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Michael Winship: Obama's Familiar Orbit

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

Obama's Familiar Orbit
By Michael Winship

I keep thinking about that tool bag. You know – the one that the astronaut accidentally let loose while she was repairing the International Space Station last month. Now it’s in orbit, more than 200 miles above the Earth. There’s even a Web site where you can track its exact location, if that’s your idea of a good time. NASA figures the 30-pound bag of equipment will burn up harmlessly as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere sometime next June.

For now, it’s up there, floating silently and uselessly, which, if you think of government as a sort of national toolkit for protecting and improving the lives of its citizens, could be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the last eight years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing done – except with the kind of blunt hammers that see everything as a nail and cause more harm than good.

It’s probably not for nothing that both NEWSWEEK and TIME had the word “fix” on their covers this week. We’re in need of major repairs in this country, at every level. That celestial tool bag orbiting above our heads might have come in handy. Its contents include two grease guns, a scraper and a trash bag – all things that could be useful for an incoming president seeking big changes in Washington.

But, I hear you asking, where is the change? Despite all the campaign rhetoric, so far, President-Elect Obama’s announced appointments haven’t exactly rattled the cages of the Beltway establishment; no one has emerged from the left, for example, who would give DC politicos a good, healthy case of the vapors.

It’s consensus building, say his supporters; he’s putting together a team of people with experience and know-how who can insure continuity and stability in a time of crisis. This is a process of synthesis -- the new ideas will come from him. Obama’s a smart guy, they say. Not to worry -- he’s got this covered.

As he himself said at his December 1 press conference, “I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.”

Maybe that’s so, and it would be unfair to judge a presidency that doesn’t even officially begin for another seven weeks. We all wish Barack Obama godspeed and good luck. But you’ll forgive me for being a little nervous. You can call his appointments a “team of rivals,” if you like – that currently in vogue, nostalgic reference to Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln manning his cabinet with those who ran against him for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- but in truth, it seems more like a team of the same old, same old.

To work toward solving our economic crisis Obama has brought in many of the same old Clinton hands who helped us into this mess via deregulation and the wink of a blind eye to the big financial institutions – the same ones that have either sunk beneath the waves or that we’re bailing out now.

The Bush administration made the economic disaster worse, but both Barack Obama’s designated Secretary of the Treasury – Tim Geithner – and his choice to direct the National Economic Council, Larry Summers (a former Treasury secretary), are pals of Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who left Treasury to join Citigroup, where he’s now a director and senior advisor. Yes, folks, Citigroup – the bank the government now has agreed to insure against projected losses of $306 billion – on top of bailouts totaling $45 billion.

Same old, same old in national security and foreign policy, too -- Bob Gates, Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement, stays on at the Defense Department for at least for a year; General James Jones, seasoned military man and friend of John McCain’s becomes national security advisor. And, of course, there’s Senator Hillary Clinton, the next Secretary of State. At Monday’s press conference, President-Elect Obama was asked pointedly about their past differences:

PETER BAKER, NEW YORK TIMES: … Going back to the campaign, you were asked and talked about the qualifications of the -- your now -- your nominee for secretary of State, and you belittled her travels around the world, equating it to having teas with foreign leaders; and your new White House counsel said that her resume was grossly exaggerated when it came to foreign policy. I'm wondering whether you could talk about the evolution of your views of her credentials since the spring.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: Look, I'm in -- I think this is fun for the press, to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign.

BAKER: Your quotes, sir.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: No, I understand. And I'm -- and you're having fun. (Laughs.)

BAKER: I'm asking a question.

PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA: But the -- and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not -- I'm not faulting it. But look, I think if you look at the statements that Hillary Clinton and I have made outside of the -- the heat of a campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure and in order to do that we have to combine military power with strengthened diplomacy.

So let me get this straight – we weren’t supposed to take seriously anything that was said during “the heat of a campaign?” Doesn’t that invalidate the time and effort we spent evaluating the differences between the candidates before we cast our votes? I’m just asking.

