Obama, Bush, Frodo, Jon Stewart and me

Others now realise how Barack has let us down -- especially on freedom and security.

Sorry to harp on about this, but regular visitors to the blog will know that I took a lot of heat for writing a long piece in the New Statesman, back in October 2009, in which I argued that Barack Obama, across an array of issues, but in particular on national security and civil liberties, seemed "to have stepped into the shoes of his disgraced predecessor". On the cover, we had a picture of Obama morphing into Bush, under the headline "Barack W Bush".

It was provocative, contrary and, of course, unfashionable. It upset lots of people on the liberal left and, I believe, we even had one or two people cancel their NS subscriptions "in protest". Obama, it seemed, was untouchable.

Not that long ago, two prominent left-liberal bloggers here in the UK buttonholed me at a conference to complain about my Obama/Bush piece and claim I was ploughing a lone (and unpopular) furrow. That seems to have changed. In the intervening months, many more people on the left and centre left, liberals and social democrats, Yanks and non-Yanks, seem to have noticed what I noticed, and wrote about, nine months ago.

Here's Michael Hirsch in Newsweek in May:

Obama's national security strategy: not so different from Bush's

Here's Max Fisher in the Atlantic Monthly in April:

On national security, is Obama just like Bush?

Here's Peter Feaver, writing on the Foreign Policy website in May:

Obama's national security strategy: real change or just "Bush Lite"?

Here's Josh Rogin, also writing on the Foreign Policy website in May:

Obama's new national security strategy: Bush 2.0?

Here's the former Bush speechwriter David Frum in April:

Continuity you can believe in

Here's Eli Lake, writing in Reason in April:

The 9/14 presidency: Barack Obama is operating with the war powers granted George W Bush three days after the 9/11 attacks.

But forget all these wonks, pundits and commentators. Perhaps the most devastating comparison between Obama and Bush, and the failure of the former to reverse the illiberal, authoritarian and unconstutional policies of the latter as he'd promised he would, came from the peerless Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week.

The video seems to be unavailable, so I have reproduced the full (and funny) details via the Raw Story website below:

Stewart took a step back from the current BP oil spill catastrophe to look at the bigger picture of Obama's presidency. "The Gulf crisis was an unforeseen catastrophe. Barack Obama's real mission when running for president was to restore some of America's moral high standing that we had lost in the turmoil of the war on terror," said Stewart.

Obama made the case for himself while running for president in November of 2007. "Guantanamo, that's easy. Close down Guantanamo. Restore habeas corpus. Say no to renditions. Say no to wireless wiretaps," said Obama. "Part of my job as the next president is to break the fever of fear that has been exploited by [the Bush] administration."

"Obama's rein would bring back the rule of law. If the Supreme court said even terrorists at Guantanamo Bay deserved their day in court through the writ of habeas corpus, as they did in the Hamdan case, Barack Obama would honor that, not try to pull the old Bush flim-flammery," announced Stewart.

But as president, Obama did appear to find a way around habeas corpus by maintaining the Bush practice of keeping detainees at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration pushed for and won the right to deny those Bagram prisoners a right to a hearing, McClatchy reported.

"Today President Obama won a victory to keep those detainees locked up indefinitely without getting even one chance to prove their innocence in court," the Nation's Chris Hayes announced in May.

Stewart seemed willing to let the president off if that was the only violation. "That's only habeas corpus. That's the only thing that was thrown out there, one small tiny fundamental tenet of law," said Stewart. "He also said he was going to end rendition."

"We also learned that the Obama administration will continue the Bush policy of extraordinary rendition, the practice of sending terror suspects to prisons in third-party countries for interrogation," MSNBC's Alison Stewart reported last August.

Stewart then played clips of then-candidate Obama calling for the "highest standards of civil liberties and human rights".

"No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. We're going to again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers and that justice is not arbitrary," Obama said in August of 2007.

Stewart appeared perplexed. "Your campaign was premised on reining in presidential power. What happened?" he wondered.

"Oh, I see," said Stewart. Apparently things had changed when Obama took the oath of office.

"And now you have your own secret military programmes that go beyond even what Bush was doing," Stewart noted.

The president has gone so far to authorise the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric and American citizen, without trial.

"Wow. He's a bad guy, runs an al-Qaeda website from Yemen but you complained when Bush wanted to read Americans' emails without a warrant," said Stewart.

"Wait a second, all that power you didn't like when someone else had it. You decided to keep it. Oh my God, you are Frodo," exclaimed Stewart.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.