Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barack Obama, Ideologue-In-Chief? or What Centrists Fail to Understand

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
So-called 'pundits' such as John Freehery, founder and CEO of the Freehery Group, 'a boutique strategic advocacy firm' in Washington DC, and blogger at The Hill's Pundits Blog, understands this to be the most important line from Obama's inaugural address for Republicans, for it is them for whom the ground has shifted. They now face a huge challenge to reposition themselves. The background to this interpretation is what could be called the archetype of the core centrist credo:
We are a centrist country with conservative leanings. And if you don’t appeal to the vast middle, especially that part of Middle America that lives in the suburbs, your party loses seats, influence, access to money, and perspective

The center revolted against the partisanship of the last 20 years. They threw their lot in with Obama because he talked to them, appealed to them, excited them and promised them a post-partisan world where all would work together for a more perfect union.

Who could possibly be against that ideal?

Obviously all those who don't share that 'ideal' to begin with and question the whole concept of 'centrism,' such as Thomas Frank below.

At the other end of the political spectrum, further to the left, Victor Navasky, along with many others, 'prefers to believe' that Obama might be 'a liberal wolf in centrists sheep's clothing.' The formulation 'prefer to believe' betrays a classic case of projection that sill seems all too common among progressives today. It's wishful thinking.

The reverse seems to make more sense: Obama appears to be 'a centrist sheep with a rather thin progressive veneer.' If this is the case, the key challenge for left-liberal progressives is to develop a strategy that allows them to nudge Obama to the left.

The above line from Obama's speech only needs to be slightly modified to more accurately describe what really has happened in the US and the world in the past 30 years and to begin to make sense and become politically useful for left-liberal progressives. For the ground that has shifted is nothing less than 'reality,' primarily in its economic and environmental dimensions, less so in its politics:
What the centrists fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments of centrism that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
Progressives such as Glenn Grennwald, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, George Lakoff, Christopher Hayes, Guy Saperstein, David Sirota, and Rick Perlstein - just to name a few - have argued for a long time that centrism is a sham. Reich explicitly did so back in 2004 in his book Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, in chapter 5, Winning: It Will Take More Than Reason, in the section appropriately named 'The Sham of Centrism,' (pp. 196-201). 'Centrism' is a particularly pernicious form of political ideology, precisely because it passes itself off as 'the reasonable and sensible middle,' or these days as 'pragmatism.' Plus, it is shifting all the time, and the right very successfully has shifted it in its direction. For the same reason, 'leading from the center' doesn't make sense, because picking people up where they are supposedly at, is the opposite of leadership.

According to Politico, Obama wants 80 Senate votes for his recovery plan. Given that there are 58 Democrats in the Senate now, why does he want an additional 22 Republicans? In order to get them, and all the Blue Dog Democrats, he will have to make a number of centrist/conservative concessions. In addition, this will likely delay the adoption of the bill, during a daily deepening crisis where time is of the essence. Why would he do that? Why doesn't he instead 'act like he won'?

Today, Obamaian 'pragmatism' and 'post-partisanships' are just new words for 'centrism,' which is now obsolete, having been surpassed by developments around the world. As Glenn Greenwald recently documented, 'centrism' is anything but new. In fact, this is what most Democrats have been doing, ever since Dukakis in 1988, who said 'this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence.' Greenwald explains:
The central tenets of the Beltway religion -- particularly when a Democrat is in the White House -- have long been "centrism" and "bipartisanship." The only good Democrats are the ones who scorn their "left-wing" base while embracing Republicans. In Beltway lingo, that's what "pragmatism" and good "post-partisanship" mean: a Democrat whose primary goal is to prove he's not one of those leftists.

Whatever else one might want to say about this "centrist" approach, the absolute last thing one can say about it is that there's anything "new" or "remarkable" about it. The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the "non-ideological" center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom.
In his excellent column at the Wall Street Journal, 'Obama Should Act Like He Won,' Thomas Frank presents one of the best definitions and critiques of centrism that I have read in a long time. It is scathing and right on target:
There is no branch of American political expression more trite, more smug, more hollow than centrism. [...]

Centrism is something of a cult here in Washington, D.C., and a more specious superstition you never saw. Its adherents pretend to worship at the altar of the great American middle, but in fact they stick closely to a very particular view of events regardless of what the public says it wants.

And through it all, centrism bills itself as the most transgressive sort of exercise imaginable. Its partisans are "New Democrats," "Radical Centrists," clear-eyed believers in a "Third Way." The red-hot tepids, we might call them -- the jellybeans of steel.

The reason centrism finds an enthusiastic audience in Washington, I think, is because it appeals naturally to the Beltway journalistic mindset, with its professional prohibition against coming down solidly on one side or the other of any question. Splitting the difference is a way of life in this cynical town. To hear politicians insist that it is also the way of the statesman, I suspect, gives journalists a secret thrill.

Yet what the Beltway centrist characteristically longs for is not so much to transcend politics but to close off debate on the grounds that he -- and the vast silent middle for which he stands -- knows beyond question what is to be done

As this should remind us, the real-world function of Beltway centrism has not been to wage high-minded war against "both extremes" but to fight specifically against the economic and foreign policies of liberalism. Centrism's institutional triumphs have been won mainly if not entirely within the Democratic Party. Its greatest exponent, President Bill Clinton, persistently used his own movement as a foil in his great game of triangulation.

And centrism's achievements? Well, there's Nafta, which proved Democrats could stand up to labor. There's the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. There's the Iraq war resolution, approved by numerous Democrats in brave defiance of their party's left. Triumphs all.
Essentially, 'centrism' is a political ideology that combines and articulates neoliberalism and 'liberal' interventionism. It is all the more powerful the more it succeeds to delude people with its pretension that it is 'post-ideological.'

