Looking back over the record since FDR, the pattern is discernible: declare war on something, or at least kill people; put a woman in the cabinet.
FDR: Day 1, declares war on fear; nominates Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor (the best we ever had).
Truman: Day 5, calls for Unconditional Surrender of Axis powers; Day 113, Drops A-bomb on Hiroshima.
Eisenhower: Day 23, refuses clemency to the Rosenbergs; Day 72, appoints Oveta Culp Hobby as head of HEW.
JFK: Day 41, announces Peace Corps and thousands of young Americans duly learn to sit crossed-legged on the ground, sowing seeds for bankruptcy of Medicare when knee replacements kick in 40 years later. Day 88, launches Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba.
LBJ: Day 8, creates a mass employment program known as the Warren Commission. Within hours tens of thousands of Americans are hard at work, challenging the Commission’s proceedings and drawing maps of Dealey Plaza.
Nixon: Day 57, launches secret bombing of Cambodia.
Ford: Day 4, declares war on inflation, “public enemy number one”.
Carter: Day 2, pardons Vietnam draft resisters; Day 89 announces National Energy Plan, raising domestic coal production to reduce dependency on foreign oil. Yes, President Obama, we have been here before. Better not stat talking about “malaise”.
Reagan: Day 66, declares war on corruption and inefficiency in government. This is going too far. Four days later Hinckley tries to kill him.
Bush Sr: Day 38, goes live on Chinese TV.
Clinton: Day 3, allows clinics to offer abortion counseling and abortions; Day 6, appoints Hillary head of his Health Reform task force.
Bush Jr: Day 3, ends funding of international centers offering abortion counseling an abortions. Day 40, declares big tax cuts for the rich; Day 47 bombs Baghdad.
Obama’s Poisoned Chalice
Back in the spring Republicans used to chortle at the prospect of handing over power to a Democratic president who would promptly be engulfed in recession. It would start in March of 2009, discredit the new president and prepare the way for a Republican renaissance in 2012.
Six months early, the crash swelled up in September, leaving an incumbent Republican president tarred with the same brush of historic failure as Herbert Hoover in 1932. He may mismanage the sequel, but no Republican will be able to claim it was all Obama’s fault.
Bush is urging the world’s leading economic powers, now mustered in Washington, not to give up on capitalism. The mere fact that an American president should feel obliged to issue this worried advisory shows how desperate things already are and much worse they will soon get.
Each week brings a terrifying lurch, like a house on the edge of some cliff being pounded into slush by a Pacific storm. On the Doppler radar, we can see financial storm after financial storm lined up out there. Next to burst: the credit card overhang, of some $2.8 trillion in consumers’ plastic debt, much of which will have to be written off. The week after? Scores of cities and towns and even states are on the edge of bankruptcy.
This week’s storm center has been the US auto industry, effectively bankrupt. “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa,” said GM’s chairman Charlie Wilson in 1952, amid the glorious surge of the postwar auto boom. This week GM’s stock was trading at around $3, and analysts at Deutsche Bank said America’s largest industrial corporation, the ninth largest company in the world, is effectively worthless. Congress seems to be saying, bailout is only for bankers. GM has 266,000 employees. If it goes under, the ripple effect will put 2.5 million Americans out of work.
Drive through any American town and you’ll see hundreds of acres of malls and box stores, almost all of them built in the past 20 years: Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, Home Depot, Borders Books, Linens ’n Things… Each day brings another bankruptcy. Circuit City, Borders, Linen ’n Things have gone. Home Depot is shutting down branches. In my local town of Eureka, northern California, the mall owner, General Growth has gone broke. With malls from Hawai’i to Maine, it was the second largest in America. The US Postal Service, with almost a million employees, and $2 billions worth of red ink this year, is considering the first layoffs, of 40,000 workers, in its history.
Already America’s real unemployment rate, if shorn of statistical tricks designed to conceal bad news, stands at around 15 per cent and is rocketing up. Consumer spending in the third quarter was the worst in 28 years. As the country totters wanly into what promises to be an appalling holiday sales season, Obama and his advisors gingerly finger the poisoned chalice handed them by Bush.
Vivid in their minds is Bill Clinton’s terrible transition, which permanently scarred his presidency. An incorrigible and disorganized procrastinator, surrounded by a self-indulgent, arrogant and inexperienced staff, Clinton left crucial posts unoccupied, ignored burning issues, dithered on policy, offended Congress and by the end of five months had lost control of government.
