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Obama and the Road Trip by Max

November 19, 2010

Obama came to USC’s campus recently to talk about “moving forward” and driving the metaphorical car that is supposedly the people’s government. The use of the car analogy is revealing: only one person drives the car and the rest are passengers who are more likely than not being taken somewhere they do not know about or would much rather not go.

A number of students on campus have been appalled at the current administration’s policies and actions and protested Obama’s speaking at our campus. We handed out fliers, held up signs, and performed a mock waterboarding torture scene. This article is an explanation of why we think having Obama in the driver’s seat is a very bad thing. I’ll start by examining Obama’s grand victory of supposedly reforming the health care system and then move on to discussing the president’s policy on detention, each of which fit the respective general pattern of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy.

Obama’s health care legislation is trumpeted as his greatest achievement, but an investigation into who the legislation benefits tells a different story than the one he is so eager to tell. While guaranteeing health insurance to millions of uninsured is undoubtedly a good thing in itself, put another way, the government is gift-wrapping millions of customers for the health insurance industry that has emerged largely untouched from new legislation.

The huge industries that operate ‘health’ services in our country are by far the least cost-efficient in the world. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the US spends the 2nd most per capita on health care, behind only East Timor (1). In 2000, the WHO rated the US health care system 37th in the world in overall performance and 72nd in the world for overall health (2). Looking at the new legislation, very little has been done to alter the way health services are actually administered or paid for.

New statistics for the health care system after the implementation of new legislation will not be ready for some time, but I remain skeptical because of the reform’s failure to alter the underlying operating principles of the system. As the New York Times reported, a couple of government studies were done using the same “economic and demographic assumptions” and differed from each other only in regards to whether or not Obama’s legislation was accounted for (3). The studies calculated that with the legislative overhaul, health expenses in 2019 would amount to 19.6% of the GDP, or $4.6 trillion. Without the legislation, the projected health care costs of 2019 was expected to be 19.3% of GDP, or $4.5 trillion. The differences between the predicted outcomes are so trivial that one puzzles at the what the “largest piece legislation in a generation” is really achieving.

Worst of all, there’s some evidence that points out that this is the kind of minimal, surface-level change Obama was aiming for all along. In an interview on MSNBC recently, New York Times reporter in Washington D.C. David Kirkpatrick stated that a Obama made backdoor deal with the health care industry—not reported at all in the mainstream media but often discussed in alternative media outlets and blogs—similar to the widely criticized hidden-from-public deal he made with the pharmaceutical industry that guaranteed their modus operandi would be left alone in exchange for minor discounts:

That’s a lobbyist for the hospital industry and he’s talking about the hospital industry’s specific deal with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee and, yeah, I think the hospital industry’s got a deal here. There really were only two deals, meaning quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides, one with the hospitals and the other with the drug industry. And I think what you’re interested in is that in the background of these deals was the presumption, shared on behalf of the lobbyists on the one side and the White House on the other, that the public option was not going to be in the final product.” (4)

Obama effectively killed the public option before the public debate even started in spite of wide public support; among others, a 2009 NBS/WSJ poll found that 76% of the public that having a choice between public and private health insurance options was “extremely” or “quite” important (5). Maybe this is all part of Obama’s masterly political maneuvering, or maybe it’s an example of his pandering to powerful interests at the expense of hundreds of millions of people’s desire to live a healthy life.

As with everything that happens in Washington, the tentacles of corporate campaign contributions are no less prominent with Obama at the head of American politics. Liz Fowler, the primary architect of the new legislation who was also just hired by Obama to implement the legislation, is former vice president of health insurance giant WellPoint (6). This contradicts Obama’s campaign message to end the “revolving door” between government and corporation executive boards. It has also been revealed, though hardly reported, that Max Baucus and other key members of the health care committee were not only receiving massive amounts of campaign cash throughout the crafting of the legislation, but that much of it went unreported to the Federal Election Commission due to legal “bundling” loopholes (7). These circumstances call into serious question who the legislation was by and for. (Personal side note: my health insurance has only gotten more expensive since the legislation was passed.)

Other horrifying aspects of the American health care industry that remain untouched include: 62% of bankruptcies are caused by medical debt, of which 75% of those are people with (inadequate) insurance (8); two Harvard studies revealed that health insurance companies collectively own $4.5 billion in tobacco companies (9) and $1.9 billion in fast food companies (10) in what appears to be a pair of twisted mutually beneficial relationships; the 15 million people who remain uninsured under the new legislation.

Obama’s health care legislation is comparable to his entire domestic policy approach including financial reform, immigration reform, energy reform: if he addresses the issue at all, he just makes a few minor alterations to the surface of the problem, doesn’t address any of the fundamental issues that underlie the big social problems, and waves the flag of political success.

