A plague on both their houses

Despite still being fairly busy I’ve made time to return to blogging, and the theme of this somewhat lengthy comeback is the perennial one of nearly all politicians and their parties being nigh on inseparably awful. Inspired by some recent Twitter and email conversations with people who (I’m guessing) might not particularly support Mitt Romney but fear Obama* and with people who (I’m also guessing) might not particularly support Obama but fear Mitt Romney** I thought I’d spend a little time doing some comparisons. And I think the fairest way to compare is to see how often they do things that, depending on your left vs right politics, are frightening or A Good Thing.

Starting with the easiest to find and one of the most recent things I got into on Twitter, use of the Presidential veto. I’m not going into threats to veto legislation as firstly that’s going to be something they all do, secondly it’s only politicking, and thirdly it’s not going to be consistently reported. Actual vetoes are a matter of record so we’ll go with that, and it is a fact that Obama is extremely reluctant to use his veto. At the time of writing he’s been President for 1,329 days and has vetoed only two pieces of legislation, and in neither case did Congress overrule it and pass the law anyway. That’s an average of one use every 21 and a half months. Quite a contrast, say some Obama supporters, with Bush’s 12 vetoes (about a third of which were overruled by Congress), and in fact excluding the half dozen or so US Presidents who never used their veto Obama is the least veto prone President they’ve ever had.

But Bush was in office for 2,922 days, making his veto record about once every eight months. Much more frequent, yes, but objectively it’s hard to accuse Bush of having his veto button on a hair trigger, especially when you consider that Clinton, Bush the Elder, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Truman – all the Presidents since Dubbie was born – all used the veto with much greater frequency. In fact, and again excluding those who never vetoed anything at all, Dubya is the second least veto prone President behind Barack H. Obama. The third place, in case anyone’s interested, goes to Warren Harding, who was in office ninety years ago, while the most frequent vetoers were Grover Cleveland, a Republican, and FDR, a Democrat, who vetoed legislation on average once a week and once every five days respectively.

The bottom line there is that there is no relationship between a President’s party affiliation and his use of veto powers, not even when you take into account an opposition controlled Congress. The most and least veto happy Presidents are/were Democrats while the runners up in both categories were Republicans. Romney has not been President so we can only go on his record as Governor of Massachusetts, in which he used his veto about 800 times, more than twice as frequently as even FDR, though this is likely to be due in large part to a heavily Democratic state legislature which, predictably enough, overruled nearly all the vetoes anyway. Did he veto all that legislation for good reasons, or just because it made him look like he was trying his best to stick to policies in the face of determined and overwhelming opposition from the legislature? Does it mean that as President Romney would be even quicker on the veto draw than FDR? Probably not, but who knows?

So what do these numbers tell us? Not a bloody thing. If you don’t look at exactly what got vetoed by whom you can’t say whether you agree or disagree with its use, and once you do look it becomes subjective anyway. About all we can say objectively is that apart from the reasonable expectation of more vetoes when Congress is controlled by the other party there’s really no reason to suppose a President of one party is any more or less likely to veto legislation than a President of the other party.

Okay, so how about Executive Orders, something else that all Presidents can use and something I brought up in a Twitter conversation. Bush’s were Executive Order numbers 13198 to 13486, which makes 288 over his term or about one every ten days. Clinton managed 363 – one every eight days – over the same period of time, while Bush the Elder managed 165 – one every nine days – in his single term and Reagan’s record (380) over his two comes out at one every eight days. So far so similar. Carter was a bit keener, with 319 in a single term working out to one every 4-5 days. As of now Obama has issued 134, or one every ten days, about the same as his predecessor. Again, hard to get a comparable record for Romney but I can’t see any reason for thinking he’d buck this trend, and again I don’t think the bare numbers say much anyway. An Executive Order supporting a pet project or fulfilling a campaign promise is one thing, albeit something that arguably is not overtly supported by at least the majority who didn’t vote for the President (when was the last time any President had a majority of those eligible to vote, not just those who actually did vote?) but once more this becomes subjective. And while it’s subjective of me to maintain that Obama’s use of this tool to authorise the extra-judicial killing of his own citizens by means of drone launched missile attacks inside the borders of nations with whom there’s no formal declaration of war is pretty fucking iffy, not to mention beyond even where Dubya took the War on A Vague Feeling of Unease, I’m sure I’m far from alone. To be fair he issued one to close down the camps in Guantanamo Bay as well, but it’s hard to credit him for something that still hasn’t  happened yet and when the US continues to add to the numbers held without trial by sticking them somewhere else.

