politics while raising record amounts of money in order to blacken Mitt Romney as a sexist, racist, veritable crook, and near killer.
In 2008 Obama was not just a fierce critic but a sanctimonious critic of just the sorts of practices and protocols that he has later embraced. Why? Partly, Senator Obama was inexperienced and really believed that the presidency would be as easy a task as had been his opportunistic brief tenure as a senator. Partly, because during the 2007–08 campaign the media never asked questions of Obama in the manner that they did other candidates, he naturally assumed, quite correctly, that they were so invested in his symbolism that they would never critique him when he was president. And partly, as a man of the Left Obama believed that the means really are justified by the ends — and so the reactionary Bush should be judged by standards that can hardly apply to the egalitarian progressive Obama.
Will the abject hypocrisy continue for another four years? There is no reason to believe that Obama has become more circumspect and now understands that he cannot meet the very expectations he demanded of others, or that the media will try to salvage their tattered reputation by applying the same scrutiny to Obama that they did to others. But who knows — in 2016 we may see a young charismatic senator like the Barack Obama of 2007 who creates a messianic persona through hypnotizing the media, insisting that the incumbent is an utter failure, and promising “hope and change.”