With an issue as complex as the American health industry, there are indeed many outlets to get information and many ways to interpret the data, but I’ve tried to stick to the most Obama-leaning, mainstream-trustworthy sources (New York Times, World Health Organization, Harvard) to level my critiques against the president. Still, I understand the skeptics (Obama’s believers) might dismiss the above arguments as too simplistic or not being relevant to the messy nature of American politics.

Continuing onto foreign policy, particularly regarding the detention of “enemy combatants,” Obama’s actions are more defined—in the sense that executive power is much less hindered by congressional power in foreign affairs—and perhaps less open to opposing interpretations. It’s revealing, I think, that Obama’s foreign policy is in even starker contrast to obvious public well-being.

The central pillar of Obama’s campaign platform was his promise to change America’s image in the world after 8 years of decline under Bush. Indeed, the initial international response to Obama’s campaign promises were euphoric, but now in office, Obama has failed to maintain any substantial difference between himself and the former president on matters of international affairs.

Some of Bush’s head advisers, administrators, and supporters have expressed ecstatic admiration for Obama’s “continuity” of Bush’s programs. Michael Hayden, Bush’s CIA and NSA chief who oversaw Bush’s torture and surveillance policies, said, “by and large, there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd [Bush] and the 44th president [Obama]” (11) and just two months ago praised Obama in an interview with the Washington Times:

You’ve got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram [in Afghanistan],” Mr. Hayden said, listing the continuities. “And although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as President Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action.” (12)

James Jay Carafano, an analyst on homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said of Obama:

… it’s not even fair to call it Bush Lite,” he said. “It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric. You see a lot of straining on things trying to make things look repackaged, but they’re really not that different.” (13)

Obama’s reception from the progressive side of American politics has been much less welcoming. When Obama met with human rights groups last spring, the New York Times reported that, according to the people in the room, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, appealed to Obama, “Look, you’re the only politician I’ve ever believed in … When I was a gay Puerto Rican growing up in New York, I never thought I could identify with a political leader the way I identify with you” (14). Just a couple of weeks ago, after 18 months of Obama in office, Romero had this to say:

I’m disgusted with this president … Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.” (15)

In campaigning for the office of president, Obama was eager to mention that he would reverse Bush’s policies of detention, including shutting down Guantanamo Bay by the end of his first year in office. It’s been more than 18 months now and there has yet to be a serious proposal from the Obama administration for the release of Guantanamo detainees.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 – 2005 and has become an outspoken critic of Guantanamo policy: “the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent” (16). Not only were most of the prisoners innocent, but the prison’s purpose of extracting information from detainees has largely failed: “[I]t has never come to my attention in any persuasive way — from classified information or otherwise — that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.” That all of this happened under Bush is unsurprising, but that Obama has not wavered from his predecessor on Guantanamo is to many a betrayal.

Col. Wilkerson notes that it’s hard for Democrats to close Guantanamo, but this is only because of the purely “political realities involved,” in other words, it would make them look weak on national security (though this is debatable considering Obama’s victory riding on promises to change the US’s foreign policy), “But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense.” Col. Wilkerson is only the highest government official to have stated these opinions, but he has been one among a chorus of voices that have all pointed to Obama’s unjustified and immoral continued detention of largely innocent people without access to civilian trials.

Learning about individual cases of injustice at Guantanamo is revealing. I encourage you to look into Omar Khadr, who is a Canadian citizen who was captured in Afghanistan for allegedly fatally wounding a US soldier with a grenade (17). He has been held in Guantanamo for 8 years since his capture even though Amnesty International, Unicef, the Canadian Bar Association, and the Federal Court of Canada have demanded Khadr to be returned home. Mohammad Hassan Odiani was captured from his college housing in Pakistan at age 17 and has since spent more than a third of his life (the last 9 years) in Guantanamo, despite a Federal Court ordering his release upon finding that the evidence “overwhelmingly supports Odiani’s contention that he is unlawfully detained” (18). The U.S. Government itself has consistently admitted and found that “We don’t have anything on this kid,” and yet Obama has argued repeatedly not to let Odiani be released (19). The Washington Post reported how Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al-Janko was tortured by Al-Qaeda, imprisoned by the Taliban, and then held in Guantanamo for 7 years without access to a trial (20). Despite the Obama administration’s relentless but unsuccessful attempts to keep Janko in a cage (21) even though US District Judge Richard J Leon said that Obama’s case for holding Janko “defies common sense”, Janko has since been released. Other notable cases worth looking up include the heinous physical torture of Binyam Mohamed by US agents and Obama’s attempt to have his case thrown out (22)(23), the probable deaths of three Uighurs while being tortured even though the government claims suicide (24), the repeated beatings and life sentence given to Aafia Siddiqui according to the most unbelievable of evidence (25), the seven-year imprisonment of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj (26). These are among a few of the most dramatic and absurd stories of detainees in Guantanamo, but Obama has been steadfast in his commitment to continue to hold many innocent people without charges in the most notorious prison in the Western Hemisphere.