So Obama is moving with all deliberate speed, starting with the hiring of Rahm Emanuel, fourth in rank among Congressional Democrats, as his chief of staff. Emanuel was present at the early Clinton meltdown and partly responsible for it. A foul-mouthed rough-houser, Emanuel’s job is to try and hold the Congressional Democratic majority in line and enforce White House supremacy. If there’s one particularly salient feature of the Obama campaign, it was discipline. Whether Emanuel will maintain it is an open question.
Already Obama is urging a $50 billion bailout package for the auto industry and in his first press conference he emphasized his campaign commitment to tax cuts for middle Americans to stimulate the economy.
The problem with GM and Ford is that they will be back for more billions in a few months, because their cars aren’t selling well. The problem with tax cuts is that they won’t prompt Americans to rush to the stores to buy things. “Go shopping,” Bush advised the American people after 9/11. They did. But now, hocked up to the eyeballs, they’re stopping and any spare change from lowered tax rates will go to paying off old debts, not buying expensive new cars and gadgets. This week I shopped for old corded phones on e-Bay. I got a big rush scoring an ATT pink princess phone with lighted dial for $13.50, but that’s not going to bail out America.
The options for Obama and his future economic team are bleak. How to revitalize an economy and whose manufacturing jobs have gone to China, where the big employment gains have been among bartenders and waitresses, and where the building and home sales industry will be on its back for years to come? Would the oft-called-for shift to a “green jobs” program really mean big pay offs? The numbers are shaky. The falling price of oil has already finished off big alternative energy schemes like Boone Pickens’ monster wind farm in Texas.
Obama’s advisors ponder huge programs to battle “man-made” global warming. It will be hard to persuade Congress to commit to vast programs to combat the supposed menace, if another cold winter rolls in, and anyway, “war on gobal warming” mostly spells out as adding new taxes to utility bills and saddling the government with new debt for nuclear plant construction and guarantees.
What bailed out America’s economy in the thirties was not the New Deal but World War 2. Obama is indeed pledging a wider war in Afghanistan, but these days America’s wars are financed by countries like China, buying US debt. China says it doesn’t want to go on doing that.
Intellectually, Roosevelt was an aristocratic dilettante, arrogant enough to take risks and try new things. Obama is super-cautious and respectful, particularly towards what the old populists used to call The Money Power, which paid for a good slice of Obama’s campaign. FDR was trying to beat off a much more serious threat to capitalism from the organized left, which was a mass movement. He was looking at the big plans for national reconstruction ongoing in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. He had some radical advisors. The ruling class was panicked, tho’ in fairly short order it was trying to organize an armed coup against him.
The left should start organizing credit card convoys, piling the nation’s credit card bills on semis and driving them to DC to pile in front of Congress and the White House. Get moving.
Get the Big Picture
The big economic picture is painted with particular clarity and power in the new edition of our newsletter, by Paul Craig Roberts. He gives the bleak picture, straight from the shoulder. Year after year, here in CounterPunch, Roberts has been limning with exceptional clarity the twin devastations of the Twin Horsemen of Our Apocalypse: neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative politics. Subscribe to read his powerful essay.
Subscribe too, and read Judy Gumbo Albert’s risposte to Sarah Palin. Judy writes a great memoir of the late Sixties, from the Yipster perspective of one who famously said, when the Weathmen blew up a lavatory in the Capitol, “We didn’t do it, but we dug it.”
You also get Yours Truly on the changed perspective on food. My first paragraph:
Sixty years ago, books about food tended to be cheerful affairs, presaging infinite abundance. Their illustrations featured beaming mothers, lowering platters of roast beef or legs of mutton onto the Sunday table. The farmer atop his mighty combine harvester was the icon of Life magazine as much as of Soviet agitprop about the Brave Tractor Drivers. These days we know better. The books and pictures are dystopian. The prairies have been tilled into sterility, the underlying water tables drained by the insensate requirements of mass meat production. The homesteads of the small farmer lie crushed under the iron heel of agribusiness. The feedlot beef is lethally marbled, the old Barnsley double lamb chop, with its spinal cord, banned by law. The virtuous young decline most forms of nourishment deemed palatable by their elders. The icon now is the organic farmer hauling produce to the Farmers Market by biodiesel-powered light truck.
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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: much of the information for the section on presidential actions in the first hundreds days comes from the excellent site Awesome Good Magazine.