It cannot be repeated enough: 'Post-ideological' and 'post-partisan' politics is utter and dangerous nonsense. I am just waiting for the Obamaniacs to push it further and start talking about 'post-politics.' It is a myth, but a very powerful myth, that has served 'centrists' exceedingly well. It is high time to burst this pretentious bubble, especially right now that it is being vigorously reinflated.

Likewise, there is nothing 'radical' about the 'radical middle' or 'radical centrists.' And today more than ever the 'third way' is a deadend street, a slow-motion trainwreck, given the economic and ecological crises facing us. 'Centrism' means sustaining the unsustainable. It tends to reduce democracy to technocracy, a tendency that critical theorists have critiqued for decades, foremost among them Juergen Habermas.

Christopher Hayes, drawing pragmatist philosophy in his recent reflection on what kind of 'pragmatist' Obama might turn out to be, put it really well:
Dewey's pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.
These two kinds of pragmatism, what I would be tempted to call the 'fake,' so-called 'common sense' pragmatism of the establishment, and the 'real' philosophical and historical pragmatism, are opposed to each other. Obama has staffed his administration almost exclusively with members of the now discredited ancien regime of neoliberalism and interventionism. His early positions on a whole range of issues, from the 'bailout' to 'entitlement reform,' and from Pakistan to 'clean coal,' also reflect these obsolete approaches. Many of his other policies represent only a return to the historical norm. Some progressives may be forgiven, after these exceptional eight years, for mistaking these changes for genuine progress. Doing less harm is not the same as doing good.

One can make the strongest case for the argument that for the US to adequately address not only its current crises, but also the ones that will be the defining challenges of the 21st century, it needs to radically change many of its major policies in a quasi-revolutionary shift to a sustainable environment, economy and society. Conservatism and 'centrism' have proven to be failures to even begin to address these challenges, only making them worse. Progressivism is the only viable alternative left that at least stands a chance of beginning to respond semi-adequately to systemic challenges such as catastrophic climate change, peak oil, a hyper-militarized foreign policy and an utterly unsustainable world economy, that threaten the very foundations of human civilization. This is how much the ground has shifted.

Even such a corporate outfit as the World Economic Forum, in its latest report, 'Global Risks 2009,' now acknowledges that global risks today are so 'interlinked,' that they necessitate much more coherent and effective global governance, which of course is a form of collective action at the highest level that, if anything, only progressivism can achieve, with its systematic emphasis on the need for more coordination, cooperation and integration.

Thomas Frank concludes his column by quoting from former House Majority Leader 'the hammer' Tom DeLay's 2007 memoirs that Republicans under his leadership learned 'to start every policy initiative from as far to the political right as we could,' thereby moving 'the center farther to the right.'
President-elect Obama can learn something from Mr. DeLay's confession: Centrism is a chump's game. Democrats have massive majorities these days not because they waffle hither and yon but because their historic principles have been vindicated by events. This is their moment. Let the other side do the triangulating.
Something tells me that Obama knows all this already. So why doesn't he act accordingly? The 'chump's game' of 'centrism' should insult both his intellect and his seriousness, assuming that he actually is serious about finding workable solutions to critical problems, and not primarily concerned with keeping if not expanding his majority in the 2010 midterm elections and getting re-elected in 2012.

And here's the rub: The crises we are facing now, and will continue to face in one form or another for the rest of the 21st century, can only be adequately addressed through radically changed policies, which must be consistently applied for decades. But in a political system that is geared towards winning elections every two to four years, this is almost impossible to achieve. But saying that we are already doomed and that it is too late to change guarantees that nothing will be done, and thus this assessment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Obama just got elected President in this political system, which will continue to severely constrain his actions, no matter how brilliant and well-intentioned he may be. It is for this reason that progressives must develop a strategy that allows them to change both the structure of the political system and the ideology that supports it.

In short, politics is inescapably ideological, 'centrism is for phonies,' and 'post-partisanship' is bogus. At least for the next four years, Obama will be, not Pragmatist-In-Chief, as he and others would like us to believe, but unavoidably Ideologue-In-Chief. If progressives don't manage to develop and act on a strategy that allows them to at least nudge him to the left, early indications are that he will turn out to be yet another triangulating Centrist-In-Chief, and the results cannot possibly be better than some version of Clintonism 2.0. Given the enormous challenges, they are almost guaranteed to be worse. The stakes could not be higher.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

'Approximately the Bush Position'

In an interview with Democracy Now! today, Noam Chomsky characterized Obama's first substantive statements yesterday on the crisis in Gaza and Israeli-Palestinian relations more broadly as representing 'approximately the Bush position.' Likewise, he criticized the first statements by Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, as basically continuing US policies that have been failing for decades to resolve the conflict.

Chomsky criticized them in particular for carefully omitting any serious criticism of Israel concerning its violation of international law, expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the fragmentation of Palestinians into what Ariel Sharon called 'bantustans,' and the brutal oppression of Palestinians. Until the US stops supporting Israel's policy and starts pressuring it to significantly change, Israel will continue doing what has been its official policy for decades:
JUAN GONZALEZ: Noam Chomsky, I’d like to ask you about the enormous civilian casualties that have shocked the entire world in this last Israeli offensive. The Israelis claim, on the one hand, that it’s the unfortunate result of Hamas hiding among the civilian population, but you’ve said in a recent analysis that this has been Israeli policy almost from the founding of the state, the attack on civilian populations. Could you explain?

NOAM CHOMSKY: They say so. I was just quoting the chief of staff—this is thirty years ago, virtually no Palestinian terrorism in Israel, virtually. He said, “Our policy has been to attack civilians.” And the reason was explained—you know, villages, towns, so on. And it was explained by Abba Eban, the distinguished statesman, who said, “Yes, that’s what we’ve done, and we did it for a good reason. There was a rational prospect that if we attack the civilian population and cause it enough pain, they will press for a,” what he called, “a cessation of hostilities.” That’s a euphemism meaning cessation of resistance against Israel’s takeover of the—moves which were going on at the time to take over the Occupied Territories. So, sure, if they—“We’ll kill enough of them, so that they’ll press for quiet to permit us to continue what we’re doing.”

