The Obama Inauguration 2013: Round Two For The 44th POTUS
On January 20, 2013, Barack Obama was sworn in for the second time as President of the United States. Will he change course towards a more progressive political agenda this time, as opposed to the past four years? Naturally, it remains to be seen, but from observing his first term in office, I got the impression that there were many continuities from the previous administration.
[Please note: I will add some sources for various claims that I make in this article later, when I have more time. In the meantime, please confirm any information by doing a news search with your favorite search engine. I will also continuously add more links to news coverage of the inauguration and background information.]
Looking back at Obama’s first election
Like many Europeans—and of course many Americans, for that matter—I was very excited about the first black (biracial, mixed, pick your favorite term) American president four years ago. Any student of American history should be. True, the campaign buzzwords ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were by themselves meaningless appeals to emotion, crafted by brilliant campaign strategists, but candidate Barack Obama also filled them with concrete policy proposals in his campaign speeches.
Obama positioned himself as a unifier, but it is clear that a key selling point was “I am not Bush.” Indeed, Obama was many things that Bush was not: a black man, an intellectual, not a son of privilege, urban, sophisticated, a Christian but not a religious fundamentalist with an eschatological interest in the Middle East. There were high hopes that Obama would act differently and that his administration would repair some of the damage caused by his predecessor.
Obama’s first term and continuities from Bush/Cheney
While Obama is certainly more socially liberal than any of the top Republicans, a substantial departure from neoliberal economic policies and a neoconservative security architecture is barely noticeable, despite any claims of America having fallen to communism on January 20, 2009, available on the usual propaganda channels. Of course an American president is not a dictator and legislation is supposed to go through Congress.
However, from the outside it looked like this: From day one, a Republican front aggressively attacked Obama at every turn while the POTUS offered concession after concession, ultimately in vain. The only times that the soft-spoken Obama did not find it difficult to metaphorically wack political opposition with the big stick that Theodore Roosevelt suggested to carry around at all times (referring to foreign policy) was when his own progressive political base reminded Obama of his campaign promises. So here we are, four years later:
The “War on Terrorism”
The paradigm shift caused by 9/11 still remains, and the behavior of the Obama administration is perhaps a good reminder to take seriously the phrase ‘paradigm shift.’ Osama Bin Laden is dead, even though his death was but a symbol, needed for closure, a counter to the terrorists’ symbol of attacking the World Trade Center. But the confrontation is not over.
The central question for democracies is how to act while engaging in that battle. In retrospect, unfortunately, the Obama administration’s answers sound very similar to those of the Bush administration in many cases. Guantánamo Bay is still open, the practice of kidnapping terrorism suspects, euphemistically called ‘rendition,’ has been increased, the drone killing program has been expanded and raises all kinds of ethical and legal questions, and the National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) now allow for worldwide secret arrests and killings on the President’s orders, outside of judicial oversight.
The most severe damage to American democracy, however, has been done by the Obama-Holder Justice Department, shielding the architects and perpetrators of the Bush administration’s torture regime from legal consequences. Here was the opportunity to signal to the world that American exceptionalism also means that the US government is above using the methods of despotic regimes elsewhere. But the message sent was a very different one. As the Obama administration put it, the aim is to look forward, not backwards.
But if these practices are not being punished, the official position that “the US does not torture” is meaningless. If any future administration decides to go down that route again, it can and will point to the precedent set by Bush and Obama. And it is exactly this lending legitimacy to authoritarian tendencies of a transgressive national security state that will tarnish Obama’s place in history. It is particularly bitter that these policies are advanced by a former constitutional law professor.
Regulation of the financial sector:
The Obama administration did not push for legislation ‘with teeth’ for stricter regulations of investment banks after the financial crisis. The Justice Department has not prosecuted top banking executives who have clearly engaged in serious criminal activity. Apparently, the Obama administration believed that this class of people needed to be shielded from legal repercussions in order for the economic recovery to succeed. In addition, many of Obama’s economic advisors are neoliberals with a background in big Wall Street firms. It is difficult to ignore the conflict of interest set up by this dynamic.
The positive changes during Obama’s first term
Admittedly, Obama’s key domestic policy project was a big step within in the American context, and extremely controversial, to be clear. However, a European-model public option, not to speak of a single-payer system, was wiped off the negotiating table very quickly, and from the reports I have read, Obama did not really mind. Insurance companies did not mind, either. That is because they get millions of new customers who are obliged to buy their insurance packages.
The repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
The Obama administration repealed the Clinton-era policy that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military while keeping in the closet. The policy, apart from being discriminatory, established a power dynamic that made LGBT military members vulnerable to blackmail for fear of being outed by colleagues. Contrary to rumors, the American military did not collapse once LGBT soldiers were allowed to express their identity. Interestingly, the military has become a venue of social progress for a second time after the desegregation during World War Two.