Among Obama’s inaugural executive decrees was a pledge to close the Pentagon’s notorious military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Today it’s still open with 169 prisoners. The administration’s policy has been to send no new prisoners there, but instead to expand its prison at the U.S. airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan, where some 2,000 languish further from public attention and without a pretense of any rights.

The order’s fine print made clear the president was not challenging the indefinite detention of detainees without charges. Inmates “not approved for release or transfer,” the order said, “shall be evaluated to determine … whether it is feasible to prosecute” them.

Two months later the administration was filing its first court brief defending indefinite military detention for Guantánamo detainees under executive wartime powers. In May of that year Obama defended his prerogative to indefinitely hold those “who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger.” His administration has designated 46 prisoners for detention without trial.

And then there’s those drone strikes, on which, unusually for me, I’ll turn to CIF (links are CIF’s, emphasis is mine):

Yet, contrary to his campaign promises, Obama has left most of the foundations of Bush’s counterterrorism approach intact, including its presumption of executive privilege, its tolerance of indefinite detention in Guantánamo and elsewhere and its refusal to grant prisoners in America’s jails abroad habeas corpus rights. While the language of the “war on terror” has been dropped, the mindset of the Bush approach – that America is forever at war, constantly on the offensive to kill “bad guys” before they get to the United States – has crept into this administration and been translated into policy in new and dangerous ways.

This fact is clearly demonstrated in a recent New York Times article, which details how President Obama has become personally involved in an elaborate internal process by which his administration decides who will be the next victim of America’s drone strikes. The article itself – clearly written with the cooperation of the administration, as the writers had unprecedented access to three dozen counterterrorism advisers – was designed to showcase Obama as a warrior president, thoughtfully wrestling with the moral issues involved in drone strikes, but forceful enough to pull the trigger when needed.

What it instead revealed was that the president has routinized and normalized extrajudicial killing from the Oval Office, taking advantage of America’s temporary advantage in drone technology to wage a series of shadow wars in Afghanistan, PakistanYemen, and Somalia. Without the scrutiny of the legislature and the courts, and outside the public eye, Obama is authorizing murder on a weekly basis, with a discussion of the guilt or innocence of candidates for the “kill list” being resolved in secret on “Terror Tuesday” teleconferences with administration officials and intelligence officials.

The creation of this “kill list” – as well as the dramatic escalation in drone strikes, which have now killed at least 2,400 people in Pakistan alone, since 2004 – represents a betrayal of President Obama’s promise to make counterterrorism policies consistent with the US constitution. As Charles Pierce has noted, there is nothing in the constitution that allows the president to wage a private war on individuals outside the authorization of Congress.

[…]

Together with the bland assertion that the US has the right to self-defense against al-Qaida under international law, these legal arguments have enabled the president to expand drone operations against terrorist organizations to Yemen and Somalia, as well as to escalate the campaign against militant networks in Pakistan. To date, Obama has launched 278 drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. The use of drone strikes is now so commonplace that some critics have begun to wonder if the administration has adopted a “kill, not capture” policy, forsaking the intelligence gains of capturing suspects for an approach that leaves no one alive to pose a threat.

This vast, expansive interpretation of executive power to enable drone wars conducted in secret around the globe has also set dangerous precedent, which the administration has not realized or acknowledged. Once Obama leaves office, there is nothing stopping the next president from launching his own drone strikes, perhaps against a different and more controversial array of targets. The infrastructure and processes of vetting the “kill list” will remain in place for the next president, who may be less mindful of moral and legal implications of this action than Obama supposedly is (I’m far from convinced Obama is all that mindful – AE).