Equally disconcerting are the paeans of praise for the appointments coming from those who so bitterly opposed Obama’s election just a month ago. “Reassuring,” said Karl Rove. Karl Rove! “The new administration is off to a good start” – so sayeth Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “This will be a valedictocracy,” conservative David Brooks gushed in THE NEW YORK TIMES. “Rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes.”

O brave new world, that hath such people in it. Maybe it’s true, as Republican campaign consultant Mark McKinnon wrote Monday, that, “The political classes have briefly sobered up and decided to act responsibly, selflessly and -- dare we say it -- in the best interest of the country. The times are simply so serious, so dangerous, so calamitous that we can’t afford politics as usual.”

I truly hope so, but a healthy dose of skepticism dictates that I'll believe it when I see it. Look out for tool bags, falling from the sky. And possibly a flying pig or two.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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Every time I read a column like this, I keep hearing Ralph Nader's voice in my head...."I told you so."

John Warren and Michael Winship: Workers continue to occupy their closed workplace, a door and window plant, near Chicago today. They've been told by management that Bank of America pulled the plug on them, so unions are picketing BofA. These are two good signs. More workers should seize responsibility and the rest of us should support them. Should I take a commuter train into Manhattan to boo Merrill-Lynch, BofAs meltdown acquisition? (I'm not in a union.)

Trash bags, grease, and a scraper- what can we do with that? It's too late to repair many of our institutions and much of our infrastructure. In many cases, Bushite gremlins have made sure of that. If we take the door and window plant as an example we have to ask questions about whether the products were energy efficient and whether they were underbid using overseas outsourcing. Too many times the feasibility is determined by structural situations, and also details, we never hear about.

The shuttle program is ending (with the obsolete ships worn out and dangerous) and the space station may be just too old timey and too much of a reach for a struggling world. No one had the resources to plan ahead. Like space exploration, our economy will backslide a long ways before we grab a handhold. If we had known what to expect we might have chosen someone more radical than Obama (just another lawyer). Procedure and legal niceties are nearly useless tools now. (Nothing delays and wastes resources like legal wrangling.) John Warren, you are correct when you suggest we displace traditional leadership for humane solutions. What I wonder is if Obama and his lawyer rodeo will be able to deal with the details, Can they choose the right projects and the right tools to build a new economy. Economists are mostly sycophants and politicians corruptible. Science, like music, can be bent to any purpose, good or evil. Only the people who work today to provide for themselves tomorrow can be trusted. Forget the overpriced tool bag. It has passed away like our old economy. Somebody should get in that Chicago plant, help the workers take charge, provide a state of the art product design and find other prefab housing industries to interface with it. If government incentives and purchases are needed at first, that's OK. If tariffs against foreign products are temporarily needed to provide living waged jobs, that's OK. If trade agreements have to be changed to bring standards and conditions up off-shore, that's OK. But mainly, our acceptance of a privileged elite with unlimited wealth must be abandoned and laws put in place to prevent this Great Depression from coming back. Lawmaking is the proper tool, and lawyers the correct service persons only in that final instance, and then in service to the common good, not the banks and the former wealthy class. People who refuse to admit this, Winship, are overpriced tools, lost in space. In what bag are you?

I had a thought,if only this was like the late 60s or early 70s.Lots of work and little red tape,but the fat cats werent so little work and mucho red tape,poor people dont have time or money for game playing.stop the imports and get rid of the fat cats that farm out jobs overseas then we could support immagration.levis and companys like them that moved thier plants overseas let them sell goods over there, replace them with american companys that build and mfg here.keep our scrap metel here, let us melt and build our own stuff,then if they(U.S.) companys need extra help from other places let them pay the tab and do it the mean time use the unemployed in this country for security on borders and ports.If we want to stand in the world let it be as a understanding trading partner, not a stumbling giant.quit letting the insurance and oil fat cats run this country.we should all replace the rich incumbents with working people and quit makeing more laws to rob the working man and woman.stand by the the people and for the people.

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