Joe Biden has a problem – and so do I. And so do we.
At 76 years old, you’d think I’d seen it all when it came to this country and its presidencies. Or at least most of it. I’ve been here since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. I was born on July 20, 1944 and am a little “young” to remember him, even though I was a war baby in a time when Congress sometimes still declared war before America made it.
As a boy in my Liberal Democratic household in New York, I can safely remember how we (after “Whistle While You Work”) sang our version of the 1956 election year song when President Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. The pro-Republican kicker went like this: “Eisenhower is in power, Stevenson is an idiot.” We do, however sang“Eisenhower has no power, Stevenson will work!” Coincidentally, we never found out if this was a little true as the former Illinois governor was overwhelmed in those elections (just like in 1952).
I’ve seen at least part of the 1960s Television debates between Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy – I was 16 years old at the time – helped make JFK the youngest president to ever step into the Oval Office at 43. I can also remember his bell ringing Opening speech. We youngsters had never heard anything like this:
[T]The torch has been passed on to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a harsh and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – unwilling to witness or allow the slow abolition of those human rights that this nation was Always committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Don’t ask what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.
As a freshman at Yale, I saw him give one Closing speech in New Haven, Conn. From my point of view, he was as small as one of the tiny toy soldiers I played with on the floor of my room when I was a kid. Still, it was a thrill. Yes, he was instrumental in reinforcing the war in Vietnam and America’s global imperial presence in a hard-fought “Cold War”. Most of us teenagers, however, paid little attention to this in what came to be known as, at least until October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisiswhen he spoke to us on the radioand told us that Soviet missile sites on the island of Cuba with “a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere” were being prepared. As a generation that grew up crouch and cover Beneath our school desks in nuclear attack drills, young Americans everywhere, including my 18-year-old self, imagined that the time might have come for the nuclear confrontation that could leave our country in ruins and potentially wipe us out. (I also remember eating a 10-cent burger at a tiny New Haven hamburger joint – no kidding! – a little over a year later when someone suddenly poked their head in the door and said : “The President was murdered!”)
And I can remember hitchhiking with a friend through parts of Europe in the summer of 1964, trying to explain the candidacy of right-wing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater to confused and questioning French, Italian and German drivers against Kennedy’s Vice President and ran Successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater was the trump card of his moment and had I been in the US I would not have given him the time of day. Even so, as an American in Europe, I felt strangely responsible for the stranger political aspects of my country and did my damnedest to explain them – maybe to myself as well as everyone else. Maybe that was even the secret starting point for TomDispatch, the website that I would launch (or maybe launch me) shortly after the 9/11 attacks so many years later.
The coming of a “presidential dictatorship”
Though I never saw Lyndon Johnson in person, I marched through clouds of tear gas in Washington DC to protest the bloody and catastrophic conflict – the original “swamp war” – that he carried on to the last of the Vietnamese, Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians. By this point as I was growing up, the presidencies seemed to be growing and looking grimmer and grimmer to me. And of course, as we all now know, things were going to get much worse. After all, at a time when economic inequality was so much less widespread, and the President and Congress could still achieve things that were important domestically – and not just for the amazingly wealthy Americans – Johnson had.
On the other hand, like Goldwater, Richard Nixon is a “Southern strategyThe guy who actually won the presidency on his second try only made the Vietnam War worse. He also plunged his presidency into a corrupt and criminal underworld so infamously linked to Watergate. And I saw him in person once when I was camping out in San Francisco as a young journalist. Sitting just a few rows from the stage he was speaking on, I was eerily impressed by the almost inconceivably awkwardness of his gestures, including his bizarrely unnatural version of a triumphant V-for-what-would-actually-prove-a-victory democratic anti-war candidate George McGovern.
For Nixon, the V-for-Defeat would come a little later, and I’d spend endless hours watching it – that is, that Watergate hearings – on an old black and white TV, or rather, how his imperial presidency falls on his ears. Those were the years when the Pentagon papers, that secret treasure trove of internal government documents on the Vietnam Warfare by successive White Houses, has been released The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg. (His psychiatrist’s office was later broken into by Nixon’s “plumbers,” and he played a key role in the Nixon case.)
In the same years the former Kennedy adjutant and “court historian” Arthur Schlesinger wrote the book he titled classically The imperial presidency. And then Senator William Fulbright described the same phenomenon in his book The crippled giant, Right this way:
Out of a well-meaning but misunderstood idea of what patriotism and responsibility require in a time of world crisis, Congress has allowed the President to assume the two important foreign policy powers that the Constitution has given Congress: the power to initiate the War and the Senate’s authority to agree or withhold material foreign obligations. These two powers have been taken over so completely by the President that it is no exaggeration to say that the United States has joined the global mainstream when it comes to foreign policy. For reasons of foreign policy – and in particular for reasons of warfare – we have become a dictatorship of the president.
