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In the New Republic, William Galston compares Barack Obama’s “too-long wish list” with FDR’s way of doing things and comes up with a bleak conclusion:

The key analogy between today and 1933 is the centrality of the financial crisis, which makes it hard to understand why the administration has not yet moved as decisively to fix it as FDR did on the first day of his presidency. This issue could not have come as a surprise to Obama and his chief financial advisors. Their failure thus far to restore financial confidence raises two equally depressing possibilities: Either they do not know what to do, or they do not believe they can muster the political support to do what they know needs to be done.

There’s one crucial difference, though. Obama simply has more to do. Roosevelt may have inherited a depression, but he didn’t inherit two wars. The country’s reputation wasn’t in tatters, nor had civil liberties been under attack for eight years. FDR didn’t have to fix a justice department that had been reduced to churning out CYA memos for the president; or an intelligence agency that had been greenlighted to torture its detainees. Global warming wasn’t an issue, so there was no reason to re-examine misguided policies. Stem cell research? Abortion? Forget about it. Oh, and I don’t think there was anyone clamouring for a truth commission, either.

I’m not saying Obama shouldn’t get his priorities straight. In fact, I share Galston’s alarm. But it’s not simply a case of an inept administration fumbling in the dark. We just want so much more.

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It will be hard for George W. Bush — should he care about such things — to find anything positive in C-Span’s just released second Presidential Leadership Survey. In short, Bush ranks as number 36 among the 42 U.S. presidents surveyed, with just five even worse presidents behind him. In international relations, he’s second to last, just a fraction ahead of William Henry Harrison.

On the other hand, Bush can congratulate himself for apparently emerging as one of the winners from Tom Ricks’s new Iraq book The Gamble, according to Abu Muqawama, who has been ill and has managed to finish the opus.

Since Ricks is even more pessimistic about Iraq than I am, I find this bit of news a little surprising. But we’ll see — I’m hoping to get my own copy any day now.

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I realise these are early days, and we don’t yet have all the information, but this business of the Obama administration invoking the state-secrets privilege is not good.

A guy is kidnapped, tortured and detained for years without charge, and when he tries to take his case to court, he is promptly told to go fuck himself by a representative of the most liberal Justice Department the country has seen in decades.

Not surprisingly, Greenwald and Horton are up in arms, as is Senator Russ Feingold, who has asked for a classified briefing so that he can “understand the reasons for this decision.”

This is all well and good, but just so we won’t forget what’s really at stake — what actually resulted from the extraordinary rendition that Obama now feels is a state secret –, here’s how Binyam Mohamed described to his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith what was done to him by Moroccan interrogators in August 2002, according to the book Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey:

‘Strip him,’ shouted Marwan. They cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor’s scalpel. I was naked. I tried to put on a brave face. But maybe I was going to be raped. Maybe they’d electrocute me, maybe castrate me. They took the scalpel to my right chest. It was only a small cut, maybe an inch. At first I just screamed… I was just shocked, I wasn’t expecting… Then they cut my left chest. This time I didn’t want to scream because I knew it was coming.

Marwan got agitated at this. ‘Just go ahead with the plan,’ he said.

One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming. I remember Marwan seemed to smoke half a cigarette, throw it down, and start another. They must have done this 20 to 30 times, in maybe two hours. There was blood all over.

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First, there was the ruckus about a former Raytheon lobbyist being tapped for the number 2 post at the Pentagon. Now we’re all hot under the collar about an ex-Dyncorp executive NOT being named ambassador to — check this out — Baghdad.

Which is it, guys? We can’t lambast Obama both for not following his own guidelines and for following them — or can we?

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Obama: Hope Wanes

Like millions of others around the world, I was elated when Barack Obama beat John McCain in last November’s presidential election. I had been an early fan of McCain’s, but by election day I had come to regard him as a volatile and cantankerous old bastard. By contrast, Obama seemed a genuine centrist liberal who would tackle problems with a healthy dose of realism.