Actually, you know, Obama today didn’t put it in those words, but the meaning is approximately the same. That’s the meaning of his silence over the core issue of settling and takeover of the Occupied Territories and eliminating the possibility for any Palestinian meaningful independence, omission of this. But Eban [inaudible], who I was quoting, chief of staff, would have also said, you know, “And my heart bleeds for the civilians who are suffering. But what can we do? We have to pursue the rational prospect that if we cause them enough pain, they’ll call off any opposition to our takeover of their lands and resources.” But it was—I mean, I was just quoting it. They said it very frankly. That was thirty years ago, and there’s plenty more beside that.


So, OK, we can have—in fact, you know, the first Israeli government to talk about a Palestinian state, to even mention the words, was the ultra right-wing Netanyahu government that came in 1996. They were asked, “Could Palestinians have a state?” Peres, who had preceded them, said, “No, never.” And Netanyahu’s spokesman said, “Yeah, the fragments of territory that we leave to them, they can call it a state if they want. Or they can call it fried chicken.” Well, that’s basically the attitude.

And Mitchell had nothing to say about it. He carefully avoided what he knows for certain is the core problem: the illegal, totally illegal, the criminal US-backed actions, which are systematically taking over the West Bank, just as they did under Clinton, and are undermining the possibility for a viable state.
At least so far, there is hardly any indication that any major change will occur in US policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Like any communication, political communication is highly selective. Its selectivity is largely determined by the structure of the system in which it takes place. The structures of social systems are cognitive, normative, and reflexive expectations. Cognitive expectations are anticipations of what is likely to happen and how things are likely to work. Normative expectations express what should happen. If we understand, with Harold Lasswell, values as desired goals, we can understand both values and norms, and interests as normative expectations. Finally, reflexive expectations are expectations of expectations. Once you understand how systems are structured, patterns of communication and behaviour become pretty predictable.

If we apply this to Obama's and Mitchell's most recent positioning on the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we get something like this: Given the structure of US foreign policy, and the fact that the basic understanding of what constitutes 'US interests' in the Middle East has not changed, the result is the continuation of the traditional policy: Form follows function. To change the form (structure) of US policy, one needs to change its function. Yet this is very difficult to achieve, since structures have grown and solidified for many decades, and are full of vested interests and deeply entrenched positions.

It is this structure that determines the selectivity of communication and action. This explains how systems reproduce themselves over time, how they not only get from one moment to the next, but more importantly how they get from this position to that position. This is why Obama sounds very similar to Bush on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Mitchell sounds basically like Dennis Ross, Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under Bush 41 and Middle East envoy Clinton, who was rumored to also take up that position under Obama as well, and now is one of his top advisers on Middle East policy.

Here is what Chomsky has to say about Ross:
And you can understand it [the continuity from Bush to Obama] when you look at his advisers. So, say, Dennis Ross wrote an 800-page book about—in which he blamed Arafat for everything that’s happening—barely mentions the word “settlement” over—which was increasing steadily during the period when he was Clinton’s adviser, in fact peaked, a sharp increase in Clinton’s last year, not a word about it.
What is important to understand is that US policy has continued not because of the continued presence of people like Ross (that would be getting cause and effect reversed), but because the overall structure of US policy has not changed. 'Ross' and 'Mitchell,' just like 'Bush' and 'Obama' are just names, and what, after all, is in a name? What matters are not so much individuals and their differences (which can be considerable, of course), but structures and their continuity. This raises the fundamental question to what extent individuals can change social structures such as function systems, organizations, and networks.

The implication of all this for progressive strategy is that it should concentrate its efforts on changing those organizations in which resources and decision-making power is concentrated, i.e. governments and corporations. Organizations are by far the most powerful social actors because they can mobilize and bundle resources in collective action. This requires progressives in turn to strengthen their own organizations and networks and better coordinate their activities.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Political Limitations of Obama's 'Big Brain'

Robert Scheer is concerned that some of Obama's actions indicate that he is more likely to continue some of the major failed Bush policies, rather than changing them significantly. He singles out Obama's lobbying for the second half of the bailout, which is a crass example of corporate welfare at taxpayers' expense, and the escalation of a failing strategy in Afghanistan.
The good news is that we have a big-brain president. The question is: Will he use it?
That is good news indeed, especially after what we've had the last eight years. Obama may well be one of the most intelligent and intellectual presidents so far.

But the question is not whether he will use his immense intellect. Of course he will, just like he has in the past. The question is which of his ideas he can communicate and act on effectively, given the constraints within which he operates, and what might be called the 'logic' of US politics, which has a mind of its own, as it were.

For instance, he might actually believe that TARP should be changed significantly in order to do what it supposedly was intended to do, but so far has utterly failed to achieve. But he might be unlikely to say so, because this would jeopardize his support from Wall Street, from which he raised more money than any other president (His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was one of the House members who raised the most from the same sources).

And probably he knows that 'clean coal' is a dangerous contradiction in terms, and yet feels constrained to support it, because that's how you win elections and get re-elected. Or that nuclear is unlikely - at tremendous costs and huge risks - to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels or emissions.

Again, the question is not what Obama, or any other politician, 'really' thinks - we will never for sure anyway. The question is what he can communicate politically, and political communication is highly selective in the statements it accepts and rejects. If people in general, and perhaps progressives in particular, better understood the very strict limits imposed by highly structured and scripted political communication and rhetoric, they could save themselves a lot uncalled for excitement and disappointment stemming from unrealistic expectations, and could instead invest those resources in changing the limits of what is politically not only acceptable, but actually stands a reasonable chance of success.

