Is Obama haunted by Bush's ghost – or possessed by him?

On the Iraq nightmare, CIA torture, the economy and more, Obama can't escape his predecessor – and hasn't tried

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 9, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Dharapak/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Charles Dharapak/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama is a much more cheerful fellow than Ebenezer Scrooge, but he faces a version of the same problem: He’s haunted by the ghost of a predecessor and collaborator, and he can’t get free of it. Halfway through Obama’s second term in the White House, he remains – in the most charitable interpretation – hemmed in or handcuffed by the policies and philosophies of the Oval Office’s previous occupant. He has never entirely gotten America extricated from Iraq, the issue that got him elected in the first place, and now seems to be getting dragged back in, à la Michael Corleone, by a dreadful civil war that the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous mistakes made possible. Obama has been unwilling or unable to hold anyone to account for the massive financial crimes that produced the catastrophic collapse at the tail end of the Bush era, and has largely left economic and financial oversight in the hands of the same criminal class.

As we were reminded earlier this week, Obama’s efforts to separate his own management of intelligence and spycraft from the notorious torture policies of Bush's “war on terror” now look exceedingly murky, if not downright mendacious. Throughout his campaigns and presidential years, Obama has relied on shadow-men like former CIA director George Tenet, former counterterrorism chief and current CIA director John Brennan and director of national intelligence (and spinner of lies to Congress) James Clapper, all of whom are implicated to the eyeballs in “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the other excesses of the Bush regime. First the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,200-page report on CIA torture was extensively redacted (i.e., blacked out) by Clapper and his minions, and now even the release of the censored version has been indefinitely delayed, despite Obama’s protestations that in some better world than this one, we’d all get to find out what happened. Someone with a penchant for cynicism might almost suspect that the administration has something to hide, or that submerged forces were pulling the strings.

In fact, the more sinister implications of the torture cover-up suggest an alternative reading of Obama’s White House behavior, one that goes beyond apologetic mumbling about the art of the possible and protestations about how mean the Republicans are. Despite all the things he said to get elected, and beneath all the stylistic and symbolic elements of his presidency, Obama has chosen to continue the most fundamental policies of the Bush administration. In some areas, including drone warfare, government secrecy and the persecution of whistle-blowers, and the outsourcing of detainee interrogation to third-party nations, Obama has expanded Bush’s policies. Maybe those were his own inclinations all along, maybe he felt compelled to do so by circumstances beyond his control and maybe the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group sent him a psychic telegram on Day One to tell him he had no choice. I don’t claim to know.

I can’t help drawing on some of Charles Dickens’ memorable phrases from the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” in which he ironically describes the relationship between Scrooge and Jacob Marley, who is now “as dead as a door-nail” but remains a lingering, spectral presence in his onetime partner’s life. Remember that mysterious note that Bush left behind on the desk in January of 2009? (I think it said: Welcome to the circus, chump. You’re the guy with the red nose.) Obama, in Dickens' words, has literally been Bush’s “sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee.” One could continue, in a more metaphorical vein (I have changed only the names): “Obama never painted out Old Bush’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Obama and Bush. The firm was known as Obama and Bush. Sometimes people new to the business called Obama Obama, and sometimes Bush, but he answered to both names: It was all the same to him.”

Yes, I know: To Obama’s boosters, this conflation of the “transformational president” and Nobel Peace Prize winner with his Voldemort-like predecessor will sound outrageous and unfair. To his paranoid opponents on the right, convinced he is waging Lumumba-style warfare against white power, it will sound ludicrous. Let me throw in the ritual assurance that I am not claiming there are no differences between Bush and Obama, or no rational reasons for preferring the latter that go beyond his superior taste in clothes. Obama would never have appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, for one thing, and we could be stuck with that guy for the next 30 years. That’s no small matter, especially when it comes to reproductive and workplace rights for women and the defense of recent strides made toward LGBT equality.

Those issues are important in themselves for the well-being of millions of American citizens, and are also important fronts in the continuing culture war within our society. But the political or ideological meaning of those issues has become exaggerated. Liberals and progressives often comfort themselves with the assumption that the political party that has reliably been better on abortion rights, gay rights, racial justice issues and so on also represents a more rational perspective on things like worsening economic inequality, our tragicomic relationship with the rest of the world and the seemingly untrammeled power of the surveillance state. But that simply isn’t true. Any such connection, which was always pretty tenuous in the tormented history of the Democratic Party, was severed by the decisive palace coup staged in the ’90s by “Wall Street Democrats” (explained in Salon two weeks ago in an important piece of connect-the-dots history by former Bill Clinton aide Bill Curry) and by the entrenched power of the “permanent government” and especially the intelligence bureaucracies, which exert their will over both parties.

So the question of Supreme Court nominations becomes the last redoubt for Obama’s defenders and Democratic Party loyalists, a fortress to fight for that helps conceal their widespread capitulation on almost everything else. There are other areas of sound and fury in American politics, of course, but most of them signify less than they appear to. The Affordable Care Act will go down as this president’s signature piece of legislation, and it’s an important milestone. It was also cooked up originally by a conservative think tank. The howling opposition to Obamacare on the right has been 99 percent racist paranoia about the Kenyan socialist usurper who proposed it, and barely at all about the substance of the law. In the thought-experiment world of a John McCain presidency, we might have wound up with something strikingly similar, sailing through Congress on a bipartisan vote while liberals complained (accurately) that it was a corporate giveaway scripted by the insurance industry. If you’re about to say something about marriage equality, give me a break. Obama and the Democrats were caught flat-footed on that one, as they have been on marijuana legalization. They were fully committed to a separate-but-equal, civil unions policy as recently as three years ago -- we support drinking fountains for gays! Just not the same drinking fountains! -- and have done nothing more than scramble to catch up to shifting public opinion.

As I wrote last week in discussing Obama’s presumptive successor, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats have become the party of America’s metropolitan caste, a group of urban and suburban dwellers who hold broadly liberal social views – but who have also agreed to overlook or ignore a broad range of issues that do not directly impinge on their lifestyles, or at least do not seem to. That complacent constituency has become disturbed of late, as some of those issues have loomed too large to ignore, including the unrelenting nightmare in Iraq, our doomed and dysfunctional relationship with Israel, the fact that the modest economic recovery of the Obama years has done nothing to ameliorate inequality, and the cloak of silence that has once again descended over the conduct of our worldwide secret wars.

I do not feel especially disheartened when I encounter dire opinion polling that suggests most Americans do not like or trust the government, that they hold low opinions of both parties (but dislike the Republicans more) and that they see little point in voting for anyone. Again, I'm not disputing that there may be good reasons to vote for someone, in specific instances. These epic levels of political apathy can produce all kinds of wacky and unhealthful epiphenomena, from Tea Party craziness to false-flag conspiracy theories to a generalized state of consumer narcosis. But if the partisan charade of the last few decades is starting to unravel – the charade in which members of the R and D tribes yell at each other furiously while their leaders secretly agree on all the big stuff -- that might be a good thing in the long run.

Disgust and disillusionment are entirely rational responses to the dawning realization that two presidents who supposedly stood at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum (or that we convinced ourselves did so, to be more accurate) have pursued virtually identical courses on the most fundamental questions of government power. You can call the proprietor Scrooge or Marley; it’s the same company either way. I would agree, however, that it’s not fair to describe the Obama administration as George W. Bush’s third and fourth terms. Taking a longer view, it’s been more like Ronald Reagan’s eighth and ninth terms.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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