Obama made a major speech at the National Defense University last Thursday, in which he stated that the United States cannot continue waging an endless global war on terror, and called on Congress to allow Guantanamo to be closed. “A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” he said.
Although the speech called for a return to American values and the rule of law, appearing to make concessions to liberal critics, Obama’s rhetoric repeated Bush’s claim of a just war of self-defense, and appeared to broaden the scope of drone strikes. It contained no commitment to any practical limits on executive power to target individuals for extra-judicial killing.
Glenn Greenwald explains in detail how the purpose of the speech “was to comfort progressives who are growing progressively more uncomfortable with his extreme secrecy, wars on press freedom, seemingly endless militarism and the like … to see Barack Obama as they have always wanted to see him, his policies notwithstanding: as a deeply thoughtful, moral, complex leader who is doing his level best, despite often insurmountable obstacles …”
Obama wants to retain the support of the liberal left while continuing the militarization of the state he inherited from Bush. Essentially, he was arguing for the rationalization of the legacy of Bush’s war on terror, by closing Guantanamo and bringing the detainees into the US justice system.
Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes commented: “It was an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility. To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.”
Whatever his original intentions, he has accepted and articulated the ideology of the security state. Washington Post correspondent Greg Sargent noted that “Obama defined his own role — that of commander in chief — as one that requires him to ultimately compromise core values and principles if he deems it necessary to maintain security. … ‘These decisions must be made, given my responsibility to protect the American people,’ he said — implicitly prioritizing security in the end above all as necessary to his role.”
Significantly, Obama was repeatedly challenged from the floor by CodePink activist Medea Benjamin, who called on him to use his presidential power to close Guantanamo immediately. She was eventually removed by security personnel while shouting several further questions, including: “Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners.” Clearly discomfited, Obama was applauded by a section of the audience when he said: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to” (although he did nothing to prevent her being removed).
Benjamin told Democracy Now: “What you didn’t see [on the event’s video] is what was happening behind the scenes, of the Secret Service, the FBI, the people from the base coming over and saying, ‘You must come with us immediately, or you’ll be under arrest,’ and trying to grab me. And I was saying, ‘Don’t touch me. I’ll scream. You don’t want to make a scene in front of the president. You will regret this if you do it.’ And they were really confused about what to do.”
Their confusion reflected Obama’s reaction to being publicly challenged from the liberal left. Increasingly, his failure to use his presidential power on behalf of the Democratic party’s traditional constituency is coming under fire from his frustrated supporters and he risks more vocal public opposition from the constituency that got him elected.
In the legislative branch, the government is hamstrung by the tea-party dominated Congress. But that doesn’t stop Obama from exercising executive privilege in favor of military control of global resources and enforcing government secrecy by prosecuting whistle-blowers and hackers. He uses the powers of his office to shield corporations and law enforcement, but appears paralyzed when it comes to altering the trajectory of the security state or assisting the struggles of the 99 percent.
The Washington Post recently pointed out: “Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars. But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates … Obama has forced changes in state-level education policy in a way past presidents have not. His Race to the Top program awarded billions of dollars in federal grants to select states that agreed to seek reforms based on administration standards.”
The marked contrast between Obama’s rhetoric and what he is prepared to use executive power for is straining his supporters’ credibility. After Thursday’s speech, Juan Cole commented: “He will continue to target journalists for intrusive surveillance until, he said, Congress passes a shield law (why can’t he just issue an executive order that journalists are not to be targeted)? … Obama could unilaterally put enormous pressure on Israel to change its policy of stealing Palestinian land and resources simply by declining to use his veto at the UN …”
Now the movement of the low-waged for a $15 minimum wage and an end to wage theft has intensified and is also making demands on the president they elected. Hundreds of non-union workers employed at the Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station in Washington, DC, went on strike Tuesday to draw attention to their low pay, demanding that Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus had earlier pledged support for their campaign, after hearing that the federal government indirectly employs nearly 2 million “low-wage” workers, defined as those making less than $12 an hour or $24,000 a year. A study by the labor-funded think tank Demos concluded that the federal government employs more low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonalds combined.
A minimum wage is set by the Service Contract Act for workers employed by government contractors in certain low-wage positions, such as janitors, food service workers and security guards. But those who work in concession spaces leased in federal buildings or museums are not covered. At the hearing, advocates called on President Obama to issue an executive order raising the act’s minimums and expanding it to cover more workers.
However, In These Times reports DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton told workers at the hearing that Obama could change the system immediately by adjusting the point system used to award federal contracts, giving extra points to companies that pay better wages.
A convergence of Obama’s liberal critics and the movement of the low-waged, calling on him to honor his political debts, signifies that he cannot for long maintain his balancing act between the plutocracy for whom he acts and his social support. That means it will be harder for him to put a liberal face on the cuts in entitlements he proposes in order to strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans, creating a political space for concerted opposition to the plan from within the Democratic party itself; this in turn will legitimize other movements of resistance.