In other words, the political system has its own rationality, and it tends to be very different from the rationality of individuals and that of other social systems such as the economy, law, education or moral discourses. For example, the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce GHG gas emissions, has failed to do so, in part because it is very difficult for the political and legal communication to lead to actual economic and environmental changes.

More fundamentally, this focus on individual rationality overestimates the capacity of individuals - and be they the most intelligent, best intentioned, and most resourceful - to change social systems that have their own rationality and are self-organized, and therefore are very difficult to 'steer.'

The traditional and still dominant understanding of politics is that it's the 'head' or the 'tip' of society, able to steer society in a certain direction. However, we can see more and more clearly that a globalized, functionally differentiated world society can't be effectively steered, because there is no position from which a collectively binding description of the world, its problems and its solutions could be formulated and implemented.

The implications of the functional differentiation of world society for the potential and limitations of political strategy are important, and we have only begun to think them through. It raises the core strategic question of where best to concentrate scarce resources.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama, a 'Liberal Wolf in Centrist Sheep's Clothing'?

Victor Navasky disagrees with all those pundits calling Obama a 'centrist:'
First, as our friend and backer Paul Newman used to remind us, The Nation was valuable because it helps define where the center is. The center can shift. When Obama added to his ritualistic description of America as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus" a new category--"nonbelievers"--it was almost unbelievable, as he quickly helped redefine where the center was.

Second, based on what we know about Obama--his books, his initial intuitive stand against the war in Iraq, his Senate voting record, his campaign, his inaugural speech--I don't believe it. At most, he seems to me a liberal wolf in centrist sheep's clothing.

And finally, faced with the ever-more-dire economic crisis, his commitment to a Keynes-based economic stimulus and renewed regulatory rigor (see his inaugural reference to not letting the market "spin out of control") suggests that, at a minimum, he flunked Centrism 101.

Rather, I prefer to believe that his reach across the aisle, his cabinet appointments and his opening to the renegade Joe Lieberman and his erstwhile opponent John McCain himself are part of his pragmatic plan to advance an agenda that goes beyond anything the so-called center might contain. Whether or not it will work, that is the question.

All this of course remains to be seen. Obama's first day was certainly encouraging. But somehow I find it difficult to think of Obama as a 'liberal wolf in centrist sheep's clothing.' Perhaps it's more the other way around? Does Navasky's formulation, 'I prefer to believe,' perhaps still betray too much wishful thinking, as has been pretty common on the left lately concerning Obama's inclinations?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Divergent Fiscal Philosophies

Bob Kuttner is concerned that Obama may buy into the conservative argument for 'gutting' Social Security and Medicare. This storyline has been pushed by Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project and the Concord Coalition for a while, and has received a recent boost by the newly formed Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform. Kuttner convincingly counters that this is essentially an ideological and not a fiscal debate.

Kuttner concludes:
So, just how will President Obama define fiscal responsibility, who will he choose to showcase, and to what end? It will be interesting to see whether his fiscal summit features people like Pete Peterson, David Walker, and Robert Rubin, and lends credence to their story--or whether he also gives the floor to their critics.

You can understand why, as matter of fiscal tactics, Obama would need to signal that it is possible and necessary to rely on large deficits in 2009 and 2010 to avert a recession, and then to get serious about fiscal discipline over the next decade once the economy has returned to decent growth. He needs to argue this to reassure the Blue Dogs in his own party, to win over some Republicans, and to get support of opinion leaders for his recovery strategy.

But there is more than one road to fiscal discipline. One entails gutting the few program that have survived the rightwing assault on social insurance. The other involves filling in the appalling gaps in social insurance and achieving fiscal balance by restoring the principle of taxation based on the ability to pay.

Once again, our new leader, who has inspired so much hope and who so wants to be a post-ideological president, needs to grasp that these are deeply ideological questions. To pretend otherwise is to allow the conservative version of the story to govern by default.

This is an excellent point, for these are fundamental strategic decisions about the future of this country, not just tactics. And questions of political strategy are always inescapably ideological,
because they are about what kind of world we are living in and about what kind of world we would like to live in.

You cannot not have an ideology in the sense of a worldview (Weltanschauung) and preferences. You can be 'post-ideological' as little as you can be 'post-partisan.' You might as well claim that you are 'post-political,' which would be even more nonsensical. Politics is precisely about positioning yourself, in term so how you see things and whether or not you would like to change them, and if so, how, and why this way and not that way? So how will Obama position himself, given how he has positioned himself? Where you stand very much depends upon where you sit.

The core insight of pragmatism is that since we cannot know for certain how the world 'really' is and could be, we should describe it in a way that furthers our values, interests, and preferences. Truth is what is better for us to believe in. Needless to say, it is obvious that the goals pursued by different types of progressives are irreconcilably divergent.

Of course, ideology is the most powerful when it is not perceived as such, but instead is passed off as 'common sense pragmatism', as it were, as simply a question of what works and what doesn't, without asking the primordial political question of who benefits and who loses? Is this what Obama is up to with all his rhetoric about pragmatism?

There is reason to be concerned, for Obama very deliberately placed all Rubinites in key economic positions: Summers, Geithner, and Orszag.

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The Influence-Peddling Inauguration

The the total cost of the inauguration is estimated to be more than $150 million. In comparison, Bush's 2005 swearing-in 'only' cost $42 million. Of that total amount, which some estimate at $170 million, 'only' $45 million come from private donors, but about 80% of these donations come from only some 200 wealthy bundlers, many of the them from Wall Street, according to a report by Public Citizen, The Presidential Inauguration, Brought to You by the Few, the Wealthy:
"It’s no wonder that Wall Street is pouring so much money into this inauguration," said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. "The executive branch has given bailouts worth trillions of dollars to Wall Street firms and is considering trillions more. Wall Street has a lot at stake. ...