Not surprisingly, his cabinet picks were sensible, and the transition was handled with consummate professionalism. I wasn’t all that excited about his inauguration speech, but then I’ve never been a great admirer of his oratory (he ought to lay off the metaphor). I liked the reference to “non-believers”, though; and his offer of friendship to the “Muslim world”, even if I cringed at the term, was admirable.

His first acts as president were stunning. The rapid-fire executive orders, the humble journey to Capitol Hill, the interview with al-Arabiya — you might disagree with the substance, but the symbolism was breathtaking.

And that was only his first week.

But then came the second week. And the third. And suddenly things were looking a lot less dandy.

First, there was Geithner. Then Daschle. Then Killefer. At the same time, the president’s tough new ethics guidelines were being skirted by… the president himself. And for what? Because he “needed” some guy. Sandy Levinson at Balkinization puts it well:

One of Ike’s most pathetic moments, many decades ago, was his resistance to firing Sherman Adams, of vicuna coat fame (younger readers can Google the episode) because, Ike said, ‘I need him.’ I am, as everyone knows, a very, very strong and elated supporter of our new President, but I would be dismayed to think that he ‘needs’ any given individual to the degree that he will overlook behavior that ought to set off alarms. And, to be clear, the alarm is not that Daschle of Geithner will embezzle federal funds; I’m sure that is not the case. Rather, the alarm is precisely that they further serve to reinforce the view of many in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans, that the elites who inhabit our dominant institutions, whether public or private, simply feel entitled to play by a different set of rules.

And that’s not all.

As someone who pays close attention to America’s exploits abroad, I’ve been perturbed by the apparent lack of strategy for forward movement. I haven’t seen any indication that Obama will handle Iraq’s brewing troubles any better than his predecessor. In Afghanistan, the signals have been mixed at best. Predator strikes in Pakistan continue; administration officials talk tough about expanding the war; and a Mandarin-speaking general is named ambassador to a country where Dari-speaking civilians have generally fared better.

What does all this amount to? I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t get it. I really hope so, because the other possibility, as Stephen Walt writes, is just too terrifying:

Looking over the administration’s main appointees, it’s hard to see the person (or people) who are going to provide the sort of clarifying, conceptual architecture that will help President Obama sort out the important from the trivial, and then help him figure out how to approach them in an integrated way. Whatever her other gifts may be, Secretary of State Clinton has never articulated a clear strategic vision of her own. Her chief aides are traditional liberal internationalists who are good at devising laundry lists of problems to be solved but less inclined to set priorities or to devise integrated strategies for achieving them.

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I’m reading Obama’s Executive Order on presidential records and wondering whether this means that the previous administration’s records — including Cheney’s — can be made public even if Bush claims executive privilege:

Sec. 4.  Claim of Executive Privilege by Former President.

(a)  Upon receipt of a claim of executive privilege by a living former President, the Archivist shall consult with the Attorney General (through the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel), the Counsel to the President, and such other executive agencies as the Archivist deems appropriate concerning the Archivist’s determination as to whether to honor the former President’s claim of privilege or instead to disclose the Presidential records notwithstanding the claim of privilege.  Any determination under section 3 of this order that executive privilege shall not be invoked by the incumbent President shall not prejudice the Archivist’s determination with respect to the former President’s claim of privilege.

(b)  In making the determination referred to in subsection (a) of this section, the Archivist shall abide by any instructions given him by the incumbent President or his designee unless otherwise directed by a final court order.  The Archivist shall notify the incumbent and former Presidents of his determination at least 30 days prior to disclosure of the Presidential records, unless a shorter time period is required in the circumstances set forth in section 1270.44 of the NARA regulations.  Copies of the notice for the incumbent President shall be delivered to the President (through the Counsel to the President) and the Attorney General (through the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel).  The copy of the notice for the former President shall be delivered to the former President or his designated representative.

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