David Swanson answers: “How’s Obama doing so far?”


Richard Moore

Let’s talk about the disparity between Peace Candidate Obama and President Obama. Those who supported Obama for his promise to get us out of ill-advised adventures overseas have been sorely disappointed.  Is the President caught in a quagmire that would have caught anyone who succeeded Bush? 

No. The President is caught in a quagmire he is actively engaged in worsening and prolonging.  

Joan Brunwasser, OpEdNews
David Swanson joins us today. A long-time advocate of peace and justice, Swanson still has plenty to do, even with Bush gone from Washington. Welcome to OpEdNews, David.  President Obama is now six months into his administration. How’s he doing so far?
Well, his job is to execute the will of the Congress, and as far as that goes, not so well.  President Obama has written five signing statements thus far rewriting the laws he signs into law.  This use of signing statements was a Bush innovation now cemented in place by Obama.  Then there are the crimes he is continuing: illegal wars and military strikes, warrantless spying, rendition, preventive detention, and torture being the big ones.  Then there is the use of the Justice Department to immunize and cover up crimes.  There have been no prosecutions of Bush, Cheney, or their top officials for their crimes, but extensive and unprecedented claims of secrecy powers to cover them up  But then there is the problem with the question.  
I don’t mean this as a criticism of you, Joan.  It’s the right question because it is the one everybody is asking each other.  But it is the new Congress that has had six months.  Obama has had only had five.  It is Congress that is supposed to make laws and set policy.  Obama is just one guy who is supposed to be an executive, not an emperor.  When Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky voted to fund wars in June, going back on everything she’d claimed to stand for, she said she was doing so in order to support the president.  But if Congress members behave as courtiers, we might as well give up the game and call this a monarchy.
Let’s talk about the disparity between Peace Candidate Obama and President Obama. Those who supported Obama for his promise to get us out of ill-advised adventures overseas have been sorely disappointed.  Is the President caught in a quagmire that would have caught anyone who succeeded Bush? 
No. The President is caught in a quagmire he is actively engaged in worsening and prolonging.  While a majority of Americans have long favored ending the occupation of Iraq, a majority of Obama voters favored ending both occupations, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama gave speech after speech in which he said he would end the Iraq War, and most people took him to mean that.  But he was also pretty clear about escalating the war in Afghanistan, and if you paid attention to the details he promised to be out of Iraq in 16 months but to leave some undefined permanent occupation behind after that “withdrawal.”  Obama also started out challenging the idea that Bush could make a treaty for 3 years of war with Iraq without Senate consent.  Upon moving into the White House, Obama adopted that treaty (the misdescribed SOFA agreement) as his own and dropped the 16-month withdrawal commitment.  The treaty required being out of all localities by the end of June 2009 and out of the country entirely by December 31, 2011.  
Obama’s top military officials have made clear that neither deadline will be met, although some games will be played to suggest compliance, including renaming troops “non-combat troops” and redrawing the borders of cities to exclude the troops that are there and not going anywhere.  So, this unconstitutional treaty is not valid to begin with, and is not even being obeyed anyway, and yet it serves as the only fig leaf for an illegal occupation.  Iraq’s parliament only agreed to the treaty on condition that the Iraqi people get to vote it up or down by the end of July 2009.  But all sides admit the obvious: if the Iraqi people get to vote on prolonging the occupation of their country, they will reject it.  I leave it to you to guess whether the vote will happen.  
Meanwhile, Obama escalated military strikes against houses and families in Afghanistan and Pakistan immediately upon taking office.  Every strike, every increase in troops, every investment in new bases, every prisoner detained outside the rule of law in Bagram (which makes Guantanamo look good) makes Afghanistan a worse place to live and makes the people of Afghanistan hate the United States more.  These people need jobs, food, shelter, healthcare, not bombs.
That’s definitely worrisome.  Is the press doing its job in casting a spotlight on this? 
I know you’re kidding and appreciate the joke.  Charlie Savage, formerly of the Boston Globe and now the New York Times, has written more about signing statements than the rest of the media together, and he notes each new one.  But the story gets no play on broadcast media and no echo chamber.  And, of course, most of the citizen organizations that that spoke out against Bush’s signing statements have maintained silence on Obama’s.  I say “of course” because so many people, especially the heads of organizations, place party loyalty ahead of the future of the nation or the world.  
But that may not be the only explanation.  There’s also, I think, a general understanding that this is old news, that having presidents write our laws is just the way it’s done now.  The issue has been raised, aired, debated, and the new practice deemed acceptable.  The House Judiciary Committee held a thorough hearing at the beginning of 2007.  Since then, Congress has just let it drop and continued to pass laws that are then rewritten by whoever is in the White House.  