Few drastic changes in crucial areas
In sum, the notion of a president who would radically depart from the paths taken since 2001 has evaporated regarding most foreign policy and economic issues. While some symbolic changes were enacted, the big issues seem ‘path dependent,’ to borrow a sociological term. On civil liberties, Obama’s record is rather dim, except for the DADT repeal. Regarding economic policy, the financial sector—investment firms in particular—is back to business as usual, which is great if you happen to be an investment banker. The question remains whether Obama, now that he does not have to worry about reelection, will be a different politician. I am skeptical about that, even though I still have a tiny bit of hope.
What do you think?
[I will update the article from time to time and add more information.]
News coverage of Obama’s second inauguration
[Video] The New York Times has the full inauguration speech:
[Video] Politico’s live video coverage of the 2013 inauguration can be found here.
[Video] The New York Times reports from Washington prior to the presidential inauguration (2013/01/18):
“Obama’s Rorschach.” (John T. Woolley, Professor of political science, UCSB; Co-director, American Presidency Project, Huffington Post, 2013/01/23) – A political scientist explains how people interpret Obama’s inaugural speech according to their own political leanings.
“Barack Obama accused of giving partisan inauguration speech.” (Ewen McaAskill, Guardian, 2013/01/22)
“Fox News Flips Out On Obama Inauguration Day.” (Brett LoGiurato, Business Insider, 2013/01/22)
[Cartoon] “Obama’s inaugural speech provokes rattled Republicans.” (David Horsey, Los Angeles Times, 2013/01/22)
“12 Ways Obama Smacked Down the Tea Party and the Right in Inauguration Speech.” (Adele M. Stan, Alternet, 2013/01/21) – The left-leaning online magazine on how Obama symbolically pushed back against the American Far-Right’s rhetoric.
“For 1st time, gay rights get shoutout in inaugural speech.” (Miranda Leitsinger, NBC News, 2013/01/21)
“Inaugural Corporate Donors Include Bank Of America, Coca-Cola, Microsoft.” (Jillian Berman, Huffington Post, 2013/01/20) – Obama now accepts official corporate sponsorship.
“Inauguration 2013: Obama’s King moment.” (Jonathan Allen and Emily Schultheis, Politico, 2013/01/20)
“The Third Inaugural: Obama’s Quiet Ceremony.” (Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, 2013/01/20)
“The Presidential Oath: Not Always Perfect, But It Gets The Job Done.” (Nina Totenberg, NPR, 2013/01/20)
“Change Comes: After 4 Years, Friends See Shifts in the Obamas.” (Jodi Kantor, New York Times, 2013/01/19)
“Washington Prepares for Festive but Scaled-Down Version of 2009 Events.” (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, 2013/01/19)
“Obamas Vereidigung: Das verflixte zweite Mal.” (Gregor Peter Schmitz, Spiegel Online, 21.01.2013)
[Pictures] “President Obama’s First 4 Years.” (The Atlantic, 2013/01/18) – Great pictures of Obama’s first term in office.
fACT-CHECKING Obama’s Political Record
“First-Term Promises Made, Kept and Broken.” (New York Times, 2013/01/19)
“On Campaign Promises Report Card, Obama Did ‘Pretty Well’.” (NPR Staff, NPR, 2013/01/19)
[Statistics] “For Second-Term Presidents, a Shorter Honeymoon.” (Nate Silver, New York Times, 2013/01/19) – “Support for Compromise Rises, Except Among Republicans.”
“10 Goals for President Obama & The White House.” (American Civil Liberties Union) – The largest civil rights organization in the US has a list with things they want Obama to do after his inauguration.
“Has America Become an Authoritarian State?” (Henry A. Giroux, Alternet, 2013/01/25) – On the authoritarian tendencies of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party in the current neoliberal state, including Guantánamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping.
“UPDATED: NDAA Prevents Closing Guantanamo, Could Lead to Claims of a Right to Discriminate.” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2013/01/03) – The ACLU on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
Financial industry regulation
“The Untouchables: How the Obama administration protected Wall Street from prosecutions.” (Glenn Greenwald, Guardian, 2013/01/23)
“Obamacare 2.0: Judgment awaits.” (David Nather, Politico, 2013/01/19)
2012 Presidential Campaign
“How President Obama Won a Second Term.” (Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, 2013/01/23) – Democratic political strategist James Carville breaks down the second Obama presidential campaign.
“Obama campaign final fundraising total: $1.1 billion.” (Byron Tau, Politico, 2013/01/19)
Please note: You can find many more resources on the 2012 presidential campaign in my earlier blog post here.