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The Ghosts at Obama’s Side


So many ghosts crowded the inauguration dais that it’s not surprising Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his lines and had to be corrected by the man he was swearing in. Over there on the right! That jowly fellow with the 5 o’clock shadow and the long upsweeping nose. It’s Richard Nixon on January 20, 1973. He’d swept every state in the union in November’s election, except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Listen to him: “As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world.” Yet American B-52s were still bombing Cambodia, as they had virtually throughout his administration. One-and-a-half years later he resigned, rather than face impeachment

Why look! Nixon’s smiling. He’s just heard Obama call for “a new era of responsibility”. He’s remembering more lines from his second inaugural in ’73:  “A person can be expected to act responsibly only if he has responsibility. This is human nature. So let us encourage individuals at home and nations abroad to do more for themselves, to decide more for themselves.”

Responsibility begins at home, right there in the White House.  So let’s hope Obama launches the new era by accepting a fair measure of responsibility on America’s part for the slaughter of some 1,300 Palestinians in Gaza, a large number of them women and children, killed by U.S. weaponry furnished to Israel along with moral and political support for its criminal actions. It’s true that in his first days he called for Israel to let supplies into Gaza. True also that he said he regretted the lost of Palestinian and Israeli lives. But at the same time he called for the disarming and neutralization of the Palestinians’ democratically elected government, Hamas. How would he like it if other governments in the world insisted on continuing to deal with Bush and Cheney?  He invoked the utterly discredited Palestinian Authority as the appropriate negotiating partner. George Mitchell, his designated problem-solver in this region, will have to do a lot better. Which means Secretary of State  Clinton and President Obama will have to allow him to do a lot better.

Obama offered a mild version of blood-sweat-and-tears. “We understand that greatness is never a given,” he said. “It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”  I hope we don’t get too much sermonizing about seeking the pleasures of riches. The word “responsibility” from those set in authority over us usually means compulsory belt tightening and onslaughts on Social Security and Medicare, which Obama more or less promised the Washington Post five days before the Inauguration that he is eager to undertake.

It’s an invariable rule of inaugurals that at some point during the interminable proceedings some tv anchor will marvel out loud at the peaceful nature of the transition of power. So it was this time. More than one commentator seemed stunned at the fact that Obama had not been forced to purchase the loyalty of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to furnish him shock troops to winkle Bush and Cheney out of the bunker at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Each time a new president strides forth, flourishing his inaugural  menu of change, one feels the same gloom at these quadrennial displays of leader-lust. Eight years of complaining about George Bush’s arrogation of unconstitutional powers under the bizarre doctrine of the “unitary executive” and here we have the national audience enthusiastically applauding yet another incoming president rattling off the I-will-do’s as though there was no US Congress and he was Augustus Caesar.

The founders, whom Obama invoked in his opening line, produced a Constitution that gives the president, to quote Dana Nelson’s useful new book  Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People,  “only a thin framework of explicit powers that belong solely to his office: for instance, the power to grant reprieve and pardons, and to fill any government vacancies during any Senate recess. His other enumerated powers are either shared… or secretarial and advisory.”  Enough of the Commander in Chief. All we need is a decent pardoner and a good secretary.

But credit where credit is due. On his second day in the White House Jimmy Carter amnestied Vietnam draft dodgers and war resisters. On his second day Obama said Guantanamo and the CIA’s secret prisons must close within the year and said that his administration will be on the side of those seeking to end government secrecy rather than those wanting to enforce it.

What May We Expect?

What can  Obama’s progressive base hope to get by way of reward for its support of Obama? So far the pickings are slim, looking at his appointments. In the current issue of our newsletter you’ll find a detailed and unsparing review by your CountrPunch editors. You’ll also find part one of Paul Craig Roberts’ three-part Guide to Economics in the 21st Century. And you’ll find ALEXANDER COCKBURN’s TransAmerica Diary and in it, at long last, homage to a conspiracy even he believes in – the Secrets of Jekyll Island.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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