Moving on to what is now possibly the most notorious prison in the Eastern Hemisphere, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which is home to an estimated 600 – 800 prisoners, or 3-4x as many as Guantanamo. Obama has successfully lobbied for even less legal oversight and international rights for the prisoners kept there. A New York Times editorial relayed how an appellate court, under pressure from the Obama Department of Justice, “ruled that there was no right to federal court review for the detainees, who say they were captured outside of Afghanistan, far from any battlefield, and then shipped to Bagram to be held indefinitely in harsh conditions” (27). I’ll let the reader think for themselves about what other rulers in history these words evoke.

The Open Society Institute came out with a report on the situation at Bagram, having interviewed 18 former prisoners, half of whom were in the prison while Obama was president (28). The report found that detainees were routinely subjected to excessive cold, sleep deprivation, inadequate food, very loud and continuous noise, and denied access to by the International Committee of the Red Cross. That Obama sought the power (and won it) to be able to detain people “indefinitely” and subject them to these conditions without access given to journalists or human rights organizations is horrifying and in defiance of the Geneva Conventions and international law.

To counter the overwhelming evidence showing Obama’s reversal of nearly all of his campaign promises regarding detention, the president has been engaged in relentless efforts to keep such things from the public eye. Last October, despite promises to do the opposite, Obama extended Bush’s policy of suppressing photos of US torture under the pretenses that they would help the terrorists (29). Before that, the Washington Times reported that “the Obama administration [said] it may curtail Anglo-American intelligence sharing if the British High Court discloses new details of the treatment of a former Guantanamo detainee” (30). Obama’s attempts at coercing the British government to bend to its will and suppress information about a British citizen who was tortured defies all the expectations the world had about the new American president not bullying the rest of the world (31).

Obama’s attacks on the spread of information has also included the censoring and forced removal of journalists from areas with sensitive information, seriously compromising his pledge to lead the most transparent administration in American history. Four journalists—Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Steven Edwards of Canwest, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald—were barred from returning to Guantanamo after they allegedly printed the name of an interrogator whose identity was supposedly secret (32). However, the name of the interrogator had already been entered into the public record of the court proceedings and was by no means confidential any more (33). It appears then that the Obama administration found an excuse to ban four of the most diligent journalists reporting on Guantanamo in an effort to silence the news of the atrocities taking place. The episode created a huge outcry within the media establishment and the ban on the four journalists returning to Guantanamo was lifted, but the message from Obama’s administration was clear: this is what will happen if you disagree with us.

Obama’s policy on detentions is abysmal but is by no means an aberration in his approach to foreign policy regarding the War on Terror, or the “overseas contingency operation”, as it’s now called. Other noteworthy policies include Obama’s signing off on Patreaus’s black ops, or “secret wars,” in countries around world (34)(35); the authorization of a cruise-missile strike using cluster bombs in violation of international humanitarian law in which 14 al-Qaeda were supposedly killed—this remains unconfirmed—in addition to 41 Yemeni civilians who were “collateral damage,” including 14 women and 21 children (36); the New York Times confirmed that the Obama administration has targeted US citizen and radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination, adding “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing” (37); according to a January Washington Post article, there are at least 3 US citizens being targeted by the US government for assassination (38), while Obama’s top anti-terrorism adviser John Brennan hinted later in an interview that the number may actually be in the dozens (39). In this last respect, Obama has far exceeded anything the Bush administration has been found guilty of and in the other above-mentioned cases, the president has held fast to the Bush strategy.

Bush seems to have been right about one thing at least: The New York Times: “Just as Eisenhower on the campaign trail criticized Truman’s policies in the early years of the cold war only to essentially adopt them after taking office, Bush anticipated that his successor would preserve most of what he had put in place” (40). The claims of Obama supporters that he needs “time” to change things around glosses over the reality that in detention policy and secret military operations, the Obama administration acts virtually unhindered and of its own will.


If I am to be merely a passenger in the car of America, I’d rather be an unruly one. Many close their eyes and get high off the music of “change.” Some incessantly ask, “Are we there yet?” and are passively disappointed that the answer is always no. Some yell and scream from the back seat that the map they were shown is not where they’re going. Others will insist that if we only had a different driver, the trip would be a good one. A few us might get together and try to disable the car. Maybe we’ll make a lunge for the steering wheel in hopes of directing the car into the nearest ditch or tree. Perhaps then we may leave the wreckage and each of us forge our own path in life.

Sources Cited










































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