Change, the promise and the reality

Entangled Giant

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.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word 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 following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some of the posts on the FM website about change and the Obama Administration:

  1. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  2. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
  5. Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
  6. Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
  7. Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009
  8. Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …”, 5 September 2009

4 thoughts on “Change, the promise and the reality”

  1. A more revealing question would be “Why?” The answer, involving the parasitic dependence of the U.S. economy on a bloated outsize 1.4 trillion dollar per year U.S. military budget which is destroying America but which has grown too large to shut down because our economy is now too dependent on it, would go far toward explaining this poll.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Just because a person has a 10 foot tapeworm does not mean he is dependent upon it.

  2. In fact, a parasitic worm infestation can and often does mean it can’t be removed safely. If the worm responsible for elephantiasis is damaged, the person parasitized will died of anaphylactic shock.

    We can do simple back-of-the-envelope math to show the probable economic effect of removing (say) 80% of the 1.4 trillion dollar U.S. military budget. This would have a knock-on effect generating cascading unemployment which we can roughly estimate by the 2/3 percentage rule. As is well know, an economic stimulus porduces roughly 2/3 of a percentage point increase in the employment rate in the U.S. for each perfect of the GDP of the stimulus. Since 1.1 trillion dollars (80% of 1.4 trillion) represents about 11% of the 10 trillion dollar U.S. economy (correcting for the evaporation of bogus nonexistent GDP produced by accounting games like AIG’s, the real U.S. GDP is much loser to 10 trillion than 13 trillion after the financial meltdown), this gives an increase in U.S. unemployment of about 7%. Added to the current unemployment rate of 9-plus percent, that pushes the total U.S. unemployment rate up above 16%. States are already going under due to “unbelievable” revenue shortfalls — imagine nearly doublingthe current national unemployment rate. If we include underemployment, that pushes nationwide unemployment + underemployment above 23%. Any political party that produced those kinds of unemployment numbers would find itself unemployed pronto, and sustained numbers like that would produce such a catastrophic crash in federal and state revenues that the dollar’s soundness as an international currency would come into serious question.

    Shutting down our oversized military budget is not an option because of the knock-on effects of unemployment and subsequent state and federal tax revenue loss and collapse in aggregate demand, to say nothing of the resulting decline in the U.S. GDP. As a matter of basic economics, the U.S. is stuck with spending 1.4 trillion dollars per year on its military until it can find a viable economic substitute (like a heroin addict desperately searching for methadone). In fact, in a macro sense we can view the 90s dot-com bubble and the early 2000s subprime housing bubble as frantic attempts to gin up a viable economic substitute for the portion of the U.S. GDP currently subsumed and enslaved by the military-industrial complex.

    So far, no substitute has proven successful. The addict appears to be hooked, and, in medical terms, at this point slicing the military-industrial tapeworm out of Uncle Sam would surely kill him from anaphylactic shock.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is an odd economic analysis, assuming that everyone associated with the military is fired and sits in the park. That’s not a likely or even rational scenario. Slowly redeploying resources from war to other uses would almost certainly boost the economy, generating greater productivity, growth, and taxes. Just as many of the closed military bases were successfully converted from a cost to the government to economically productive use.

  3. “So far, no substitute has proven successful. The addict appears to be hooked, and, in medical terms, at this point slicing the military-industrial tapeworm out of Uncle Sam would surely kill him from anaphylactic shock.”

    So what are we waiting for?
    Great solution or at least a decent First Step.

    This entire Post is simply the work of a seriously deranged type of reasoning that rests on a sense of hopelessness masquerading as wisdom.
    Such ideas, as expressed by this Post-er, are well-known in the rest of the world and are symptomatic of the reason why many world citizens both fear and hate the current pathways of the USA Establishment
    And as an adjunct many wait with mixture of fear and hope for the “anaphylactic shock” that precedes the demise of this monster we have allowed to be unleashed on the World.

    Take the time to LISTEN:


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