"No doubt many donors give simply because they want to be part of history," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. "But donors and bundlers who represent special interests with business pending before the government and who dole out five-figure checks to the inaugural committee usually want a seat at the table with the new administration. ...

"The inauguration is the last chance for big donors to throw money at the feet of the president," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Inaugural festivities should not be a day of influence-peddling. The inauguration should be a time for peaceful transition in government, paid for with public funds.
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Obama's Inauguration, Sponsored by the Few, the Wealthy, Holman provides some more background:
And what do you suppose Wall Street wants in return for all this, for paying for all these activities? It’s pretty clear. I mean, Wall Street is right in the middle of the largest bailout program we’ve ever seen of the financial sector. Obama is going to be presiding over that bailout program in just a matter of a couple hours. And it’s Wall Street that wants a seat at Obama’s table, when it comes to deciding the nature of the bailout program.
As noted yesterday, there is overwhelming evidence that the 'bailout' has failed to encourage lending, and that Obama is committed to continue this form of corporate welfare at the expense of taxpayers. The way the inauguration has been financed provides further evidence.

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Is Triangulation Back?

Norman Solomon, board member of Progressive Democrats of America, already detects The Return of Triangulation:
The mosaic of Barack Obama's cabinet picks and top White House staff gives us an overview of what the new president sees as political symmetry for his administration. While it's too early to gauge specific policies of the Obama presidency, it's not too soon to understand that "triangulation" is back.
In Solomon's view, Obama is a 'centrist' and 'pragmatic' politician who will seek and occupy the center of political gravity. He quotes his biographer David Mendell, who describes Obama as
an exceptionally gifted politician who, throughout his life, has been able to make people of wildly divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see.
Criticizing progressives for projecting their worldviews on Obama, he is concerned that the progressive base will again be frustrated and demobilized under Obama's triangulation, just as it had been under Clinton's in the 1990s.

Therefore, progressive grassroots need to move the center to the left, by reframing crucial policy choices, such as health care, Afghanistan, etc. This approach is very similar to what progressives like John Nichols recommend, and suffers from the same deficiencies.

Reframing of course is reminiscent of Lakoff's approach to framing and his Rockridge Institute, which had to close last year due to a lack of funds. The whole notion that the Left can change policies by changing public opinion through reframing issues has not been very successful, and needs to be fundamentally reconsidered.

Politics in large part is about the concentration and centralization of resources and decision-making power in organizations. Political power is largely organized power, and organizations are structures of power.

Therefore, progressives need to build and strengthen their own organizations and infrastructure more generally, in order to gain greater influence over and ultimately break into centrist and conservative power structures.

In other words, progressives can frame and reframe issues and policies all they want; as long as they don't have the organized power to make credible demands on those in power, all this activity is unlikely to lead to positions of strength, from which more power could be built.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

'What Obama Should Read'

Now that's progress! A president who likes to read! After all, it has been known for a long time that George W. Bush did not even read the one-page executive summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, only to turn around and trash it in the media.

The Washington Monthly has asked 19 of its favorite writers and thinkers to suggest the books Obama should read. The result is an interesting list of 25 books.

Joel Garreau, fellow at the New America Foundation, recommends The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz, published in 1996. Here is how Garreau summarizes it:
It’s still the most accessible guide to thinking rationally, systematically, and strategically about futures you can’t possibly predict. Scenario planning is the antidote to the kind of futures bravado that caused us to roll into Iraq thinking there was no other possibility but that they’d throw rose petals at our feet. As change accelerates, you’ve got a lot more strange stuff coming at you, Mr. President. This is the conceptual guide on how to prepare.
While coming from a business and consulting perspective, it is good to be reminded of the importance of scenario planning for developing strategies for an unpredictable future.

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Obamanomics: 'Wall Street Voodoo' and 'Kleptocracy'?

The current bailout is unlikely to encourage more lending, because that's not what it's designed to do, and there does not seem to be a need for it, certainly no 'urgent' one, much less an emergency. Rather, it appears that Obama is likely to continue what Bush started, albeit in more subtle ways. At least for now, corporate welfare will continue unabated under Obama, and it makes sense, for he has raised more from Wall Street than any other president, and the donors who benefit most from the bailout are financing his inauguration. It's payback and party time, on the back of the taxpayers! Since the bailout cannot possibly be justified on its merits, it has to be sold differently. This is where voodoo comes in.

One day before the inauguration, Paul Krugman, in Wall Street Voodoo, suggests that Obama may be condoning a new kind of voodoo economics, primarily designed to avoid the 'N-word' (nationalization), and increasing the likelihood of failure:
Old-fashioned voodoo economics — the belief in tax-cut magic — has been banished from civilized discourse. The supply-side cult has shrunk to the point that it contains only cranks, charlatans, and Republicans.

But recent news reports suggest that many influential people, including Federal Reserve officials, bank regulators, and, possibly, members of the incoming Obama administration, have become devotees of a new kind of voodoo: the belief that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.


What I suspect is that policy makers — possibly without realizing it — are gearing up to attempt a bait-and-switch: a policy that looks like the cleanup of the savings and loans, but in practice amounts to making huge gifts to bank shareholders at taxpayer expense, disguised as “fair value” purchases of toxic assets.

Why go through these contortions? The answer seems to be that Washington remains deathly afraid of the N-word — nationalization. The truth is that Gothamgroup and its sister institutions are already wards of the state, utterly dependent on taxpayer support; but nobody wants to recognize that fact and implement the obvious solution: an explicit, though temporary, government takeover. Hence the popularity of the new voodoo, which claims, as I said, that elaborate financial rituals can reanimate dead banks.

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.
To learn about what Obama should be doing instead, read Krugman's What Obama must do: A letter to the new president, the cover story of the current Rolling Stone.

