Thursday, September 10, 2009


This day, eight years ago, proved to be the very last day I thought of the George W. Bush administration as being relatively harmless. W had been in office less than a full year and, while his general incompetence was there for all to see, what was most striking about his administration was its very lack of any vision or overarching agenda. The cabinet member who seemed most poised to do active damage to society in general was the attorney general, John Ashcroft, whose hostility to the Constitution and preference for his own crabbed misreading of the Bible appeared primed to perform all sorts of mischief. I actually thought that Donald Rumsfeld’s garble about modernizing the military over at Defense might have the beneficial side-effect of reducing our economic dependence on military spending.

The contrast with the incoming Reagan administration two decades earlier was telling. Where Bush, like Reagan, failed to see that government is nothing less than the community’s own best expression of itself, which led W to appoint obviously unqualified people to head up programs and departments whose work he undervalued, Reagan actively sought to tear down large swatches of the federal government. Reagan deliberately provoked the air traffic controllers’ strike, knowing full well that PATCO was the least well-liked labor organization in the labor movement (its lack of solidarity with other unions set it up to receive too little help too late to save it). And Reagan’s slashing of social spending had, just this far into his first term, already begun to swell the ranks of his administration’s one true achievement – the creation of the homeless.

San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein had appointed me to the Census Oversight Committee for the 1980 tally of all Americans. My primary responsibility was to ensure an adequate counting of residents in the central city – the Tenderloin & South-of-Market – and the so-called “casual count” of San Franciscans with no fixed addresses. There were so few homeless people in San Francisco in 1980 that I knew who many of them were. There were a couple of food programs for the hungry at Saint Anthony’s and South of Market, but most of the homeless were mentally ill alcoholics who got enough money from Social Security to afford residential hotels at the start of any given month, but whose disruptive behavior would get them 86’d after just a couple of weeks. When the census identified 275 homeless people in San Francisco in 1980, Feinstein was flabbergasted & told the press that the number could not possibly be that high. I had the unhappy job of telling the press that the census was right. Little did either of us realize just how quickly Reagan would swell those numbers to well over 10,000.

But W had no such agenda. Reagan had wanted to be president because he wanted to change America. His vision of society was far meaner than anything we had seen before in my lifetime. Bush’s vision was no better, but he wanted to be president not out of any need to change anything, but just because his daddy had had the job and W was a poor, confused SOB still struggling to find his own identity in the shadow of overbearing parents. Reagan may have been in the earliest stages of the Alzheimer’s that was eventually to claim him – this was pretty obvious by his second term & the public diagnosis soon after he left office surprised no one – but Reagan had a theory of government & a purpose in his presidency, evil tho it was. W, on the other hand, was simply a mess.

What a difference a day makes. Like Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2006, the attack of September 11, 2001 found a federal government ill-prepared to respond, and an administration with no real clue as to what it should do going forward. Unfortunately, however, September 11 gave the floundering W administration a purpose, even the rudiments of an agenda.

An administration that puts incompetents at the head of agencies because it has no respect for their mission & work is sending trucks barreling down the road with no driver. September 11 raised the stakes enormously precisely because it the put the pedal to the metal on all of the most dangerous federal departments, those that conduct foreign policy & those that conduct war. If Al Qaeda wanted to destroy America, it could have done no better than to set those wheels in motion, which is what it accomplished in killing roughly 3,000 Americans in three locations on a single morning, all of which it achieved with a handful of suicidal young men & less than two dozen box cutters.

It is worth contrasting where we are today with where we were on September 10, 2001, and maybe even on September 10, 1981. The Obama administration has a comprehensive agenda, but not particularly one of its own making. The Republican regime left virtually every public arena in some state of crisis. The Obama administration is responding to as many as it can & very possibly more than it can hope to ameliorate in one or even two terms in office. It now seems evident that the two issues that will determine the future political capital of this administration – something that dwindles very rapidly regardless of which party is in office and whether or not it has a “friendly” congress – are health care and the economy. The two problems are deeply intertwined and the Obama administration’s primary hope in solving either lies in the fact that many businesses – which opposed all reform in the early 90s when Hillary Clinton et al attempted to resolve the health care crisis – now recognize its negative impact on them. Add to these problems the issues of the Middle East (including Iraq & Iran), the two lingering Bush wars & potential for the environment to make Katrina look like a walk in the park, and you get some sense of the overwhelming (literally!) number of crises that must be managed simultaneously.

Perhaps the most distressing of these problems is the very one that reared its ugly head on September 11 – Al Qaeda, Afghanistan & what to do about failed states in general. This is the most distressing because it’s the area in which Obama has done the very least to distance himself from the failed policies of his predecessor. Indeed, reappointing Robert Gates secretary of defense was a move to inoculate Obama from attacks from the right. But Al Qaeda continues to exist & Afghanistan is hardly any closer to being a successful nation than it was when it was in the hands of the Taliban in 2001. After eight years of Bush administration incompetence dealing with these questions, Afghanistan looks like the very same problem to the US that it presented to the Russians in the 1980s. There will never be enough troops to solve this problem.

My sense has been Obama’s plan has been to back Gates’ approach to Afghanistan at least until such time as his administration has both health care & the economy back on track, but that’s a luxury that is paid for in American & Afghan lives alike. & Iraq comes after that. You can see the logic in that approach, even if it makes you cringe at its costs. But the problem is that all this hinges on the first two items in this sequence: health care & the economy. I have not been impressed at the failure of the administration to move the old guard of Wall Street out to pasture. If the cost of not panicking Wall Street further is the perpetuation of the system that collapsed last fall anyway, it may just be too high to pay. And it’s not at all apparent yet that Obama is going to be successful in impacting either the escalating costs of health care or the inability of millions of America to access it in the first place.

I do think that Obama has a vision of a better America, one in which people work together, rather than setting up one group or sector against another. But what Obama doesn’t have, at least not yet, is any real ability to control his agenda. There are too many crises all happening at once, thanks to W & his gang, too many chickens coming home to roost. If Obama can’t get control over this, and fairly soon, the failures of the likes of Robert Gates & Larry Summers inevitably will become his as well.

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