Amen. And so it remains largely.
The executive order
Remember, these were the good old days, before George W. Bush launched his own imperial war against significant parts of the planet with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, based only on an indefinite congress after September 11th approval on the use of military force. That first AUMF and a second, which had passed a year later, was then cited by the presidents to follow up on whether or not to “rise” in Afghanistan Drone murder an Iranian guide at Baghdad International Airport. Declare war on Congress? They think Congress has it all (except finance endlessly the Pentagon) to do with the mess that an American war world has created?
So before Donald Trump ever left The ApprenticeThe presidency had already become an imperial one on the world stage. In the meantime, Congress and the White House could still work together domestically, but only in Republican (or, in Bill Clinton’s case, Republican-style) administrations to widen the yawning gap between 1 percent of wealthy Americans and everyone else.
Otherwise, the imperial presidency, especially in the Obama years (when Mitch McConnell took control of the Senate in all its opposition glory), began to get a new domestic face thanks to the order of the executive branch. What little Barack Obama could do if Republicans controlled Congress would largely be done through these executive orders, a habit that Donald Trump would have inherited. Upon entering the office, he and his crew would immediately try to try wipe out Obama’s legacy (as it was) through executive orders and similar actions.
Trump’s presidency would certainly be the most bizarre “imperial” of our time, as he and his team essentially worked from executive to executive burn the planet Low, to destroy the environment, Americans lock in and everyone else out, and dismantle the global economic role of the country. And in the end, with the help of Republican Congress, Trump would come at least reasonably close to literally destroying the American democratic system in the most imperially incoherent way imaginable (“wrong choice“!) On behalf of his own re-election.
It couldn’t have been more bizarre. In a country where the Covid-19 pandemic is being experienced like no other and whose Congress is so evenly divided that it can almost be guaranteed that almost nothing will be done, any president who wanted to achieve something would have no choice than to be imperial. So who would be surprised that Joe Biden opened his presidency with a series of executive actions (30 of them in its first three days), mostly Trumpian-style – that is, to reverse the previous executive actions of The Donald).
I doubt it’s coincidental that the vibrantly imperial yet domestically democratic country that elected young John F. Kennedy would choose a 78-year-old to replace a 74-year-old in the White House 60 years later. Joe Biden will in turn team up with the 80-year-old Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives as he teams up with the 78-year-old Senate minority leader to “rule” a country that has not been able to go to war since 1945 to win a pandemic nation of such amazing inequality than being nothing less than historical.
As a senator who arrived In Washington, when Watergate was unfolding, Joe Biden presented himself as the opposite of the corrupt Nixon and thus as an opponent of an imperial presidency. And like him recently asserts in a telephone conversation with the PBS NewsHourDavid Brooks, he’s obviously still not a fan of this. And yet, in a congress where he is unlikely to do much, including convicting the previous president for inciting insurrection, what choice does he have? The path is paved and it is already on this ever-widening imperial path to … well, history suggests that it is probably hell.
Joe Biden may not believe in the Imperial Presidency, but it could be anything he has. Congress is in disarray; the courts, stacked with Mitch McConnell’s Conservatives will oppose much of what he does. and these wars that were started by George W. Bush and are now spreading catastrophic In significant parts of the Greater Middle East and Africa, it is far from over.
Yes, Donald Trump was a nightmare. Still like me wrote Years ago he was always the mosquito, not the virus. Think back to the lively 43 year old John Kennedy from 1960 that Americans talked to about worst outbreak of Covid-19 on the planet would choose to elect a former vice president who was an extremely familiar old man. In our crisis we have grandpa in the White House.
And yet, what could be more striking than a country that not so long ago was considered the “only superpower” of the planet, its “indispensable nation“That just can’t stop waging distant and catastrophic wars while the military is financially supported so that it doesn’t support anything else?” Of course, the “cost” of these wars has actually come home and not just in the form of a “Green zone“In Washington or Veterans attack the Capitol. Believe it or not, it came home imperial in the shape of Grandpa Joe.
Joe Biden is a decent man who acts decently in the early days of his presidency. He is anything but Donald Trump. However, that may be less important than we imagine. The chances are so hesitant that what lies ahead may turn out not to be an Imperial Presidency but an Imperial Disaster Presidency, which could overshadow Presidents Johnson, Nixon and the Occupation.
At 76 years old – almost as old as our new president – I fear Donald Trump was just our (particularly bizarre) introduction to the imperial catastrophe. We now live on one clearly abused Planet in a country that looks like it could go to the dogs.
Like I said when I started this piece, Joe Biden had a problem (what a problem!) And so did I. So do we all. We could go to American territory where no one has been of any age before.