Not long after the big Republican win in the 2010 elections, the Obama administration’s best and brightest gave up on explaining that putting people to work is really good for both the economy and for people who need work. The concept was too complicated for voters, they thought, so instead the president went off to negotiate with a crew of irresolute drunks and psychotic killer termites over how best to tighten the belt of government around the necks of the poor, the sick, the old and the unemployed.
“Bizarre” may not be the best word to describe the perspective brought to bear by the president and those around him on events and processes historical and current, but let’s go with that for now. It’s the perspective that propelled the president to Oslo to deliver a stirring defense of aggressive war on the occasion of his Nobel Prize award, where he lauded Martin Luther King for bringing our country to the point where an African-American man could win the presidency and use it (as is his right) to undermine some of the principles King held most dear.
As Obama delivered his Nobel lecture, his ironically-named justice department was working to immunize torture lawyer John Yoo from any liability for constructing the legal foundation upon which the Bush administration’s torture spree was based. This effort to revive another discredited Nuremberg defense—the president had already embraced the “just following orders” defense—was initiated 62 years, almost to the day, after the conclusion of the trials for Yoo’s Nazi counterparts.
Meanwhile, over at the War Department, plans were well underway to dramatically escalate a war in Afghanistan that at least some of the president’s advisers must have known to be doomed, and that had never for a moment resembled the description of it he offered to the tuxedoed and gowned Nobel crowd.
A similar, sort of moral laissez-faire perspective is reflected in Kenneth Feinberg’s performance as the administration’s point man on examining Wall Street compensation during the bailout, which even business writers found somewhat startling.
Kenneth Feinberg announced Friday that he would not try to recoup $1.6 billion in compensation given to top executives at bailed-out banks because he thought shaming them was punishment enough.
His decision to go easy on 17 banks that made “ill-advised” payments to their executives is likely to fuel concerns about how he will oversee the $20 billion oil spill compensation fund created by BP.
“I’m not suggesting we should blink or turn the other cheek,” Feinberg said later in an interview with The Associated Press. “These 17 companies were singled out for obviously bad behavior. The question is: At what point are you piling on and going beyond what is warranted?”
The concerns about Feinberg’s appointment to head the BP compensation fund were well-founded; he was chastised by a federal judge for falsely representing himself as independent of BP and for discouraging claimants from hiring lawyers, and was ultimately replaced as the fund administrator.
Feinberg came by his sympathy for the devils honestly, swimming as he was in a personnel pool stocked with big fish from the stone-blind New York Fed, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and other institutions inhabited by people whose natural sympathies lie with their own ilk.
Meanwhile, two years before Feinberg visited his wrath upon the banksters, around the time the president was prepping for his Nobel appearance and letting torturers off the hook, the administration was flexing its national security state wings by interpreting the PATRIOT Act in ways that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Russ Feingold, the soon-to-be-former Senator from Wisconsin, found deeply discomfiting and in need of constraint.
They lost the fight to rein the administration’s security services in, but for some time now Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have gotten increasingly agitated about what appear to be the same things that appalled Feingold and Durbin. They can’t tell us what things specifically because the things are classified, and of course the legal opinions the administration says authorize these things are secret too, but they say they think “most Americans would be stunned” to find out how the administration are using their powers.
A salient fact here is that all four men were in Congress throughout the Bush years, and both Durbin and Wyden were there during the Reagan years as well, when the administration was running a (sort of) secret war in Central America and was selling weapons to Iran and making nicey-nicey with Saddam. (Wyden and Durbin voted for sanctions against Iraq and to designate it as a terrorist nation; the bill passed the House and was spiked in the Senate by the White House.) They aren’t virgin legislators unaccustomed to executive excesses and prone to blush and squeal at the sight of one.
Also more recently, and also relying on secret legal juju of the sort John Yoo cooked up for the torture regime, the president had a US citizen killed for crimes with which he hadn’t been charged and therefore couldn’t contest. And not long after that, the president signed into law a bill authorizing military detentions of US citizens without trial or other due process. And not long before that, the president announced that he can send his drones and his jets and his missiles wherever he likes, whenever he likes, for as long as he likes, without approval from Congress so long as his enemies can’t shoot back.
So there’s a perspective, and it privileges money, guns and other expressions of power, and viewing the world through it leads one to see virtue in places from which virtue has long since fled in bloody tatters.
The president opposes torture but not to the extent of punishing anyone who practices it, and the lesson he sees is that we’ve returned to our national values; the president promises not to detain civilians indefinitely without trial but leaves the provision sitting in law for his successors to use or not as they please, and the lesson he sees is that we remain true to the national soul; the president from time to time decries the financial predators who brought down the house but gives some of them jobs and the others a pass, and the lesson he sees is that justice is served; he declares the Oval Office its own country with its own armed forces, and the lesson he sees is that the law’s still alive. (Or possibly “Fuck you;” the jury’s still out on that last one.)
“I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.” That’s what the tombstone should say.