[…]

Also in contravention of his campaign promises, the Obama administration has worked to expand its power of the executive and to resist oversight from the other branches of government. While candidate Obama insisted that even terrorist suspects deserved their due process rights and a chance to defend themselves in some kind of a court, his administration has now concluded that a review of the evidence by the executive branch itself – even merely a hasty discussion during one of the “Terror Tuesdays” – is equivalent to granting a terrorist suspect due process rights. With little fanfare, it has also concluded that American citizens may now be killed abroad without access to a “judicial process”.

Oh, and those American citizens don’t even need to be of voting age. Not even a year ago one US citizen, Abdul Rahman al Awlaki, died on the receiving end of a drone launched missile at the age of sixteen years, though the administration initially suggested he was around twenty and therefore of fighting age as if being older and able was the same thing as being found guilty of an actual terrorist offence by a court and jury. Turns out that one birth certificate, issued in Colorado, did exist to trouble the Obama administration. Might al Awlaki have been involved even at that young age, especially as his dad and uncle were – or at least were also killed by drone strikes, which is as much due process as Abdul got? Possibly, who knows? The point is that Saint Obama of Democrats has been at least as keen to use the same tools, legal and technological, to blow up brown kids as teh ebil demon Bush of GOP. In fact so keen has Obama been on drone strikes that he’d authorised more of them by the time he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize less than a year into his presidency than Bush did in his whole eight years in the White House.

Nor is it just extra judicial killing via drone strikes. Obama has used Executive Orders to impose sanctions, “block” property and freeze assets, just as Bush did before him. Having been only a state Governor it’s hard to compare Romney but again I struggle to see any reason to expect him to be noticeably different.

Okay, so what about money and the economy? Republicans in general and Bush in particular are blamed by supporters of Obama and the Democrats for creating the GFC because it’s generally assumed that Republicans are the same thing as free market capitalists, and it’s strongly implied that Romney would be more of the same. Although I don’t doubt that Romney would be broadly similar the rest is bullshit for two reasons. Firstly, Republicans like Bush and Romney, big government Republicans, are no more capitalists than Obama is. Call them corporatists if you like and I’d be inclined to agree. Call them crony capitalists and I’d certainly be nodding. But free market capitalists? Let me put it this way, would a real free market capitalist bail out corporations who’ve fucked up so badly that they’ll go to the wall without state help? Would a real free market capitalist reward failure with money either taken by force from taxpayers or borrowed in their name without asking them?

Secondly, what free market are we even talking about here? The banking and finance industry? The one regulated by the SEC, FSA, ASIC and so on and strongly influenced if not controlled both by governments (both Dems and GOP in the US and both left and right of centre elsewhere) and by their various central banks plus a couple of supranationals? Free market my left ball. Amidst all that regulation and oversight where’s the free bit? It’s a myth – there is no free market. Freeish is not free, and operating under the strong, and as it turned out 100% correct, assumption that there’s a government provided taxpayer funded safety net is certainly not even remotely free for the simple reason that freedom necessarily includes the freedom to fail. Risk assessment changes not just with the risk itself but with the consequences of things going wrong, and when governments allowed corporations (it’s not just banks that have been bailed out or allowed to run for many years on subsidies) to believe they were protected from failure it was inevitable that they’d view risks differently and make products without customers or, as in the case of the banks, lend money to people who could never repay it. Absent the government protection there might be a few less options to choose from when buying a car due to unpopular models being dropped, but there probably wouldn’t have been as many subprime mortgages either. Blaming the free market for the GFC is like blaming Santa Claus for not getting the pressies you wanted at Christmas or complaining that the tooth fairy is getting stingy.

That didn’t happen on Bush’s watch or on Obama’s, yet they’ve played their part in the crisis all the same. There’s no doubt that Bush spent a hell of a lot of money, firstly on the War on Tourism*** and then on those bailouts. But then 2009 came and he left, and Barack Obama arrived promising change… and four years later he’s saying there’ll be some, honest, if America just sticks with him. Seriously? I know Congress hasn’t always been on his side but the last four years have been largely characterised by carrying on where Bush left off: spending a hell of a lot of money on war and bailouts for corporate fuck ups.