In Bailout a windfall for bankers, if not borrowers, in yesterday's International Herald Tribune,
one reads:
A review of investor presentations and conference calls by executives of some two dozen banks around the country found that few cited lending as a priority. An overwhelming majority saw the bailout program as a no-strings-attached windfall that could be used to pay down debt, acquire other businesses or invest for the future. ...

But a congressional oversight panel reported on Jan. 9 that it found no evidence the bailout program had been used to prevent foreclosures, raising questions about whether the Treasury has complied with the law's requirement that it develop a "plan that seeks to maximize assistance for homeowners."

The report concluded that the Treasury's top priority seemed to be to "stabilize financial markets" by simply giving healthy banks more money and letting them decide how best to use it. The report also said it was not clear how giving billions to banks "advances both the goal of financial stability and the well-being of taxpayers, including homeowners threatened by foreclosure, people losing their jobs, and families unable to pay their credit cards."

David Sirota, in A brief note to those who still insist the current bailout will spur more lending... on Open Left, describing how 'Obama partisans' try to make themselves feel better and calling this latest approach 'kleptocracy,' which really is not that different from what the Bush regime did for eight years, but perhaps more sophisticated, described as 'new voodoo' by Krugman above:
If you read news about the bailout very carefully, you'll see that the entire goal of the current bailout is to protect bank shareholders - not the taxpayers, homeowners or the financial system as a whole. ...

This is why progressives have been pushing for far more oversight, transparency and restrictions on what the bailout money can - and cannot - be used for. If the bailout was structured differently, it might start helping the economy. If our government was a bit less corrupt, we might have a much more effective bailout with strings attached - maybe, as the New York Times reports, we'd do what the British are doing by forcing bank executives to "sign legally binding agreements requiring them to provide more loans to consumers and businesses." But those are big ifs.

Sure, I know it makes Obama partisans feel better to tell themselves that the current bailout the president-elect endorsed is really designed to stop an imminent emergency, not just to raid the federal treasury on behalf of the Wall Street donor class. But the evidence - whether from the GAO, the Congressional Oversight Panel, and now from the banks themselves - continues to prove that this bailout is kleptocracy in its most naked form.

In Obama pushing bailout without solid plan in place, Sirota provides more background on why
president-elect Obama has threatened to veto any bill rejecting Bush's request to release the remaining $350 billion of the bailout fund:
This isn't much-ballyhooed "change" - it's money politics by a different name. How do we know? Because neither Obama nor anyone else is genuinely trying to justify the bailout on its merits - and understandably so. Even the most basic queries prove such merits don't exist.

This bizarre dynamic is anything but the "pragmatism" Obama rhetorically fetishizes - and America's anti-bailout majority knows it.

Sure, Obama might believe he's deft enough to seem courageously populist while using his White House to perpetuate kleptocracy. Perhaps he thinks the gravity of a veto threat will, for a second time, trick the nation into reluctantly accepting theft.

Or maybe before attempting more sleight of hand, Obama should take a moment away from studying Lincoln's speeches and Roosevelt's fireside chats and recall the irrefutable sagacity in one of the most (in)famous Bushisms of all.

"There's an old saying in Tennessee," the outgoing president said early in his first term. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me (twice) - you can't get fooled again."

So exactly who is fooling whom here?

The January 9, 2009 report of the Congressional Oversight Panel notes that the government has 'not yet explained its strategy.' This, at least, is consistent, for it has none; and neither does Obama.

Does the world want to be betrayed? It sure seems like it. Never underestimate the allied powers of denial and wishful thinking.

And since much of the country on this eve of the inauguration seems to be in an ebullient and enthusiastic, if not euphoric party mood about the potential and promise of this great country, the following Bacchic metaphor seems justified: So far, the Obama administration shapes up to look like old wine in new wine skins. No 'new politics.' Instead old politics with a rather translucent 'post-partisan' veneer.

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Towards a Realistic Left Strategy

Last week, John Nichols, Washington correspondent of The Nation, published How to Push Obama in The Progressive.

Nichols recalls how he first covered Obama in the mid-1990s when he ran for the Illinois state senate as a candidate endorsed by the labor-left New Party. Nichols affirms that Obama self-identifies as a progressive, and quotes him:
I am somebody who is no doubt progressive. I believe in a tax code that we need to make more fair. I believe in universal health care. I believe in making college affordable. I believe in paying our teachers more money. I believe in early childhood education. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive.
According to Nichols, Obama knows 'the specifics' of 'the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda,' but is cautious, 'because knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them,' which Obama certainly hasn't.

So here is Nichols' main recommendation of how 'progressives' should 'push' Obama to the left:

The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to America. Get out ahead of the new President, and of his spin-drive communications team. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Don't just critique, but rather propose. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. Don't expect Obama or his aides to do the left thing. Indeed, take a lesson from right wing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise.

Smart groups and individuals are already at it. [...]
The examples he gives are critiques of the bailout, and advocacy for civil liberties and single-payer health care.

Now, unfortunately, but rather predictably, this is really nothing new, because the Left has been criticizing policies and advocating for alternative policies for decades, with very little success.

It reminds me of the famous definition of insanity as 'doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,' which is alternatively attributed to Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin.

One day before Obama's deeply historic and highly symbolic inauguration, it is high time for the Left to ask itself a very basic but also very important strategic question: Not only: Are we doing things right, but more importantly: Are we doing the right things? In other words, it is high time that the Left not only improves tactics, but changes strategy.

A good starting point for the Left is to remind itself that, in the words of Frederick Douglass,
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Effective strategy begins with a sober and realistic assessment of the current situation, including one's own position and resources. The sad truth is that the Left is simply not in a position to demand much of anything of Obama. It is simply too weak, if not to say marginal.

It lacks the leverage, and therefore the bargaining power to make demands on the Obama administration. Its 'threats' of withholding support lack credibility, because the consequences are simply not significant enough.

