Well into his second month in office, the fanfare surrounding our new president shows no signs of letting up. Although it seemed likely that Obama’s celebrity status would diminish once he got into office, his star is still rising—as evidenced by the cartoonish spectacle witnessed at the end of the recent budget address, when members of Congress climbed over one another to get the new chief executive’s autograph. On the campaign trail, and now from the White House, Obama and his team have displayed an incredible knack for stagecraft; our dashing leading man always seems to be in front of a perfect backdrop, whether adoring fans or military marching bands. As for the slightly more important matter of statecraft, achieving perfection in the Potomac swamp is asking a bit much; on some fronts—expanding college education, restoring more progressive taxation, restarting the national health care debate—the president is off to a very good start. But on two rather significant issues, the war in Iraq and the financial bailout, he is listening to the wrong advice.
The war in Iraq turns six years old this month. The costs—chief among them countless dead civilians, millions of displaced Iraqis, the many thousand U.S. lives lost or permanently scarred, and the eventual trillions in U.S. taxpayer money spent—far exceed any gains from this disaster. But in carrying out the campaign pledge that first enabled him to win the Democratic nomination, the commander in chief wrongly deferred to his subordinates. Leaving 35-50,000 “transitional forces” (as well as 150,000 private defense contractors) in Iraq past the 18-month deadline for withdrawal amounts to an indefinite continuation of the occupation. In listening to Bush allies like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General Petraeus, Obama has made John McCain and company very happy. Nothing boosts the bipartisan spirit quite like war.
Meanwhile, the bailout of Wall Street and large banks reaches its six-month anniversary this month. Heeding the advice of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House economic adviser Larry Summers, Obama is continuing to prop up Citibank and others with taxpayer money, without concrete assurances that they’ll actually open up lines of credit. In this space last month, I warned of the financial industrial complex taking shape—as it could lead us into boondoogles comparable to the one in Iraq. I hate broken records as much as the next guy, so I apologize for repeating this point two months in a row. Yet if I’m still saying it two years from now, the problem will not only be mine, and yours—but it will very likely have caused a certain star to come crashing back to earth.