Obama's 'Seven Days in May' Moment
Only one month into his presidency, Barack Obama is finding himself confronting not only George W. Bush's left-behind crises but an array of influential enemies in the military, financial circles, the political world and the media - determined to thwart Obama's agenda for "change."
Though Obama has maintained his trademark equanimity in the face of this resistance, he appears to be sensing the rising tide of dangers around him. After his failed gestures of bipartisanship on the economic stimulus bill, he pointedly took his case to the country in campaign-style town meetings.
"You know, I am an eternal optimist," Obama told a group of columnists about his rebuffed outreach to Republicans. "That doesn't mean I'm a sap."
Yet even if he's no "sap," Obama must find within himself the toughness of extraordinary leadership and the resourcefulness to defeat or neutralize powerful enemies if he is to succeed. His initial hopes of a "post-partisan" era already have been shown to be naïve, even dangerously so.
Obama faces near-unanimous Republican opposition to his strategy for salvaging the U.S. economy (and a GOP readiness to use the Senate filibuster at every turn); right-wing talk radio and cable-TV personalities are stoking a populist anger against him; Wall Street executives are miffed at limits on their compensation; and key military commanders are resisting his promised drawdown in Iraq.
In addition, former Bush administration officials are making clear that they will fight any effort to hold them accountable for torture and other war crimes, denouncing it as a "witch-hunt" that will be met with an aggressive counterattack accusing Obama of endangering American security.
It is not entirely inconceivable that Obama's powerful enemies could coalesce into a kind of "Seven Days in May" moment, the novel and movie about an incipient coup aimed at a President who was perceived as going too far against the country's political-military power structure.
Far more likely, however, Obama's fate could parallel Jimmy Carter's, a President whose reelection bid in 1980 was opposed by a phalanx of powerful enemies at home and abroad, including disgruntled CIA officers, angry Cold Warriors, and young neoconservatives allied with Israel's right-wing Likud leaders furious over Carter's Middle East peace initiatives.
Carter little understood the breadth, depth and clout of the opposition he faced - and the full story of how his presidency was sabotaged has never been told.
The current Republican strategy appears to be to hobble the Obama administration out of the gate, have it stumble forward through a deteriorating economy and collapse before the 2010 and 2012 elections, enabling the GOP to retake control of the government.
However, Obama is not without resources of his own. A brilliant orator and clever politician, he won a decisive electoral victory in November and drew 1.8 million to his Inauguration on a frigid day in Washington on Jan. 20. The Democrats also have sizable majorities in the House and Senate.
There also are some media voices - like Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow - and much of the "Net roots" urging Obama to resist the pressures and stick to his guns.
But most of the U.S. news media continues to tilt to the Right - from the Washington Post's neoconservative editorialists and CNBC's millionaire commentators to the right-wing ideologues of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal.
How this right-wing media infrastructure can stoke a sudden brushfire was displayed Thursday when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli - on the trading floor of the Chicago commodities exchange - fumed about Obama's plan to help up to nine million Americans avoid foreclosure.
Santelli suggested that Obama set up a Web site to get public feedback on whether "we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages." Then, gesturing to the wealthy traders in the pit, Santelli declared, "this is America" and asked "how many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills, raise their hand."
Amid a cacophony of boos aimed at Obama's housing plan, Santelli turned back to the camera and said, "President Obama, are you listening?"
Though Santelli's behavior in a different context - say, a denunciation of George W. Bush near the start of his presidency - would surely have resulted in a suspension or firing, Santelli's anti-Obama rant was hailed as "the Chicago tea party," made Santelli an instant hero across right-wing talk radio, and was featured proudly on NBC's Nightly News.
One can only imagine the future reaction from CNBC's commentators - and Santelli's rich traders - if Obama decides to nationalize some of America's giant insolvent banks or if his administration imposes stricter limits on Wall Street's executive compensation.
But Obama's dilemma is not just that he is offending the plutocrats of the U.S. financial sector, or that he faces Republican resistance in Congress, or that he's running headlong into the Right's potent media machine.
Obama also will have to take on key leaders of the U.S. military. Part of this is his own fault for listening to centrist Democrats who urged him to retain President Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates, one of Obama's high-profile gestures of bipartisanship.
Though well-liked in Washington power circles - and possessing a disarming style - Gates has a history as a hawkish policymaker who will undercut a President he sees as going soft. As a young CIA officer, Gates was linked to the behind-the-scenes sabotage of Carter in 1980.
When Bush nominated Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006, Official Washington (and many Democrats) assumed that the move meant that Bush was adopting a more pragmatic approach to Iraq and would soon begin a phased withdrawal.