This is one example of many in which abuses that were new under Bush are now old hat because committed by Obama.  There would be more objections to continuing rendition and indefinite detention and warrantless spying and claims of state secrets and executive privilege if McCain were president.  But even then resistance would be gradually diminishing  absent a major push from Congress or courts or the people.  A nation not busy being born is busy dying.
This is a good time to  take a break. We?ll be back soon for part two of this interview in which Swanson lays out concrete proposals for our policy makers.  At the same time, he will provide resources for citizens who share his concerns for peace and justice and want to help them bring them about. 
Welcome back, David. You covered a lot of ground in the first part of our interview.   Let’s zero in on Obama’s signing statements for a moment. I’m not sure that most readers are aware that the strategy begun under Bush is going strong under Obama. 
Well, signing statements as announcements of intention to violate the very law being signed became a routine tool for Bush Jr. and were almost unheard of prior.  Signing statements prior to him were almost never used in that way.  Obama promised not to abuse signing statements in the same way (see the BostonGlobe on December 20, 2007), but has done so.  Obama has written five signing statements.  (You can read them here.) 
The first is not counted by some people who count only four.  The first does not say anything that Obama did not previously say publicly, but through the signing statement (if we allow this interpretation of signing statements to stand) he made part of the law his right to use the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated in the bill in “new” and “far-reaching” ways that he “initiates,” as well as the understanding that an “oversight board” created by the executive branch will — rather than Congress — oversee the activities of the executive branch, or as Obama calls it “the Federal Government.”  
Next Obama released a memo on signing statements promising not to abuse them and committing, not to throwing out Bush’s signing statements that purport to alter laws, but to reviewing each one and deciding whether he liked it or not – the same as he’s doing with executive orders and decrees of all sorts.  We don’t necessarily even get to know which statements are thrown out by the new emperor’s review and which ones are not.  Then Obama immediately issued his second signing statement radically altering major sections of a law, [as detailed here].  After three more of these, it’s safe to call it a pattern.
So, what would you suggest to a new president who seems dangerously off-course?
One idea, not to coin a phrase, would be to change a few things.  Begin by undoing the disastrous conversion of crimes into poor policy decisions.  Appoint a special prosecutor on torture, one on spying, one on electoral fraud and Hatch Act violations, one on wrongful and selective prosecution, and one on aggressive war. 
Cease to commit any of the crimes being prosecuted.  Make public all the facts about the crimes.  Revive the commitment to get out of Iraq in 16 months, but don’t fudge it — get every last soldier and mercenary out.  Similarly, get out of Afghanistan in the same time frame. 
Invest the money for bombs in aid instead.  Throw out all executive orders, decrees, and signing statements that a president does not have the constitutional power to create.  Cease using false claims of state secrets and executive privilege to cover up Bush and Cheney’s crimes.  Instruct the Justice Department to enforce belatedly all outstanding subpoenas from the 110th and 111th Congresses. 
Create a commission to present possible plans for closing foreign military bases, converting them to positive functions, turning them over to the home nations, and retraining the troops brought home and discharged from the military.  Sign and urge the ratification of the many international human rights treaties on which we are a lonely hold out, beginning with the Rome treaty creating the International Criminal Court.  
Give up the hopeless idea of pleasing both the health insurance companies and human beings, and advocate for single-payer healthcare.  Lobby for the Employee Free Choice Act as hard as you have for war.  Lobby for a serious approach to global warming, and public campaign financing with free media. 
But above all, let Congress do its job, enforce its laws, and make transparent and public how that enforcement is conducted.  This should include complete transparency in the bankster bailouts, or rather in their undoing.  And it should include busting the monopolies in finance and in media.  Hoping for this sort of approach is what some would call audacious.  But everyone would agree it’d be a change.
Phew.  That’s one ambitious list.  How can we push Obama towards it?
An immediate thing that people can do is to take part in rallies and marches all over the country on Thursday, June 25, 2009: Torture Accountability Action Day, including a rally at 11 a.m. at John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C., followed by a noon march to the Justice Department, where some will choose to engage in nonviolent civil resistance.  Find an event near you 
Many other things that people can, and I’m tempted to say MUST, do over the coming weeks and years can be found at http://prosecutebushcheney.org
Also, I’ve written a book on these themes that I hope people will read. (David is referring to his upcoming bookDaybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, by Seven Stories Press. You can pre-order it at http://tinyurl.com/daybreakbook.)
Got  any links for our readers?
I have a website at http://davidswanson.org and an activist site focused on peace and justice at http://afterdowningstreet.org.  I’m the Washington Director for http://democrats.com and on the board of http://pdamerica.org, http://votersforpeace.us, and http://backbonecampaign.org.  And, of course, I blog at http://opednews.com.