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Wills on Obama

Garry Wills says Obama's legacy can be summarized in one word: Afghanistan.This seems to me flat-out wrong. Health care? Financial reform? The stimulus and edging away (we hope) from an economic meltdown?But then again no one in 1965 thought the Johnson administration's primary legacy would be Vietnam.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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Wills is premature at best

Obama hasn't been president long enough to have a "legacy".This is no more than the eternal search for the mud that sticks.

I agree that it's too early. But my early money is on deficits.

Couldn't one make the case that the primary legacy of the Johnson administration was the Civil Rights Law?

And Medicare! After all, Vietnam went on through the Nixon Admin.

John -- "Health care reform" delivered forty million new customers to our corrupt and bloated sickness and payment system. (We'll be revisiting it again in a decade, trust me.) "Financial reform" did little or nothing to address the systemic problems of finance capital. (And besides, this isn't a "financial crisis" anyway -- it's a systemic crisis. The financialization of U. S. capitalism and the explosion of debt over the last forty years can be traced in large measure to stagnant real wages and sluggish productivity growth. Will Obama address all of that? No way. He'd have to break with the assumptions of his cabinet and actually support measures such as the Employee Free Choice Act.) The stimulus wasn't nearly large enough, and its insufficiency is just one of the reasons why a prolonged recession is inexorable. So where exactly is Wills wrong about Afghanistan? Wills fundamental error -- like that of other liberals -- was in thinking (or rather believing without evidence) that Obama represented some refreshing modesty and realism in U. S. foreign policy. Just as he's fundamentally a meritocratic neo-liberal who's anything but a socialist, Obama has never deviated from the thinking of the Beltway imperialists. Anyone who bothered to listen to Obama's speeches in 2008, let alone peruse some of his Senate remarks, written statements, and interviews, knew that on foreign policy we were getting continuity, not Change You Can Believe In. In fact, on Afghanistan and Guantanamo, Obama is now officially worse than Bush. What's worse, he defended his escalation of the war in Afghanistan with atrocious history: "we have never sought domination," etc. I will say one thing for him -- at least he's not a ghoul like Madeleine Albright, observing that the deaths of thousands of Iraqis was a price worth paying. Always an easy thing to say when the currency is other people's lives.Like LBJ, Obama will squander any opportunities he may have had for domestic social change by continuing to fight a losing war.

Joe -- I think the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act do qualify as at the core of Johnson's legacy, and most historians think neither act would have occurred, at least as rapidly as they did, without Johnson as President. But Vietnam destroyed his presidency. Peggy -- but Johnson was the decisive figure in escalating the war. Gene -- doesn't 40 million seem an awfully impressive figure, certainly compared to *any* social welfare legislation since the mid-1960s? I agree that Obama is fundamentally a meritocratic liberal and not a socialist by any stretch of the imagination. We can leave that silliness -- i.e. Obama is a socialist -- to Newt Gingrich et al. But worse than Bush on civil liberties issues? I have a friend who works in the State Department on some of these issues and he describes the change in presidential atmosphere as 180 degrees.

John -- 40 million is an "awfully impressive figure," but then I notice that you don't address what I said about our sickness and payment system. Obama's "health care reform" is an example of the corporatist state: the government mandates participation in a corporate-structured sector. Rather than go the single-payer route -- which isn't socialist, just to head off any objections -- he gave insurance and pharmaceutical companies a great big present. (In fact, contrary to his claims, we now know that he bargained away even the lame "public option" early on in the legislative process.) As for Guantanamo (as opposed to "civil liberties" -- don't change the subject, John) he has yet to keep his promise to close it down, and it's unlikely that he ever will, given his sensitivity to pressure from Republicans and centrist Democrats (of which he's one). He's also expanded the Bush Administration's program of warrantless spying by the NSA on electronic communications. Oh, and add to that his assertion that he has the right to order the summary assassination of American citizens deemed "enemy combatants," something even Dubya never claimed, to my memory.

Well;1 - Healthcare reform is yet to be seen; it is not a done deal, and regardless of what some claim, federal funding of abortions is still an issue outstanding.2 - Financial reform is one thing President Obama has accomplished, and a good thing at that.3 - Stimulus and economic recovery is not so sure. The value of the stimulus spending is as yet unproved, and the babbling about the "number of jobs saved or created" simply does not pass the giggle test.4 - Afghanistan does loom large, and Democrats usually do not like to deal in (and usually are not good at) foreign affairs.I hope it works out for the best.

The President does have an opportunity with the issue of illegal immigrants; the indocumentados.If he manages an amnesty, that alone would help the economy in that it would save federal dollars by not having agents chasing Mexicans all over the place, those now legal workers would begin paying thier tax, and fear-stokers could quit bawling about Mexicans over-running the country.

I agree with those who say 18 months is too soon to be drawing conclusions about this (or any) president's legacy.In keeping with that, I think that if Obama, beginning in July 2011, significantly draws down or ends the US military presence in Afghanistan, then the Afghanistan War will not dominate his presidency. (Granted, that's a pretty big "if".)