So the big strategic question the Left needs to answer is how to build power cumulatively and long-term, starting from a position of weakness, and how it can make use of the Obama administration in gaining strength, as opposed to the lost decade under Clinton.

Until the Left has adequately addressed this critical strategic question, it will simply continue doing what is has done for decades, with hardly any structural effect: It will criticize, complain, express outrage, suggest alternatives, etc. - but who is listening?

Obama will continue to tell leftists that he hears them loud and clear, and will, from time to time, give them the impression that he, in some ways, is really a leftie himself. But he won't listen to them, much less act on their recommendations, because he is constrained to operate in a very centrist if not conservative political and social structure.

To be fair, Nichols emphasizes the importance of changing public opinion. He could have used Lincoln's famous quote, which in recent months has been used ad nausea:
With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.
And indeed, the left-liberal every day is filled to the brim with critiques, advocacy, alternatives, outrage, etc. This is what publications such as The Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent, Harper's, Mother Jones, TPMCafe, Campaign for America's Future, AlterNet, Common Dreams, Daily Kos, OpenLeft, etc. do, frequently recycling materials quite a bit, which leads to quite some redundancy.

But who is reading these publications, and more importantly: Who is acting on all this information? I think it is likely that the readership for all these publications is small, is more or less the same for each one of them, and that they hardly have any influence on the mainstream, much less on political decision-making.

Further to the left, let's say with the CounterPunch crowd, the typical take on Obama is that he is a centrist and the best you can hope for is Clintonism 2.0. Instead of dismantling the empire, he will simply manage it more efficiently. Instead of shifting from neoliberalism and the failed Washington Consensus to neo-Keynesianism (or better yet: full-fledged social democracy), he will simply sell neoliberalism with a social touch. Obama represents a new style rather than new substance.

But where do all these unrealistic assumptions and expectations come from in the first place? I suspect the blinding effects of ideology and wishful thinking play an important role. It is also much easier to continue coming up with laundry lists of desiderata, of all the things that should happen, just like you have done for years if not decades, instead of asking yourself why the Left is still so marginal, and developing a strategy to become less marginal. Further to the left, the better can easily become the enemy of the good: Since Obama won't overthrow capitalism, why bother?

Nichols concludes, as is very typical these days, with FDR's famous response to labour leaders after his election in 1932:
I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.
In the case of the relationship between Obama and the Left, each of these three statements is questionable and problematic: What do Obama and the Left actually agree on, what does Obama really want to do that the Left wants him to do, and, most importantly: How should the Left 'make' Obama do the things it would like him to do, and why this way, and not another way?

Nichols' understanding of all three components of this statement are symptomatic of too many people on the left. Too many left-liberals actually believe the first two parts, and continue to think that essentially more of the same (more 'pressure,' more 'pushing') will nudge him to the left. Too many further to the left completely disagree with the first two parts, and therefore don't even need to try or do anything differently, because it is hopeless anyway, which of course if very convenient. They can just continue scoffing and sneering more or less cynically or become increasingly apathetic in what has been called 'sophisticated resignation.'

To better be able to analyze and characterize European foreign policy, Christopher Hill of the London School of Economics in the 1990s developed the concept of the 'capabilities-expectations gap,' which describes the relationship and gap between capabilities and expectations and how it has evolved historically. It might be useful to apply this concept to the relationship between the Left and Obama and to progressive strategy more generally.

There are two basic options. Either you maintain your high expectations, and try to strengthen your capabilities to better be able to realize them, or you reduce your expectations in the hope of better being able to meet them with capabilities that are likely to remain limited for a long time. The problem with too much of the Left today is that it maintains unrealistically high expectations and/or has still not found a viable way of strengthening its capabilities in a sustainable way. And so it continues to remain in lamentation mode as described above.

Just yesterday, Obama said again what he has said many times before, that in a country called America, 'everything is possible.' What is possible for the Left in the US under Obama's leadership? Such a realistic strategic assessment is fundamental for the Left today if it wants to stop squandering preciously scarce resources on both lamenting and dreaming, which are equally ineffective, and start concentrating its efforts on realistic goals. Above all, the Left needs to determine what not to do, and then actually stop doing it:
The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. (Michael Porter, my emphasis)

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Why Scale Back Successful 50-State Strategy?

Howard Dean's 50-state strategy has been widely credited not only with effectively strengthening the Democratic Party across the nation, but also with helping Obama win the election. Some say that Obama went so far to tell Dean on election night that he couldn't have won without him.

Dean has just been replaced by Tim Kaine as chair of the DNC. Many believe that once Obama chose Emanuel as his chief of staff, Dean's fate was sealed, given Emanuel's criticism of the 50-state strategy in the past. Dean is clearly disappointed that Obama did not offer him a position in his administration:
"Obviously, it would have been great," Dean said in a telephone interview from his home in Burlington, Vt. "But it's not happening and the president has the right to name his own Cabinet, so I'm not going to work in the government it looks like."
But why has Kaine now decided, after first praising the 50-state strategy for its overwhelming success, that it would be scaled back? Because
You never should just do what you did yesterday.
This unconvincing justification has been appropriately mocked in the blogosphere.

But what might be the real reason? Perhaps Obama wants to leverage his extensive campaign network to gain greater control over the Democratic Party, which could be similar to the approach he took after winning the primary when he asked donors not to fund 527s so that his campaign could further centralize control over organization and messaging?

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Strategize in Times of Crisis?

Sunday, January 18, 6pm

In his Washington Memo, 2 Years After Campaign Began, a Different World, David E. Sanger reflects on the major changes that have happened since Obama declared his candidacy and wonders: 'So while the world has changed, Mr. Obama has changed with it. But how much?'

