This week's news offered enormous vindication to those of us who watched the Bush Administration with, shall we say, a jaundiced eye.
First, on Tuesday, came a massive release of documents from the House Judiciary Committee, definitively establishing once and for all that the Bush White House actively turned the Justice Department into a political enforcement tool by firing prosecutors who weren't sufficiently obedient, that Karl Rove was into it up to his eyeballs, and that he lied when he said he wasn't. These were not things that reasonable people who had been following this story at all closely had any doubts about whatsoever. But there it is, all documented now -- and those documents are also in the possession of Nora Dannehy, a federal prosecutor who, as a New York Times editorial points out, could bring criminal charges against Rove et. al. for the firings "if she finds that they were done to obstruct justice or for other illegal reasons." Hope springs eternal.
And then in Thursday's Washington Post, Barton Gellman informed us that former vice president Dick Cheney is actually letting it all out - going semi-public with views we've long suspected, but never imagined he'd actually confirm out loud. Apparently, he's muttering to former colleagues that George W. Bush went soft in his second term. And far from having any regrets about his own conduct, an associate said, "there was a sense that they hadn't gone far enough. If he'd been equipped with a group of people as ideologically rigorous as he was, they'd have been able to push further." Can you imagine? Apparently he's ticked that Bush "halted the waterboarding of accused terrorists, closed secret CIA prisons, sought congressional blessing for domestic surveillance, and reached out diplomatically to Iran and North Korea, which Cheney believed to be ripe for 'regime change.'" A former top aide, John P. Hannah, tells Gellman that Cheney "really feels he has an obligation" to save the country from danger. It's kind of nice to see Cheney's obsessive megalomania right there on display, isn't it?
Indeed, it's worth pointing out that pretty much anytime we find out something new about the Bush era, the result is profound, consistent vindication for all the central pillars of the Bush critique chronicled in my washingtonpost.com column and elsewhere over the years.
But here's the thing. I'm getting oddly little satisfaction from this -- because I'm increasingly troubled about this presidency. At the heart of all the tragedies of the Bush years was the White House's fundamental untrustworthiness. They didn't tell us the truth. And sometimes -- more often than we still want to believe -- they flat-out lied to us. Lack of transparency was also a fatal flaw. When people can't see into the White House (and the people inside don't want to look out) bad things happen. As they surely did.
By contrast, the Obama White House was a model of transparency -- for two, maybe three days. It was a brief Golden Age, reaching its pinnacle on that glorious Day Two, when the president dramatically proclaimed that "the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served."
Once the White House press corps had endured a few briefings with consistently cagey Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, however, it quickly became clear that the relative guilelessness some of us had hoped for was nowhere to be found. Indeed, the internal workings of this White House have turned out to be almost as opaque as the last one.
And now comes the Obama White House's first really major credibility crisis. If you believe that the White House made major concessions to Big Pharma in a secret deal last month -- and the evidence for that is considerable -- then there's a name for the series of conflicting denials that Gibbs and others have issued in the last week. It's called lying.
How did it come to this? I think the answer is actually quite simple. Obama, and/or Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and/or Senior Adviser David Axelrod, and/or confidante Valerie Jarrett -- in other words, whatever combination of people are actually making the decisions over there -- are trying to do something impossible. They're trying to make everyone happy in the health-care debate.
But the chasm between the interests of the health industry and the American public is fundamentally unbridgeable. Without the kinds of cost controls that will make the health industry titans used to utterly obscene profits howl and snarl and fight back with everything they've got, universal, quality health care will continue to be unaffordable for this country and its people. Without some mechanism to check the impulses of the insurance industry -- like a public plan option -- and without the ability to force prescription drug prices down, Obama's plan just won't work.
So in trying to make the deal appear palatable to all parties, White House officials are reduced to either lying to one side, or the other, or both. And to reporters, when they start to ask pesky questions, as well.
I sympathize with the desire to make everyone happy. And I even sympathize with the desire, during intense negotiations, to play things close to the vest. But we're almost to the endgame -- and the loss of credibility Obama is risking here is potentially devastating to his agenda going forward. So it's time for Obama to draw some lines in the sand, and be honest about where they are.
A Souring Public
It's not surprising to me that Obama's poll numbers are going down. Part of that is most assuredly due to a GOP-fueled resurgence of the ugliest aspects of our national character -- nativism, racism, and know-nothingism -- within a population that it's hard to imagine were big Obama boosters in the first place. But I suspect the poll numbers are also reflecting a growing disillusionment among those who placed a lot of hope in an Obama presidency -- disillusionment that he's not standing up for what the people who voted for him stood up for in November.
And not just disillusionment, either. Anger, too. Professor Drew Westen, an astute analyst of the national psyche, blogged yesterday that "if Americans are starting to turn populist anger toward a White House that has doggedly refused to focus that anger where it belongs -- toward the banks, the mortgage brokers, the regulators who failed to regulate, the oil companies that have blocked energy reform for decades while racking up record profits, the health insurance companies that make their profits by denying coverage and discriminating against the ill, the pharmaceutical companies whose lobbyists have negotiated away the right to negotiate, and the Republicans who bankrupted the treasury during the eight long years of the Bush Presidency and crashed the economy on their way out -- I can understand why."
Now, maybe Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein is right, and it's not a lack of effort or will or clarity on Obama's part that's to blame for Washington's inability to achieve bold and effective health-care reform. Klein writes that when it comes to domestic initiatives, the modern presidency simply isn't very powerful -- at least not "[c]ompared with the structural power of Congress to block legislative change, the tendency of the public to fear legislative change and the capacity of industry to fight legislative change."
But having watched Congress go belly up time again during the last administration, it seems clear to me that the president can exert enormous pressure on the legislature if he can harness the power of an angry (or scared) electorate.
Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times column today that what's missing from Obama's repertoire right now "is a sense of passion and outrage -- passion for the goal of ensuring that every American gets the health care he or she needs, outrage at the lies and fear-mongering that are being used to block that goal."
So it's time for Obama to stand up, to fight -- and to speak the truth.
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