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      What Obama Must Do, and Cannot

      This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

      Barack Obama has faced peril before, particularly during the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright last year, but the crisis he faces now is more systemic.

      The wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan cost at least 541 American lives in the past year, and the overall total will pass 1,000 this month and likely double before 2012. The unfunded taxpayer cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan during Obama's first year was $119.1 billion, and Afghanistan alone will become another trillion-dollar war under his administration.

      Obama may succeed in withdrawing 100,000 American troops from Iraq this year, and the rest by 2012. But even this goal faces opposition from the Green Zone to the Beltway, and any peace dividend will be swallowed by Afghanistan and the Long War.

      This is an unspoken reason for the growing budget and economic crisis Obama will address in tonight's State of the Union address. Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama will learn too late that the spending on war will devour his domestic agenda and long-term dreams.

      But Obama's crisis is not about a mistaken tactical choice about priorities. He could not have reached the presidency without promising to win the war against al Qaeda, even if they no longer were in Afghanistan. He couldn't afford to "lose" two wars.

      The more general crisis is that he is trapped between the social movements that meant so much to his winning the presidency and the stubborn Machiavellians who command the corporate and military heights of power.

      Obama is losing his left constituency, who unfortunately seem to think if he only "fights harder" and "stands up" he will blow away these Machiavellian interests like someone blowing out their birthday candles. They haven't seen the US Senate lately.

      He is losing independents too, because the economic recession was addressed only with a limited stimulus package and Wall Street bailouts that incredibly left the middle and working classes out, then was followed by a trillion-dollar health care package including cuts in Medicare.

      And, oh yes, the Copenhagen debacle buried for now the bright future of green jobs.

      Besides losing progressives and independents, Obama also has managed to consolidate the Republican right, and can only hope that they will splinter on their way to greater power this November and beyond.

      How did this happen? Because to win the presidency, Obama had to give Afghanistan to the Pentagon, the bailouts to Wall Street, the energy agenda to the oil and gas companies, and health care to the undemocratic US Senate and their insurance company patrons.

      What he should say tonight is that the first year has been about the question of whether the special interests in Washington heard the message of change in 2008, and he should tell the American people that the answer has been No.

      But he cannot say what he knows, because he thinks -- correctly, I believe -- that he can be driven from office by a defeat in Afghanistan, a flight of capital from Wall Street, a manufactured energy crisis, or the rise of inflation.

      Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed the military-civilian line to push Obama for more troops, threatening military failure if the president didn't come through. Behind McChrystal has been Gen. David Petraeus, a presidential candidate all but waiting in the wings.

      Obama advisers confided to allies around the country that they felt threatened by Wall Street with an overseas flight of capital if taxes or regulations were too steep. They felt they couldn't afford the political risk.

      They dismissed Sarah Palin and the Tea Party as nuts, then gave them the oxygen of economic populism.

      I remember meeting President Jimmy Carter in the White House in the Seventies, and asking him this question: "Mr. President, do you believe that the unelected multinational corporations have more power than the elected president of the United States?" Carter paused, then said, "I learned that my first year in office." Here we go again.

      It's too early to tell, but we may look back on the Obama presidency as a public mandate to move forward as a nation on the question of race. The paradox was that the underlying mandate was too sensitive to articulate as the main issue of the election, but it was there nonetheless. We transcended racism not because we had become "post-racial" but because racism was too controversial to discuss directly. Instead the Obama mandate was expressed elliptically as "change" and "hope," phrases that glossed over deep differences about war and peace, the public sector versus the market, energy consumption versus energy conservation, secularism versus religion, all the confrontations labeled red versus blue.

      It's hard to advocate change when you are president. It's hard to rally the grass-roots public instead of gradually being consumed as the conductor of a discordant orchestra of special interests.

