Those first acts of that first shining full day in the Oval Office are now so forgotten, but on January 21, 2009, among other things, Barack Obama promised to return America to “the high moral ground,” and then signed a straightforward executive order “requiring that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility be closed within a year.” It was an open-and-shut case, so to speak, part of what CNN called “a clean break from the Bush administration.” On that same day, as part of that same break, the president signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda hailing a “new era of openness,” of sunshine and transparency in government. As the president put it, "Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."
Of course, nothing could have been more Bushian, if you were thinking about “clean breaks,” than America’s wars in the Greater Middle East. When it came to the Iraq War, at least, President Obama arrived in office with another goal and another promise that couldn’t have been more open and shut (or so his supporters thought), not just drawing down Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, but “ending” it “responsibly.” (Admittedly, he was also muttering quietly about “residual forces” there, but who noticed?)
Two and a half years later, Guantanamo remains thrivingly open, while all discussion of ever closing it has long since ended; the administration has, in those same years, gained a fierce reputation as an enforcer of government secrecy and, while it has prosecuted neither torturers, nor financial titans, it has gone after government whistleblowers with a passion. In the meantime, the Iraq War was indeed wound down “responsibly” (which turned out to mean incredibly slowly), but in recent months, as U.S. casualties again rose, the Obama administration and the U.S. military have visibly been in a desperate search for ways to keep sizeable numbers of American forces there as “trainers,” while also militarizing a vast State Department mission in Baghdad and outfitting it for the long haul with more than 5,000 armed mercenaries as well as a mini-air force.
Promises? As Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman used to say: What? Me worry? As it happens, David Bromwich, essayist for the Huffington Post and the New York Review of Books, does worry. In “George W. Obama?” he offers a new yardstick for measuring the promises of, and the nature of, the Obama administration, as well as the nature of its “break” with the Bush era ; or rather think of his post as an obituary for the possibility of change in Washington.