It’s harder to argue that the president hasn’t been a radical departure from previous presidents with respect to spending, debt, and deficits, but here goes. As a starting point, let’s have a look at the chart below, which shows federal outlays as a percentage of GDP.

The first year of the Obama presidency, 2009, is the largest year in decades, with federal outlays totaling a whopping 25.2 percent of GDP. Since then, federal outlays relative to GDP have fallen, but they are still incredibly large. In fact, you have to go back to 1946 to find a year when federal outlays were as large as they have been every year of the Obama presidency.

Having said that, it is impossible to look at the chart and not to see a large ramp up in outlays under George W. Bush — the president who reversed the direction of federal outlays, which had been falling. Indeed, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that much of the responsibility for 2009’s 25.2 percent rests with President Bush, and not with President Obama; in January 2009, before President Obama took office, the CBO released its forecast that fiscal year 2009would see outlays of 24.9 percent of GDP based on pre-Obama policies.

Don’t get me wrong: President Obama bears responsibility for federal outlays being larger for each year of his presidency than at any time since 1946. If George W. Bush bears a lot of responsibility for FY2009, then Mr. Obama bears even more responsibility for the three years that followed — responsibility for both the very high spending and the questionable composition of the spending.

So is Mr. Obama’s performance on spending quite bad? Yes. But a difference in kind rather than in degree? Over his four fiscal years as president the average outlays-to-GDP ratio is 24.4 percent. During the Reagan years the average was 22.4 percent. Given the Great Recession, this two percentage point difference, though deceivingly very large, isn’t enough to claim that President Obama represents a radical departure from post-war presidents with respect to spending.

What about the deficit? Here’s the picture.

This chart is startling. It shows that President Obama walked into a massive budget deficit and he made the situation worse. Prior to President Obama’s inauguration, and in the absence of any of his policies, the CBO estimated that the FY2009 budget deficit would be an incredible 8.3 percent of GDP. George W. Bush again bears a lot of the responsibility, and as with spending, President Obama turned bad into worse.

Each of Mr. Obama’s annual deficits has been larger than any since the 1940s. Deficits aggregate into debt, and as I have previously written it is reasonable to think of President Obama and George W. Bush as each being responsible for roughly one-third of the debt — with all presidents from George Washington through Bill Clinton responsible for the remaining third. (In the absence of George W. Bush, it would of course be much harder, perhaps impossible, to argue that President Obama has not been a radical departure from previous presidents on debt.)

 

Get that? Obama’s administration is responsible for about a third of America’s debt, and Bush’s for about another third. But Bush isn’t the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney is. And Mitt Romney delivered on his promise to get the deficit under control in Massachusetts, and claims he did so without raising taxes. Whether you consider a government imposed fee a tax or not probably determines whether you entirely buy his claim, as does your view on Romneycare, the Massachusetts health insurance scheme that has been likened to and even described as a predecessor to Obamacare, and whether federal money Massachusetts received (this is during the Bush era, remember) to help with this means that Romney is not the fiscal conservative some would like to believe. On top of that Romney has said little to nothing about rolling back the size of America’s federal government apparatus and come out in favour of things that seem likely to maintain if not increase it. PATRIOT Act? Yeah, he’s a fan. Bailouts? Well, he may have opposed Obama’s but he supported Bush’s so he’s clearly alongside the principle of rewarding failure with money taken from taxpayers. War and foreign policies? According to Wikipedia he “has stated that Russia is America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, and that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability should be America’s ‘highest national security priority’. He plans to label China a currency manipulator and take associated counteractions unless that country changes its trade practices. He has supported the War in Afghanistan Romney supports thePatriot Act, existence of the the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial, and use of enhanced interrogation techniques for interrogation of suspected terrorists.” As far as I can tell he, like Bush and Obama – and Clinton and Bush the Elder and Reagan etc – would also continue America’s ludicrously expensive and pointless War on Drugs Which Aren’t Ciggies Or Booze Because America Still Hasn’t Got Over The Last Time It Tried That. As a devout Mormon he may even want to extend it, but again with Obama attacking medicinal marijuana usage it’d stil be a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Just like it was 1,329 days ago.

