How different is Obama from Bush?

Back in early 2008, I liked to joke that in order to get my vote, a Presidential candidate would have to be a carbon-based bipedal life form who was not George W. Bush.

I voted for Barack Obama, but I am having a hard time seeing differences between his administration from what a third-term George W. Bush would have done?

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Not everything George W. Bush did was bad, and I don’t say that President Obama has to be the opposite of Bush in all respects.  But what I hoped was that he would bring an end to abuse of power and restore the rule of law.  I hoped that if he could not be another Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, he would at least be another Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter – decent moderate leaders who obeyed the law and the Constitution.  This was not to be.

George W. Bush got Congressional approval for war against Iraq under false pretenses.  Barack Obama is taking the United States into war with Libya without even asking for Congressional approval.  Under George W. Bush, the United States created an archipelago of secret torture centers; like the gulag archipelago described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, it is a secret world unto itself.  Barack Obama has continued these torture centers, while making a half-hearted gesture toward closing the one at Guantanamo Bay.

A number of Presidents, going back to John F. Kennedy, secretly plotted the assassination of foreign leaders; President Obama openly claims the right to sign death warrants for anyone he deems a terrorist.  What is a terrorist?  It is whoever Obama says is a terrorist.  Somebody in the Defense Department wrote a memo saying anti-war activity is low-level terrorism.

The Obama administration is prosecuting a whistleblower for revealing waste and mismanagement in the National Security Agency.  I have always been proud that the United States did not have any equivalent to Britain’s Official Secrets Act, a law dating from World War One which essentially gives the British government the power to prosecute anybody who reveals anything that the government wishes to keep secret.  Now the Obama administration interprets the U.S. Espionage Act, dating from the same period, as giving it the same authority.

My inclination is to think of former President George W. Bush as an ignorant bumbler, and President Barack Obama as well-meaning but ineffectual.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe both of them are smart, tough individuals who intended to do exactly what they did – create a powerful military-intelligence establishment that is above the law, involve the United States in open-ended wars, fend off any challenges to the power of Wall Street, and wipe much of the Bill of Rights off the blackboard.

Certainly President Obama has been tough on matters that are important to him – authorizing a troop buildup in Iraq, reappointing Ben Bernancke as chair of the Federal Reserve Board, appropriating funds for the second TARP bailout, renewal of the USA Patriot Act.  His supposed weakness has been on issues such as a public option for health insurance, a “card check” system to make it easier to organize labor unions, or “cramdown” authority to allow federal bankruptcy judges to restructure home mortgage debt.

But maybe he isn’t weak.  Maybe he just doesn’t care as much about medical patients, wage earners and homeowners as he does preserving financial and national security institutions.

You might say that Presidents Bush and Obama are like the proverbial bad cop and good cop.  The bad cop threatens you, the good cop expresses sympathy, but you are a fool if you think there is any serious difference between the two.

[Added 6/28/11]   Click on Obama Has Finally Become Dick Cheney for an article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

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