Barack Obama: the politics of hypocrisy and cynicism

It was supposed to be all about the end of politics as usual. But while President Barack Obama has been happy to bring about change while abroad by doing all he can to diminish the superpower status of the United States, at home it’s been the same old, writes Toby Harnden.

The Telegraph [UK]
21 November 2009

Take the case of Greg Craig, the first big figure to depart the Obama White House and the victim of the Washington equivalent of a back-alley stabbing. A respected lawyer who defended President Bill Clinton during impeachment, the former State Department official was one of the first big guns to break with the Clintons and go all in for Obama.

Bowing to the wishes of Hillary Clinton, who blocked him from his preferred field of foreign policy, Craig was made White House Counsel.

He was charged with closing Guantanamo Bay, overhauling interrogation rules and translating Obama’s high-minded campaign ideals into workable policy.

Having issued a directive on his second full day in office that Guantanamo Bay would close “no later than one year from the date of this order”, Obama soon came up against reality. Last week, he lamely conceded that he would miss his own deadline but “would anticipate” the jail shutting in 2010.

Faithfully implementing Obama’s wishes, Craig drew up plans for the release of photos of American troops engaging in the abuse of prisoners.

Faced with fierce opposition from generals and former CIA chiefs the President then changed his mind.

Before you could whisper “change we can believe in”, Craig became the designated scapegoat for Obama’s photos U-turn and the Guantanamo debacle. The campaign had been free of leaks but Craig was knifed by Team Obama in time-honoured Washington. He was toast, confided anonymous officials who portrayed him as an incompetent in the thrall of bed-wetting human rights types.

On the record, officials flatly denied Craig might be fired and airily dismissed reports of the authorised leaks as “typical Washington parlour games”. A bemused Craig wondered who his enemy might be, realising too late that it was Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, operating with Obama’s blessing.

White House officials were demonstrably lying to reporters when they said Craig was not under threat. With breathtaking chutzpah, they briefed last week that his departure had been on the cards “for months”.

In the Clinton era it was OK to lie about sex. Under Obama, it seems, it’s just fine to lie about running the country.

Bill Clinton’s administration was bedevilled by self-serving leaks from ambitious staffers trying to promote themselves or their cause. For Obama, leaking is a way of doing business.

Thus, General Stanley McChrystal’s request for up to 44,000 more troops in Afghanistan was leaked to Bob Woodward, allowing White House officials to float a trial balloon.

Then, classified cables sent from Kabul by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and opposing McChrystal’s analysis appeared in the Washington Post. Few believe that the leaks were anything other than a deliberate White House attempt to shift the Afghanistan debate by saying: “Look, there’s a former general who differs from McChrystal.”

When Robert Gates, the straight-shooting Defence Secretary, fulminated that he was “appalled” by the leaks, Obama clamoured to insist that he was “angrier than Bob Gates about it” and pronounced leaking a “firing offence”. Call me a sceptic but I doubt that the likes of Emanuel or David Axelrod will be dismissed any time soon.

During the campaign, Mr Obama said loftily that his opposition researchers would concentrate on policy. But we now know from his campaign manager David Plouffe that it was Obama staff who leaked the devastating nugget that Democratic rival John Edwards had spent $400 on a haircut.

One of this White House’s flaws is that it is packed with campaign operatives like Axelrod at senior levels or other refugees from the Windy City like Emanuel, who delight in the dark arts of Washington and Chicago-style hardball.

What Mr Obama lacks is wise, detached counsel from outside his inner circle. Mr Craig might have fulfilled such a role. His replacement? Mr Obama’s personal lawyer Bob Bauer, another campaign loyalist. It was an eerie echo of President George W Bush’s installation of his crony Alberto Gonzales in the same position.
The supposedly post-partisan Obama is operating a one-party system in Washington in which Republicans are frozen out. His big campaign donors are now housed in sumptuous ambassadorial residences across the world.

Where he promised transparency, everything is opaque.

Far from changing Washington, Obama has slipped effortlessly into its ways. Could it be that the hallowed figure who preached hope and “yes we can” is really a hypocrite whose legacy will be greater cynicism?

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