All of which I’d call change I can believe in – namely none whatsoever. America decides, as does Australia and the UK next year and the year after, but we need to wake up to what we’re really deciding. If all we’re voting for is who gets to be warden of our multi-million square mile prison camps then what’s the fucking point? Bush or Obama, Obama or Romney, Gillard or Abbott, Cameron or Miliband… all will change details, yes, but it’s clear that all will maintain vastly more just as it is now. One or other of them may do a slightly better job at maintaining the gilding on the bars but none of them wants to, probably can’t even conceive of, doing away with the cage.

Well, almost none.

So am I saying Americans should vote for Johnson? No, it’s their choice to make, but I will say that at this admittedly long distance it really does look to me that voting for Obama because you fear Romney or voting for Romney because you don’t like what Obama’s done really isn’t going to change a great deal. No criticism of America intended as both the country of my birth and the one in which I’ve made my home suffer from the same problem. Christ, on some issues you can’t get a fucking cigarette paper between them. My personal opinions may be slightly closer to Ron Paul’s than Gary Johnson’s, but he’s not on a ticket and as I have no say in America’s elections this is all academic anyway.

But crazy ideas like politicians not bankrupting their countries and not accumulating debt for taxpayers not yet even born and fighting unnecessary wars and letting us all live the one life that each of us get as free individuals… well, I’d vote for Australia’s or Britain’s Gary Johnson in a picosecond. And I can’t help but feel the best chance of there being an Aussie or British Gary Johnson to vote for is if a fair number of American voters decide to reject the usual Republocrat/Demlican suspects this November. I don’t imagine he’ll actually win, but at this stage getting noticed and getting on the ballot has been enough an achievement that just taking a decent number of votes off the other two would be a small victory.

Good luck @GovGaryJohnson, and if you don’t win is there any chance you could move here and not win as well. Because at least you’re getting the idea of real change into people’s heads.

* He’s a muslim/commie/wasn’t born in the US/pot smoking hippy/Chicago lawyer/socialist healthcare advocate/pinko/freedom hater/terrorist sympathiser/Zionist – circle all those you personally believe in and which you think make him unfit to be President.

** He’s a mormon like Bill Paxton in Big Love/rich guy’s friend/socialist healthcare advocate/as bad as Bush because they’re both from the same party, you know, so despite  differences in the way Romney ran his state as Governor he’d run the country the same way Dubya did/terrorist sympathising Zionist… I’m going to stop taking the piss out of Obama and Romney’s respective detractors now. You get the picture – as far as I know nearly all the guff I’ve written in both these footnotes is complete bollocks and what isn’t is irrelevant, but all of it or stuff very much like it has been said either online or in the MSM. What amuses me is how some of the things they’ve been criticised for are actually things they have in common.

*** Not a typo: fly through Los Angeles airport and you’ll see what I mean – seriously, America, I’d love to visit again and spend money seeing various bits of your country but last time there the TSA made me feel about as welcome as a tumescent priest in a boy’s dormitory.

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Posted on September 9, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “Turns out that one birth certificate, issued in Colorado, did exist to trouble the Obama administration. “

    Obama and birth certificates, eh? Not a match made in heaven… 😉

  2. Exile, excellent analysis! Particularly coming from a “British ex-pat living in Australia” ! LOL! You probably know more about the details of our politics than half the people here in the US who’ll be voting in November!

    – MJM

    • When America gets its Willy out we all get the clap 😀 More seriously I think about Franklin’s remark that they’d created “a Republic, if you can keep it.” I think Americans were unsuccessful in keeping it but I hope they manage to get it back.

  3. Nice to have you back Angry. It looks like we are both backing the same sane candidate.

  4. Wow – you certainly made up for lost time.

    All of which I’d call change I can believe in – namely none whatsoever. America decides, as does Australia and the UK next year and the year after, but we need to wake up to what we’re really deciding. If all we’re voting for is who gets to be warden of our multi-million square mile prison camps then what’s the fucking point?

    What’s the point indeed. We need a new paradigm.

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