By Garry Wills, New York Review of Books, 8 October 2009 — I strongly recommend reading this, about a subject of the greatest importance to Americans: change, the promise of change, and how do we force reform. While the right-wing condemns Obama as a dangerous leftist radical, the reality is that the changes has proposed are small — and those he has effected so far are tiny.
George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease — torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of laws by signing statements. Powers attributed to the president by the theory of the unitary executive should not be exercised. Judges who are willing to give the president any power he asks for should not be confirmed.
But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror” — all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.
The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. …
Even in areas outside national security, the Obama administration quickly came to resemble Bush’s. …
Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium. …
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible, task. After most of the wars in US history there was a return to the constitutional condition of the pre-war world. But after those wars there was no lasting institutional security apparatus of the sort that was laboriously assembled in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War I, for instance, there was no CIA, no NSA, no mountain of secret documents to be guarded from unauthorized readers, no atomic bomb to guard, develop, deploy, and maintain in readiness on land, in the air, and on (or in) the sea.
Now a new president quickly becomes aware of the vast empire that is largely invisible to the citizenry. …
About the author
Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His most recent book, What Jesus Meant, was published in 2006.
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Some of the posts on the FM website about change and the Obama Administration:
- American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
- “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
- Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
- Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
- Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
- Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
- Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009
- Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …”, 5 September 2009