The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?

The idea seems widespread — among both friend and foe — that President-elect Obama’s Administration will follow radically different policies than those of his predecessor.  Perhaps so, but a long-standing theme of the FM site has been that the needs and rhythms of the Imperium may result in greater continuity than expected.

The US government — more than most — is an instrument existing to apply power to shape events, both domestic and foreign.  The Bush Jr. team applied that power aggressively both at home and abroad to fulfill the big dreams of it high officers.  Team Obama has similarly large plan — although different in nature.  We should expect similar aggressiveness in using the Federal machinery to shape us to fit their dreams.

Tom Engelhardt explores this by looking at the transition.  As always, I recommend reading it in full.  A brief except is provided below.

The Imperial Transition — #44, The Prequel“, Tom Engelhardt, posted at Tom Dispatch, 7 December 2008 — Excerpt:

Given the overwhelming, largely congratulatory focus on specific appointments and their attendant drama — will the strong personalities of Hillary, Bob, and Jim clash? Are the Obama-ites in a desperate scramble for a new CIA Director? Is Larry Summers next in line for the Fed? — the larger architecture of this moment, and what it portends for the presidency to come, is ignored.

Think of it this way: After the Imperial Campaign — that two-year extravaganza of bread and circuses (and money) — comes the Imperial Transition. Everything in these last weeks, like the preceding two years, has been bulked up, like Schwarzenegger’s Conanesque pecs. In other words, since November 5th, what we’ve been experiencing in the midst of one of the true crisis periods in our history has essentially been an unending celebration of super-sized government. Consider it an introduction to what will surely be the next Imperial Presidency.

… Barack Obama — thank goodness — isn’t George Bush. He doesn’t arrive in office with a crew wedded to a “unitary executive theory” of the presidency, or an urge to loose the executive from the supposed “chains” of the Watergate-era Congress, or to “take off the gloves” globally. He doesn’t have strange, twisted, oppressive ideas about how the Constitution should work, nor assumedly do visions of a “commander-in-chief presidency” (or vice presidency) dance in his head like so many sugar plums.

But don’t ignore the architecture, the deep structure of the American political system. Make no mistake, Obama is moving full-speed ahead into an executive mansion rebuilt and endlessly expanded by the national security state over the last half-century-plus, and then built up in major ways by George W.’s “team.” Despite the prospect of a new dog and a mother-in-law in the White House, the president-elect and his transition team show no signs of wanting to change the basic furniture, no less close up a few wings of the imperial mansion (other, perhaps, than the elaborate prison complex at Guantanamo).

With so many catastrophes impending and so many pundits and journalists merrily applauding the most efficient transition in American history, no one, it seems, is even thinking about the architecture.

… The New York Times’s David Sanger recently reported on what happened when Obama’s mini-transition teams of ex-Clintonistas ventured into the heart of our post-9/11 imperial bureaucracy. Many of the team members had worked in the very same departments in the 1990s. On returning, however, they found themselves to be so many Alices in a labyrinthine new Wonderland of national security. Sanger writes:

[S]everal say they feel more like political archaeologists. ‘The buildings look the same,’ one said over coffee, ‘but everything inside is unrecognizable.’ And as they dig, they have tripped across a few surprises… [F]ew can contain their amazement, chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and national-security apparatus.

‘For a bunch of small-government Republicans,’ [said] one former denizen of the White House who has now stepped back inside for the first time in eight years, ‘these guys built a hell of an empire.’ Eight years ago, there were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen, each with staff.

And don’t think for a second that most or all of those half-dozen posts aren’t likely to be filled by the new administration, or that, four or eight years later, we’ll be back to two deputy national security advisers; nor should you imagine that the Homeland Security Department that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is to run, a vast, lumpy, inefficient, ineffective post-9/11 creation of the Bush administration (which now has its own embedded mini-homeland-industrial complex) will be gone in those same years, anymore than that most un-American of words “homeland” is likely to leave our lexicon; nor will Barack Obama not appoint a Director of National Intelligence, another of those post-9/11 creations that added yet one more layer of bureaucracy to the 18 departments, agencies, and offices which make up the official U.S. Intelligence Community.

Don’t hold your breath for that labyrinthine mess to be reduced to a more logical two or three intelligence agencies; nor will that 2002 creation of the Bush administration, the U.S. Northern Command, another militarization of “the homeland” now in the process of bulking up, be significantly downsized or abolished in the coming years.

About Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site and an alternative history of the mad Bush years, has recently been published.


