thoughts a week in

The first week of a presidency doesn't signal a whole lot, but the signals are good. Surely we can be grateful that the listing ship of state is at least throwing the worst abuses off the side to lighten our journey and being us back into alignment with laws we invented.

{that metaphor could have been worse}

For the President to end torture as a matter of official policy and to move to close Guantanamo prison camp--well that makes me not wonder why I am standing idly by in the face of banal evil in a catastrophically ever-more immoral nation. It is not a far step from illegal detention and state torture to state murder, just a hop. Bush kept asserting that we don't torture, but he was lying. Obama says we don't torture, and so it is, we no longer do. So President Obama has pulled us back from the brink. The import of this can't be underestimated.

I heard Alberto Gonzalez on the radio today decrying Holder for calling waterboarding torture and saying that this kind of language will unduly restrain the hand of CIA torturers who might suddenly be concerned that their actions have consequences. Since Gonzalaz is still willing to stand and defend his crimes, it only seems sensible to try him and send the clear Nuremberg message that crimes against humanity get punished.

Obama's reorientation of the role of the federal government to pragamatic competence was signaled pretty strongly in the much quoted line of his inaugural address

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them— that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."


This seems very sensible and at the same time very broad. It shows that Obama has understood a major problem of the past eight years, which has been consistent and supreme incompetence, and the major flaw of the times, which is the rhetorical grandstanding that makes useful policy decisions impossible.

But the language of pragmatism can be put to any use, not all of them small-d democratic, so we should not be over enthused. Much care must be taken when we are looking for government to work well. Recall that that government under the Constitution is designed to work slowly and inefficiently. The greater the inefficiencies, the greater the protection of liberty.

The floating of the idea of nationalizing the banks, spoken by Pelosi this past weekend and in serious and wide discussion since, is an example of this kind of transformation. In a manner of speaking, Bush nationalized big parts of the financial sector, but the regulations were so lax that he essentially just gave away billions of dollars to the banks. This was never meant to be a real nationalization, it was the last gasp of the criminal no-bid giveaway that has been the hallmark of the Bush kleptocracy.

But real nationalization on pragmatic grounds--that to me seems like a corporatist attempt to compete with the unfree and quasi fascist capitalism of China. That seems like system repair rather than systemic reform along with long over due house cleaning/brush clearing/choose your analogy. Since Obama doesn't have a fake Texas ranch to go "clear brush on" maybe he can wield his machete a bit closer in the financial centers.

other random thoughts:

Obama's inclusion of "non-believers" was interesting, as so many people have pointed out, but I haven't heard anyone wonder why he left Buddhism off of his list. This seemed like a bizarre omission. There are 3-4 million Buddhists in America at least (according to the Pluralism Project at Harvard), which is about half of the number of Jews or Muslims and so a sizable number. There are only perhaps 1.3 million Hindus in the U.S. Perhaps Obama was signaling he views it more through a philosophical than religious lens (they are not "believers"?). My feeling is that including Hinduism had a political purpose given the situation in India, while listing Buddhism would have marred the flow of langauge and yielded little benefit. Those would be the political considerations involved--it is not possible to know what the karmic results of his decision will be.

(Elsewhere, there floats the thought that Obama is the "first Buddhist President.")

This was a really interesting article on the unusual partisan sharpness of Obama's tone in his inaugural.

One last thought, a minor one: Am I alone for thinking that "toiled" is a tired word and should be retired? How many presidential speeches use this word? We need a poli sci number cruncher to write a program to quantify my sense that this word is overworked. Maybe Americans used to toil, but I think we offshored a lot of out toiling, which is, in fact, a big part of our problem.

Comments

Will Baynard said…
Some thoughts to consider on Obama's first-week executive orders...

As you probably know, Obama's swearing in during the Inaugural ceremony was botched (by him and Chief Justice Roberts). The only reason this matters is that The Oath of Office is laid out, word-for-word, in our Constitution. Of course, as a practical matter no one would ever seriously challenge the legitimacy of the Obama administration based on a misspoken Oath. Technically though, he was not sworn in until a week later.

White House Counsel decided that "just to be safe" the Oath should be re-administered, which they did roughly a week after Inauguration. I would argue they probably would have been better off to leave well enough alone, because now they have made the implication that the first Oath was useless.

So we are left with a perfectly legitimate President who signed several executive orders (among them the order to close Guantanamo Bay) prior to being sworn in. No one in the Administration decided, "just to be safe," to reissue any of the executive orders that Obama signed prior to retaking his Oath of Office.
Again, practically speaking, this is entirely irrelevant. But we should all be aware that, as a technical matter, Obama has not ordered anyone to close down Guantanamo Bay.
DM said…
Actually, Obama was sworn in not a week later but later that very same day, out of an admirable over-adundance of caution. Recall that Obama is both very smart and a lawyer, so making sure all of the i's were dotted is part of his program.

And anyway, the 20th amendment arguably makes the oath irrelevant.

There definitely is a good conspiracy tale in Robert's clear failure to issue the oath, but an actual bigger conspiracy is in the way the military will drag its feet to follow Obama's order and/or otherwise not allow the clear policy to be achieved effectively. It is not hard to see for-real conspirators inbuilt in the structures themselves. No need to try something like screwing up the oath. That was just flat out holdover Bush-style incompetence.

Though maybe it was because Roberts was hitting the sauce in the a.m.?

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