Jim Pauwels,I regularly enjoy your fair and thoughtful comments on this site. That makes your "deficits" jab really hard to take. Please consider the following from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities arguing that Obama's policies do not even come close to being the number one cause of our deficits; rather, it is Bush era tax cuts.

John: Yes, Vietnam destroyed Johnson's presidency, but the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights are his enduring legacy.

The albatross for Obama is and will continue to be the economy, a subset of which is the unemployment stats. Unless he can truly do something miraculous, he'll be a one-term president and the Party of No will be back with a vengeance in the House, the Senate, the POTUS and - even worse - the SCOTUS. The last part will be (as Bush has proven already) the cancer that keeps on giving.

Ken:Obama's lawsuit against Arizona, along with his dithering and obfuscation concerning border security, will likely play a very large role in November 2010 and 2012. Right or wrong, the American people have clearly indicated that they approve of Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law and vigorously oppose any amnesty scheme. The recently revealed memo that Obama's Homeland Security folks wrote, musing about nhow to sneak in amnesty by administrative skullduggery (see today's Huffington Post: 'Smoking Gun Amnesty Memo' Prompts GOP To Demand Hearings) is infuriating lots of people who might have wanred to vote for him. Bottom line: If Obama pushes through amnesty (which I define as any scheme that will grant instant legal staus to illegal immigrants) He's a goner.

Bob - Part of the immigration problem is that instead of trying to resolve it, both Democrat and Republican politicians keep playing politics with it; bothe rparties simply see it as a way to gain votes.If we granted amnesty to illegal immigrants (sending the criminal element back to Mexico of course) and simply gave them permanent-residence status, they could not vote, and would need to renew their PR status every ten years.We could bring some National Guard troops home from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and put them on the border, that should slow the flow of Mexicans into the USA. I do not like the idea of military troops on the border but it seems troops on the border would please many Americans. I do not trust the government enough to be comfortable with a military border; what if one fine day things were going poorly here and an unscrupulous American president could tell the troops to simply turn around and keep Americans from leaving - but who knows. In any case the permanent resident solution would never do of course, because it would not help either party get votes; few Mexican indocumentados would bother pursuing citizenship and permanent residence people cannot vote.

Joe - you'll get no argument from me about President Bush's fiscal irresponsibility. It's one of the main reasons that conservatives were so lackluster in '06 and '08.Wikipedia's article on the Federal deficit is actually pretty good, and chock-full of charts. Here's an excerpt that encapsulates my concern:Debt relative to gross domestic product (GDP)Main article: United States public debt GDP is a measure of the total size and output of the economy. One measure of the debt burden is its size relative to GDP. In fiscal 2007, U.S. public debt was approximately $5 trillion (36.8 percent of GDP) and total debt was $9 trillion (65.5 percent of GDP.)[61] Public debt represents money owed to those holding government securities such as Treasury bills and bonds. Total debt includes intra-governmental debt, which includes amounts owed to the Social Security Trust Funds (about $2.2 trillion in FY 2007)[62] and Civil Service Retirement Funds. By August 2008, the total debt was $9.6 trillion.[63]Based on the 2010 U.S. budget, total national debt will nearly double in dollar terms between 2008 and 2015 and will grow to nearly 100% of GDP, versus a level of approximately 80% in early 2009.[64] Multiple government sources including the current and previous presidents, the GAO, Treasury Department, and CBO have said the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal path.[65]

Here's my lomg range guess (which I think is the best any of us can offer here): Obama and Iran.

Ms. S. --That is chilling. How seriously do you take this group? The group of signers looks impressive.

Eugene wrote:Oh, and add to that his assertion that he has the right to order the summary assassination of American citizens deemed enemy combatants, something even Dubya never claimed, to my memory.Yeah, we Christians are lucky that St. Paul lived in the 1st century Roman Empire, where citizenship guaranteed a trial, as opposed to the 21st century US, where being labeled a dangerous religious fanatic in a distant province gets you (and anyone in your house with you) murdered on the spot.If Paul had lived under Obama instead of Nero, he wouldn't have had a chance to write his letters. Lucky us!

Ann Olivier...The signers of this letter to Obama are retired intelligence/defense anaylsts. As they say, they sent an equivalent letter to the Bush Administration after Powell testified at the UN protesting the accuracy of his testimony. I assume that they have connections to their former friends and fellow employees and are reacting to what seems like an effort to prod or coerce the U.S. into supporting or cooperating with an Israeli attack on Iran. During the late spring and most of the summer there have been rumors (many reported in UK newspapers) of an Israeli attack on Iran, sometimes with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. But they are just rumors, or so I conclude.I am a daily reader of Pat Lang's blog where I saw this letter cited. We have had Col. Lang (former DIA) at a couple of forums at Fordham mostly on Iraq. He is a smart and skeptical military man expert on the Middle East and an Arab speaker. His blog is I have cited him from time to time here at dotCommonweal. If the scenario the letter sketches begins to take place, I think every American should take peacefully to the streets and protest any U.S. involvement in such an attack.

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