He quotes G. John Ikenberry, a leading scholar of international relations, who co-authored a study of the national security agenda facing the next president:
He’s facing the classic problem of having to handle a number of crises before he’s really got time to set out a long-term architecture.
Madeleine Albright expressed a related view, when she recently compared Obama's task to
redesigning the airplane while you’re flying it.
Indeed, the argument is frequently made that politics basically always takes place under time pressure, all the more under crisis conditions, and there certainly is no shortage of crises facing Obama: From Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to the global economic crisis and the twin problems of peak oil and climate change.

Hence the crucial question: How do you develop a coherent strategy, much less a grand strategy, if the environment in which you want to implement it constantly changes and the future is fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable? In these circumstances, instead of making predictions, the best you can do is think systematically about the basic issues and trends and their strategic implications.

Still, politics in general and crisis management in particular, tend to be rather reactive - simply because political systems are forced to respond rapidly (just take the current economic crisis as an example), and always under conditions of less than perfect information concerning the situation, preferences, likelihood of outcomes, etc. But reacting to events and developments is in many ways the exact oppposite of acting strategically, which aims precisely at shaping the environment in which actors operate.

Given the many differences between Barack Obama and George W. Bush, it will be very interesting to see how much their strategies will differ in response to the challenges they face. Of course, the very challenges administrations choose to face are the result of their hopefully more rather than less strategic assessments. For example, while Bush ignored climate disruption, Obama has vowed to make it a priority.

And yet, given how much politics is about having to react to developments that are oftentimes largely out of control (including the unintended and unforeseeable consequences of deliberate policies), and within tight political and material constraints, it is understandable why many practitioners and theorists question the usefulness grand strategy under these conditions.

Analogously to Gandhi's famous response to a journalist's question of what he thought of Western civilization, some might be tempted to respond to the same question about grand strategy identically: 'I think it would be a good idea.'

Politicians such as long-term German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in power for 16 years, gave 'muddling through' ('Durchwursteln,' in German) a good name, and it certainly served him well, if not necessarily his country - an assessment which of course depends on your point of view.

Obama can only serve for eight years. If he should - and many hope he will - this will at least in part be due to his political strategy. The big question is, whom that political strategy will serve better, him or his country? After all, Bush also served for eight years ...

Given continued functional differentiation, can these two very different, and in some ways opposed political logics still be reconciled? And can a political strategy, can any political strategy, bridge the gap between one political strategy that focuses on gaining, maintaining, and expanding political power, and another, while also wanting to build power, does so in order to 'do good,' or at least to reduce harm?

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, and two days before the inauguration of the first African American president, it seems appropriate to recall King's quote, which serves as the motto of this blog:
Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose.
Yes, we have come a long way; and yes, we still have a long way to go. Where will, where can Obama lead us, and with what kind of strategy? What is the purpose of his power?

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

'Forgive and Forget?'

Saturday, January 17, 2009

This is the title of Paul Krugman's
latest column, in which he criticizes Obama's apparent inclination not to investigate and prosecute the Bush administration's systematic abuse of power.

Not holding them accountable sets a fatal precedent. It sends the message that it is acceptable to violate the Constitution
and get away with it without any consequences, thereby increasing the likelihood that it will happen again. It would confirm that they are indeed above the law. Krugman concludes:
And to protect and defend the Constitution, a president must do more than obey the Constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the Constitution accountable. So Mr. Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that’s not a decision he has the right to make.
For confirmation and more details on this approach, see Glenn Greenwalds January 15 post, Establishment Washington Unifies Against Prosecutions.

Given the parallel to how Bush Sr. dealt with the Iran-Contra Affair during the Reagan era, this suggests much more continuity than change. Why is that? If this is not the time to hold members of the Bush administration accountable for what must be among the most extensive and egregious abuses of power, when could there ever be the right time?

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that years of investigations and prosecutions would prove too divisive, as Krugman suggests, and would interfere with Obama's strategy of building a new, 'post-partisan' coalition with significant Repbulican participation.

UPDATE, Sunday, January 19, 2009

In today's post, Binding US Law Requires Prosecutions for those Who Authorize Torture, Glenn Greenwald, after presenting a series of undisputed premises and inescapable conclusions, himself comes to the conclusion that the evidence is so clear and overwhelming that the Obama administration has no choice but to investigate and prosecute.

He approvingly quotes from Hilary Bok's Some Facts for Obama to Consider of January 15, 2009:
It seems to me that these facts imply that if Barack Obama, or his administration, believe that there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the Bush administration have committed torture, then they are legally obligated to investigate; and that if that investigation shows that acts of torture were committed, to submit those cases for prosecution, if the officials who committed or sanctioned those acts are found on US territory. If they are on the territory of some other party to the Convention, then it has that obligation. Under the Convention, as I read it, this is not discretionary. And under the Constitution, obeying the laws, which include treaties, is not discretionary either. (Greenwald's emphasis)
Greenwald himself concludes:
While those who argue that the US was right to torture because it's the US that did it are expressing a repugnant form of exceptionalism, at least they're being honest -- far more so than those who argue that Bush officials shouldn't be investigated or prosecuted while paying deceitful lip service to "the rule of law" and the idea that "no one is above the law."

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The Potential of Web 2.0 for Social Movement Organizing

'Social Movements 2.0' explores the potential of the emerging Web 2.0 for social movement organizing, including a list of five reasons for its relevance and of eight questions that are still open.

It refers to Global Labor Strategies, which looks very interesting, and Sally Kohn's alternative view, 'Real Change Happens Offline.'

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The 43 Who Helped Make Bush One of the Worst Presidents

The always informative Progress Report just published this depressing list of 43 of his appointees who helped him create one of the worst US presidencies ever. It is ranked, presumably by harmfulness.

This list makes you wonder what kind and how much change Obama's 'new team' will be able to bring about, given Bush's disastrous legacy and the crisis the country is in.

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