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El Pais, Spain

Obama Isn’t Bush, but He’s Like Him

By Antonio Caño

It's the same Obama as always, in constant struggle between commitment to the 'yes we can' slogan and the reality of government

Translated By Chris Randall

8 June 2013

Edited by Rachel Smith

Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)

The lack of leadership from the current president of the United States reminds us of his predecessor.

In less than a month, Barack Obama has expressed his desire to put an end to the war on terror — “this war, like all wars, must end” — has finished off an array of foreign policies that are more left-leaning than the political establishment and has justified telephone communication and internet surveillance on the basis that some privacy has to be sacrificed for more security.

In reality, this is nothing new; it's the same Obama as always, in constant struggle between commitment to the "yes we can" slogan and the reality of government. This is probably the very essence of power: the line between what you want to do and what you can do.

In Obama’s case, this business of recording phone calls and tracking emails, chats and photos all over the world has ended up disappointing some of his most dedicated supporters. The New York Times said categorically in an editorial that he “is proving the truism that the executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.” On television and social networks, people on both the left and the right have been openly critical; with the sort of creativity that is typical of journalists, some headlines have dubbed the president George W. Obama.

The idea that Obama is another Bush is easy to understand and has many supporters, both among those who are trying to exonerate Bush as well as those who always had their suspicions about Obama. But the issue is somewhat more complex. Obama inherited the whole strategy of the war on terror devised by the Bush administration, including the two communication surveillance programs that have now been made public; the truth is that he has not done much to replace that strategy with another. Perhaps he tried, but they convinced him that he couldn’t. As he innocently admitted on Friday, he was at first skeptical about the value of those programs, but his advisers recommended that he keep them.

Good leadership, of course, requires you to listen to your colleagues. But leadership is forged by the personal risk that, on certain occasions, a president takes alone. It has now been 50 years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who is remembered for how he stood alone, against the opinion of all his military advisers, in his position not to attack Cuba during the missile crisis, which probably avoided a nuclear war.

Obama is not another Bush in terms of his perception of the world, of the role of the United States or of the use of the means available to him. But he is like him in the sense that he has, until now, been incapable of establishing his own, distinct presidency. The problem is not that Bush is Obama’s role model, which he isn’t. The problem is that, at the moment, it’s impossible to know what Obama wanted a second term for and where he is leading the country. It’s not that he’s like Bush; it’s that his lack of leadership has reminded us of Bush.

To be fair, we have to recognize that recording phone calls without listening to their content or tracking the world’s movements on the Internet damages individuals less than torture, secret prisons or kidnapping. Obama has eliminated one of the most harmful elements of the war on terror and, in general, has created a climate of cooperation and international understanding. That is a lot, when put into perspective.

But, once again, the problem is that those achievements do not constitute a constant and coherent course of action. It would not even have been that difficult to defend communication surveillance, which could be reasonable if contained in an appropriate bill.

Those who support Obama, and the president himself, have taken it upon themselves to remind us that the two programs already existed during the last administration. It's a poor excuse, and further evidence of the current administration’s paralysis, lack of ideas and continuation of the previous government’s ideas.

Bush had his plan, harebrained though it was. But what is Obama’s? A little bit here and a little bit there, some generic ideas of the future mixed with a lot of the reality of the past. In the face of a confused response, the idea that Obama has continued Bush’s plan is gaining strength. It’s disappointing, when you realize what Obama represents in history as the first black president, and unfair, when you understand a bit about the personal and intellectual qualities of a man who thinks much better than he acts. But that’s the price to be paid for indecision.



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