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Day 17

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CounterPunch Diary

Obama’s Fall Guy

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Since America is in its worst economic mess in seventy years and since President Obama’s designated  Mr Fixit is Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, you’d think the Obama presidency is in desperate shape. The reason? Mr Fixit is surely the most derided man running the US Treasury since Andrew Mellon cut spending and raised taxes amid the onset of the Great Depression in 1932, prompting the derisive ditty recently quoted in this site.

Hoover Blew the Whistle,
Mellon Rang the Bell,
Wall Street Gave the Signal,
and the Country went to Hell!

The bounce on Wall Street after the launch of Geithner’s most recent effort to bail out the banks at tax payers’ expense  merely accelerated the chorus of abuse.

Stentorian in  denunciation is Paul Krugman,  Princeton economics professor and winner of last year’s Nobel prize for Economics. Week after week from his pulpit at the New York Times Krugman gives the Obama administration another walloping from the left for wimpish groveling to Wall Street.

Even before Geithner unveiled his latest plan (in an off-camera presentation planned to mitigate the Treasury Secretary’s meager rhetorical skills), Krugman was abusing it as “zombie ideas”. No doubt Geithner’s insistence on the Hill  on Thursday that he yearns for a legislative green light  to discipline irresponsible Wall Street will be duly and correctly flayed by Krugman as mere persiflage.  In his official obituary for the bank bail-out scheme, published in the Times on Monday – the same day as the scheme’s  offical birth — Krugman announced somberly that “This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.”

Yes, this does sound a bit pompous, even though Krugman is a crisp columnist. As connoisseurs  of the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf and other prominent economic Cassandras down the decades know well, there’s nothing like a widely-read economics column to induce a tone of self-importance in the author.  “I’m concerned about Europe,” Krugman began a column grandly a few weeks ago.

By this week’s end Krugman was conclusive in judgement. “I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.”   Far more acrid have been CounterPunch’s A-team of economic commentators – starring former assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts, Michael Hudson, Pam Martens, Michael Whitney, Peter Morici and  other contributors too numerous for individual mention.

Of course Geithner got off on the wrong foot by coming to public attention during his nomination hearings before Congress for failure to pay certain federal taxes when he was at the International Monetary Fund, even though the IRS – a branch of the Treasury – reminded him of the omission more than once. However dilatory or devious in their own dealings with the taxman, Americans are merciless in moral posture towards the public figures  exposed as having done the same thing.

Geithner’s appearance is against him too. Treasury Secretaries are supposed to evince gravitas, not resemble just the sort of rumpled 40-something investment banker whose funny-money antics put capitalism on the ropes.

But while  Obama’s Mr Fixit is only a hair’s breadth away from becoming a stock comic figure on the comedy shows, not much of the public derision is rubbing off on the boss.

Though the prevailing consensus is that the bailout and stimulus packages are saddling Americans with trillions in debt, with a far better than even chance most of the money will miss its purpose, undermine the dollar and bring on hyperinflation, Obama continues to ride pretty high.

The latest round of polling has his ratings very respectably in the mid-60s, with one spectacular dip into the low 40s, reflecting the public’s low opinion of his handling of the AIG bonuses. On that issue, as I suggested here last week, Obama danced on the edge of the volcano and got singed.

Predictably enough Obama has been standing by his man. “I have complete confidence in Tim Geithner and my entire economic team,” he said mid-week. In the president’s opinion, Geithner “is making all the right moves.”  He’ll say the same thing right until Geithner makes his terminal right move through the hangman’s trap door.

Obama wouldn’t be the first president to realize that it does no harm to have public odium pleasantly deflected onto a subordinate. Year after year George Bush watched the mud getting hurled at Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. It was the late great historian Walter Karp who argued that the most politically adept of all Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conceived his notorious court-packing proposal – up to six new Justices on the Supreme Court – to deflect attention from serious difficulties on other fronts.

So Geithner gets pelted with mouldy cabbages, while Obama —  entirely responsible for the basic economic strategy of bailing out the banks rather than taking them over – charms the nation.

It won’t go on forever. If things go badly , the peple know perfectly well where the buck stops. There’s already a powerful drumbeat of disquiet that Obama, for all his smoothness, is Hoover-like in his timid orthodoxy. Back from the political graveyard last week came former N.Y. governor Eliot Spitzer arguing in a strong column in Slate that Obama’s $200 billion payoff to AIG was the real scandal, not the $180 million in bonuses.

A few days after the column Spitzer was on CNN giving his views. At this point in this unexpected renaissance one of the agents of Spitzer’s downfall gave him an untimely nip on the ankle. The madam running the call girl business patronized by the governor disclosed that another of her clients had been the baseball player New Yorkers love to hate, Alex Rodriguez.  Spitzer, A-Rod and Madonna  linked hands in a Daily News gossip item. For now, Obama sails smoothly on, transferring wealth upward to the bankers from the rest of us.

McCarthyism and Middle Eastern Studies

Viciously strident on some campuses, deviously low-key on others, there’s a McCarthyite campaign in full spate across higher education in the U.S. today. In the sights of the witch-hunters are junior and senior faculty targeted as “anti-Israel”, as terror-symps, as leftists. For every headline case, like Norman Finkelstein or Joseph Massad or Juan Cole there are three or four less publicized smear campaigns, methodical onslaughts to derail a hiring, head off a tenure appointment, disinvite a speaker, fence off the campus from all dangerous thoughts. The consequence: a climate of fear, of methodical censorship, of cowardice.

A woman on a Midwest campus constantly on the receiving end of such assaults read the personal history by Victoria Fontan we print in our latest newsletter and remarked that line after line struck a chord: the imputations to female targets protesting their treatment of “hysteria”, or “paranoia”, of unscholarly bias, the volunteer student stoolie filing his report like a FBI field agent, the previously supportive faculty suddenly all running for cover.  As she said, bludgeon or soft shoe, “It happens all the time.” As the poet William Empson writes in “Missing Dates”, “Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills.”

I highly recommend Fontan’s narrative. Subscribers also get Alan Farago’s update on the battle to save the Everglades.

When NATO was only ten years old my school chum Freddy Fitzpayne and I used to represent our school,  Glenalmond, in  the Scottish schools’ debating league. Our topic was “Britain Must Leave NATO Now!” Our opponents would have their own prepared theme, entirely different from ours. Dollar Academy, for example,  fielded a duo who spouted speeches in support of some controversial form of pig-breeding. Freddy and I reached the semi-finals with our seditious topic, and were headed to final triumph, until a newspaper in Blairgowrie ran a photo of us toasting our victory with pints of peer, and that was the end of it. At our own school of Glenalmond Warden Barlow hauled us into his study and nixed any further debating.

That was then. Britain’s still in NATO, and the repellent Sarkozy has just returned France to participation in NATO’s command structure. Now all the staff officers can jump on the train from Brussels to Paris for important conferences in 3-star restaurants and costly nightclubs. In our latest newsletter Serge Halimi reports from Paris on NATO’s mission creep.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com