      His one chance, I believe, is to cast the first year of his presidency as a year when the interest groups were given their chance and rejected the message of change. Then Obama can launch a public process of diagnosing as obstacles the military contractors, the Wall Street bankers, the oil and gas complex, and the job-exporting corporations, for starters. He doesn't have to rail against them (though Franklin Roosevelt did, with great success), because then he will be accused of being out of character, an opportunist. He can say instead that he tried to be reasonable, he tried to meet them part way, but they have stalled, instead of embraced, the mandate of change, that they seem to want to wait him out.

      Words are crucial for public education, but even golden words won't do. The president needs to be hands-on, like Michelle Obama in the organic garden, investing what resources are available in job-creating sectors, in preventive health care and emergency rooms, in making schools and colleges affordable, in budding high-tech entrepreneurs, thus building a new movement by making tangible differences in everyday lives. He needs to be more of a community organizer.

      He needs to say briefly, without rhetoric, that he intends to end these two wars step by step, invest in domestic priorities, regulate Wall Street in the public interest, achieve health care for all Americans and a safer energy future with green jobs, whether it costs him the presidency or not. He should ask for some high-level resignations and appoint some progressive doers.

      But he will consider this too radical a leap.

      Instead, his advisers are likely to have him slog forward while the crisis deepens, hoping for Sarah Palin and the souring of the Tea Party by 2012, instead of Petraeus,

      Tom Hayden teaches at Scripps College in Claremont, California, and is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center.


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      Reader Comments (2)

      While I share your concern regarding the spending on the Long War, may I suggest that there is an even Longer War that merits our attention? Specifically, I am referring to the U.S. efforts establish a global empire by maintaining military bases throughout the world that has lasted over 60 years.

      The recent Defense Department budget crows, "Since the creation of America's first army in 1775, the Department [of Defense] and its predecessor organizations have evolved into a global presence [there's a euphemism for you] of 3 million individuals, stationed in more than 140 countries and dedicated to defending the United States by deterring aggression and coercion in critical regions." (The total number of military "facilities" worldwide exceeds 700, with over 120 bases in Japan alone, according to Mother Jones magazine.)

      The implications of this statement are stunning. If you were not stunned, please re-read the preceding paragraph and think about this: For every $1000 in salary alone, that we pay for 3 million individuals, we spend $3 billion dollars. If we assume an average of $60,000 per year, that is $180 billion. This does not include benefits, housing allowances, transportation, and medical expenses. Nor does it include the expenditures for equipment, base leases, and construction, maintenance and repair of facilities. If we assume these individuals cost us one-tenth of what a soldier in Afghanistan does, that would be $300 billion.

      Whatever the final figure is, it is stunning. If the Administration were serious about change, if it really wanted to reduce the deficit, and improve our standing in the world at the same time, it would identify as a basic strategic objective the phased reduction of this horrendously expensive and misguided endeavor to defend ourselves by dominating the globe militarily. It would be a goal to close as many of these bases as quickly as possible based on a thorough and careful review of their true importance to national security.

      These millions and billions of dollars that are being spent by the Department of Defense do not include such costs as $16 billion that is budgeted by the Department of Energy to maintain our nuclear stockpiles, or by the State Department (which contracts with mercenary corporations such as Black Water for security [another euphemism]), or by the CIA for who knows what.

      I become despondent when I see a person as intelligent and honorable as the President, who seems oblivious to the existence of so obvious a solution to so pressing a problem: We have a staggering deficit that could be dramatically reduced if we just reduced spending on global military domination that is counterproductive to what should be our objective: world peace by leading by example rather than military force.

      February 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Wm. Blakely

      I agree with this analysis. But I am not as optimistic that Obama is a frustrated advocate for change who has made a series of foolish mis-steps. I suspect instead that Obama is a political opportunist who understood getting elected in 2008 depended on appealing to people's desire for change. But he is also a president who understands that the rich in America are in control, and they can and do demand presidents be responsive to their desires above all others. It is a contradiction he will not overcome, and as a result, we are headed towards an election next November that will invoke a new storm of oppression and injustice that may make the reign of the last Bush administration look mild.

      February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter McNamee

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