Obama Isn't FDR Yet -- But He Might Still Do It

To the people who shrug and say that politicians are all the same, answer with four words: torture and stem cells.
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Nobody feels like hanging out tinsel to mark Barack Obama's first one hundred days - least of all the President himself. After the cheering crowds in Grant Park and the choked-up crowds on Inauguration Day went home, he has been left with a depression, a slew of wars, and an unraveling climate. Mario Cuomo, the former mayor of New York, said politicians "campaign in poetry, but govern in prose" - and Obama has had to hit the prose hard. So now George W. Bush has been dispatched to torture only the English language, has "change come to America", as Obama promised?

To the people who shrug and say they're all the same, answer with four words: torture and stem cells. Under Obama, the United States government no longer tortures. Its Jack Bauers have been sent back to base. Instead, it publishes the evidence of the moral Chernobyl that occurred in the soon-to-shutter Guantanamo Bay. There is a battle within the Obama administration - and Obama's soul, I suspect - about whether to prosecute the Republican politicians responsible. He should: jailing torturers is worth any political row.

Similarly, under Obama, the Christian fundamentalist block on using stem cells for medical research is over. British scientists have already used blastocysts to invent a cure for the most common form of blindness. Now American scientists will be able to pull humanity forward too. If you say there is no difference between Bush and Obama, then you are saying torture and stem cells don't matter.

But equally, those who believed that the problems with US state power dissolved in the yes-we-can euphoria of November have been proved wrong. Obama's actions have been morally mixed, because he is reacting to a torrent of pressures - not least from huge corporate donors, who are exerting pressure for the US to control resources and maximise their profits across the globe.

The American President makes policy on two areas that will determine the future of our species: global warming, and nuclear weapons. While the Bush administration ramped up both threats - blithely building "more useable" nukes, and vandalizing any attempt to control warming gases - Obama has pivoted.

Obama's environmental appointments have been startling good. As Energy Secretary, he appointed Professor Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who says that if we carry on emitting as we do now, "there's a 50 percent chance we may go to 5 degrees centigrade [of warming in this century]. We know what the Earth was like 5 or 6 degrees centigrade colder. That was called the Ice Ages. Imagine a world 5 degrees warmer. The desert lines would be dramatically changed. The West is projected to be in drought conditions. [For that] there is no adaptation strategy."

It has been little noticed, but with Obama's approval, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified carbon emissions as harmful to human health. This means Obama can now secure a sharp reduction in gas emissions overnight, without any further legislation.. But he hasn't done it yet, even as his countrymen belch out the highest emissions on earth. He is still fiddling with failed mechanisms like Cap and Trade preferred by big business, rather than Chu's preferred solution of a carbon tax. As if on cue, an ice sheet the size of Jamaica has just broken off from Antarctica and melted into the seas. The climate can't wait.

On nuclear weapons, Obama has been more bold. After the Cuban Missile Crisis came within inches of incinerating us all in a final flash, there was a global agreement called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It had two equal prongs: the existing nuclear powers would multilaterally reduce their weapons - eventually to zero - and in return nobody else would tool up. But for decades now, the NPT has been disintegrating as all sides ignore it.

In a speech in Prague, Obama said that if we don't revive it, "we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable." To stop this nightmare, he has announced that the US and Russia - who hold 95 percent of all warheads - will begin slashing their stockpiles in an attempt to begin momentum towards "a world without nuclear weapons." He will convene a conference in Washington D.C. next year to try to spur all nuclear states to join in, and to gather support for sanctions against states that may try to go nuclear.

This will be a brutally difficult process - but it will be harder still to live in a world where apocalyptic weapons are spreading from state to state, and possibly beyond. It is a bold step towards sanity.

Obama's reaction to the engulfing depression has commanded most attention - except for his purchase of a puppy. This is the most mixed of all the President's policies. His financial appointments have been a disgrace. He has put in charge the very people who brought us to this calamity in the first place: Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers, the director of the White House National Economic Council, were the architects of deregulation in the Clinton administration. They peeled back the last inches of FDR-era protection that could have prevented this crash - and then danced off to Wall Street to make millions from it. Last year alone, Summers raked in $8m from Wall Street firms he is now bailing out.

But what about the program Obama has made them enact? He is absolutely right that there needed to be a big government stimulus, paid for by temporary government debt. He explained plainly: "Economists on both the left and right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending. You see, when this recession began, many families sat around their kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. That is a completely responsible and understandable reaction. But if every family in America cuts back, then no one is spending any money, which means there are more layoffs, and the economy gets even worse. That's why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand."

This has been proven to work countless times. The right-wingers who deny this - and shriek about growing debt - are ignoring reality as plainly as those who deny evolution or global warming.

Some of the $787bn stimulus has been pushed in good directions: some 16 percent is going towards building a low carbon economy, and blood is flowing into the arteries of education and infrastructure after decades of Reaganite cuts. But far too much has been slathered at the top, bailing out Summers and Geithner's old colleagues. It was necessary to prop up the banking system - if the ATM machines had run dry, the economy would have collapsed - but Obama's team have simply handed billions over to appalling institutions, without receiving any control in return. Any more stimulus funds need to flow from the bottom up, concentrating on keeping people in their homes, and on local and state banks. But they don't have armies of lobbyists or vast campaign contributions behind them - so they may be left in the cold. Worse still, the stimulus is way too small. As this year's Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has warned, "You can't jump half-way across a chasm."

As if all this wasn't enough, Obama has three wars on his hands. Yes, three. The most disastrous is in Mexico, where he has pledged military support to a war against the armed drug cartels, and even authorised plans to seal the border if Mexico collapses. But every time you knock out a drug cartel with force, you trigger a new war for control of their patch - and even more violence. The only way to restore Mexico to peace is - as a bevy of Latin America leaders now warn - to take drugs into the legal economy and bankrupt the criminals. Yet Obama - a former drug user himself - refuses to do it.

Obama is right to begin the withdrawal from Iraq, as more than 70 percent of the country's people demand. But he is flooding these troops into Afghanistan and bombing the tribal areas of Pakistan - into a fantastically complex conflict.

The idea that this is an estrogen-drenched fight for women's rights lies discredited. The government the US installed is flirting with laws that forbid women from leaving their houses without their husband's permission. It was even considering legalizing marital rape. As Fatima Husseini, one of the heroic young female protesters in Kabul, said: "It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way he wants." The US and her allies are now backing one group of foul misogynists against another.

Nor is it possible to see how we can win against the Taliban while we are committed to destroying 60 percent of Afghanistan's economy - the opium crop. There is a danger that by ramping up the war, rather than trying to negotiate a solution, legalize the drug crop, and break away the less extreme parts of the resistance, he will simply stimulate more opposition. The flooding of US troops into the region has already spurred a surge of Talibanism in Pakistan, pushing their rag-tap troops to within sixty miles of the capital, Islamabad.

Yet somehow, no-drama-Obama remains impressively Zen and sweatless in the middle of this whirlwind. Should we have "faith" he will do the right thing? Absolutely not - and the very idea is dangerous. You should pick the best leader available, and then pressure him or her like hell. Obama is dramatically better than Bush - but in the end, he will only be as good as the pressure put on him by ordinary people. FDR came to power as a budget-balancing centrist, until the American people forced him to the left, and to greatness. One hundred days in, are they ready to shove Obama to act on his own best instincts? He ain't Franklin Delano Obama yet.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To read more of his articles, click here or here.

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