What Washington insiders misunderstood was that Rumsfeld had become a relative dove on Iraq and opposed a troop "surge." Meanwhile, Gates - both as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and in a meeting with Bush in Crawford, Texas - was supporting an escalation of troops in Iraq.
As Bush told Bob Woodward in an interview for the book, The War Within, Gates "said he thought that [a troop increase] would be a good idea." Bush added: "In November , I'm beginning to think about not fewer troops, but more troops. And, interestingly enough, the man I'm talking to in Crawford feels the same way."
To open the door for the "surge" of about 30,000 additional U.S. troops, Bush also ousted his two field commanders, Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey, replacing them with pro-surge generals, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, who remain the top two commanders today.
Although Obama ran for President on a platform calling for withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, his decision to retain Gates - announced in late November 2008 - apparently sent a message to Petraeus and Odierno that the incoming President could be persuaded to slow the withdrawal pace and possibly agree to a permanent U.S. military presence.
Instead of taking Obama's 16-month timetable seriously, Petraeus and Odierno began outlining a scheme for a modest withdrawal of about 7,000 to 8,000 troops in the first six months of 2009 - bringing the total down to levels that still might be higher than those before the surge two years ago - and then keeping the numbers there until at least June 2009 when additional judgments would be made, according to a New York Times report in mid-December 2008.
‘Stay the Course'
Rather than "change you can believe in," the generals seemed to have in mind something closer to Bush's "stay the course." They also appeared to have little respect for the "status of forces agreement" signed with the Iraqi government, calling for U.S. military withdrawal from the cities by June 30, 2009, and a complete American pullout by the end of 2011.
Odierno, top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said American combat troops will remain in Iraqi cities after June 30, 2009, though called "transition teams" advising Iraqi forces. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for Odierno, later amplified on the general's comments, characterizing U.S. troops staying behind in the cities as "enablers to Iraqi security forces."
Iraqi critics of the status-of-forces agreement took note of these American word games of redefining U.S. troops as "transition teams" and "enablers."
"This confirmed our view that U.S. forces will never withdraw from the cities next summer, and they will never leave Iraq by the end of 2011," said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for a Shiite parliamentary bloc close to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
As for the final pullout deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, Odierno observed that it, too, could be waived. "Three years is a very long time," he told reporters.
Washington Post military writer Thomas E. Ricks picked up a similar message from Odierno and other military leaders during interviews for Ricks's new book, The Gamble.
In an Outlook piece for the Post, Ricks wrote: "The widespread expectation inside the U.S. military is that we will have tens of thousands of troops [in Iraq] for years to come. Indeed, in his last interview with me last November, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told me that he would like to see about 30,000 troops still there in 2014 or 2015."
Reflecting this consensus within the U.S. military, Ricks wrote, "I worry now that we are once again failing to imagine what we have gotten ourselves into and how much more we will have to pay in blood, treasure, prestige and credibility. I don't think the Iraq war is over, and I worry that there is more to come than any of us suspect."
Ricks quoted Col. Peter Mansoor, a top aide to Gen. Petraeus, as saying: "This is not a campaign that can be won in one or two years. ... The United States has got to be willing to underwrite this effort for many, many years to come. I can't put it in any brighter colors than that."
Resistance to Obama
In other words, some top U.S. field commanders took the measure of the incoming Commander in Chief and concluded that they could roll him. When Petraeus and Gates met with Obama on Jan. 21, they reportedly were surprised when he insisted that they submit a plan that would phase out U.S. combat forces in 16 months.
Citing two sources familiar with the meeting, investigative reporter Gareth Porter wrote that the Pentagon brass was upset with Obama's refusal to back down, but they still saw the meeting as essentially an opening skirmish in the battle to reverse the 16-month withdrawal pledge.
"The decision to override Petraeus's recommendation [for a longer stay in Iraq] has not ended the conflict between the President and senior military officers over troop withdrawal," Porter wrote. "There are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.
"A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilizing public opinion against Obama's decision."
According to Porter, that group includes retired Gen. Jack Keane, who was a leading proponent of the Iraq troop "surge" and a longtime friend of Petraeus.
Obama also can expect fierce resistance from the Right if he pushes ahead with plans to rein in Pentagon spending. Already, Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, a prominent neocon, has written a column entitled, "No Time to Cut Defense."
And the defenders of the Bush administration are gearing up for a full-scale political war if Obama's Justice Department moves forward on criminal investigations relating to Bush's authorization of torture and other crimes committed under the umbrella of the "war on terror."
So, just one month into his presidency, Obama finds himself surrounded by a growing A-list of powerful enemies.
This may not become his "Seven Days in May" moment, but he can be sure that his adversaries want him - like Jimmy Carter - to be a one-term President.
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