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

FM posts looking at the coming Obama Administration:

  1. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other, 7 February 2008 — Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.
  2. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008 — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern. 
  3. A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012, 1 March 2008 — What is next in Iraq?  None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future.  Obama has been quite explicit about his plans.
  4. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay, 3 March 2008 — We can elect leaders with vast ambitions (foreign for McCain, domestic for Obama), but can no longer afford them. 
  5. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008 — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.
  6. Secretary Gates would be a hero – if speeches could reform DoD, 6 May 2008
  7. I was wrong about SecDef Gates – here is a more accurate view of him, 7 May 2008
  8. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  9. These days all American Presidents are War Presidents (part 2), 13 September 2008
  10. The evil of socialism approaches!, 22 October 2008 — Economic crisis and a leftist radical President.  Can socialism be avoided, or is it our destined fate?
  11. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  12. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  13. “What Barack Obama Needs to Know About Tim Geithner, the AIG Fiasco and Citigroup”, 3 December 2008
  14. Obama proposes a new New Deal – like Japan, will we burn money to keep warm?, 8 December 2008

7 thoughts on “The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?”

  1. One of the arguments I used to use on those Republicans who supported Bush’s massive expansion of executive power, including arbitrary detention, was to ask them if they wanted these powers in the hands of Bush’s likely Democratic successor (at that time putatively Hillary Clinton).

    Very rarely does one voluntarily relinquish power. No candidate in the presidential race with the exception of Ron Paul was likely to shrink the national security bureaucracy, Pentagon budget, or the size of the Imperium, excuse me, Federal government.

    It’s the old ratchet effect. Easier to prevent individuals/institutions from gaining power than to take it away. Easier to prevent a law from being passed than to get it repealed.

    It’s an impressive accomplishment of the Roman Republic that all the dictators save Sulla and Caesar relinquished their office at the end of the six-month term, some even sooner once the emergency had passed.

    “[The dictator] was not allowed to ride on horseback in Rome, without previously obtaining the permission of the people (a regulation adopted that he might not bear too great a resemblance to the kings).” From the encyclopedia

  2. A bureaucracy, once birthed, is a many-headed hydra difficult to kill. There will be, and are already outlines of, a sort of government-private sector apartheid. The government, even if broke or nearly so, protects its own over those in the private sector. The coming entitlements tsunami will prove a litmus test for whether we can indeed roll back when necessary the growing size and appetite of our government. California is a bellweather state for this phenomenon; towns such as Vallejo, CA, have declared bankruptcy under chapter 9 laws. Why? Because they cannot fund the over-generous pension and other benefits promised to their retired public employees, such as firefighters, cops, teachers, etc. during more-prosperous days. The same problem will affect the federal government at large, according to some projections, in 10-15 years – when a tipping point is reached between people paying into the system, and those getting its benefits. What will our government do when its fiscal irresponsibility kills the goose that lays the golden egg?

  3. The government, even if broke or nearly so, protects its own over those in the private sector.

    Pete, this is simply not true. Private industry has such a vast influence on the US government that they are barely separate. If government would actually start to protect itself more than corporations, this would be a huge advance. As far as government pensions being protected, of course California wants to protect its pensions. The alternative would be social chaos.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree. Quite odd that folks consider the government as a stand-alone entity, seperate from the “private sector.” Esp odd viewpoint for a republic.

    Our elites of course dominate both the private sector and government. How could it be otherwise?

  4. It seems clear that there will be no change in the imperial foreign policy of the new administration (except in cases where rising powers like Russia block our earlier ambitions) but in domestic policy there may be changes. I’m not sure that the Obama/Clinton team has the same appetite for domestic surveillance and suppression that Bush’s did. Bush’s team (Ashcroft, Cheney, Chertoff, etc.) had a penchant for secrecy, righteousness, scorn of Congress and Constitutional limits, getting back at and us/them thinking, that were unique, almost pathological. I really don’t expect to see demonstrators sealed off behind chain-link fences, and animal rights groups labelled as terrorists, in the coming administration.

  5. On the other hand, economic misery, protests and strikes over that, may provide entirely new occasions for the use of force against the domestic population.

  6. Seneca, I agree that the incoming Obama administration seems to have less of an appetite for creating a police state than Bush/Cheney (who seemed obsessed with the idea), although as you point out, we shall see. But the important thing is that the precedent is there and the powers remain “on the books” for successor administrations. The overwhelming trend of the national security / imperial presidency over the last century has been in this direction.

    What will it take to roll them back? During the Bush admin I had naively hoped for a concerted stand by the judiciary and was disappointed, with a few exceptions. Ultimately it takes popular pressure, and, from what I’ve seen, most people either approve or don’t care. They’re happy to be kept sheep. The old cliche still rings true that in a democracy, people get the kind of government they deserve.

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