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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war