Partial Readings: Obama’s Tepid New Team, Berlusconi and Mussolini, Politics at the Oscars

With Chuck Hagel confirmed as Secretary of Defense after a 58-41 vote on Tuesday—the tightest confirmation vote ever for a Pentagon chief, split almost exactly along partisan lines—the hubbub over Obama’s second-term cabinet appointments is beginning to subside. It’s been a tense round of appointments.

First there was Susan Rice; then there was the stir over Obama’s all-white, all-male set of appointees; and then the president threw another wrench in the spokes by nominating his “assassinations czar” John Brennan to lead the CIA. This prompted a series of chilling revelations about “targeted killings.” Obama’s defense of Brennan demonstrated “nothing that might suggest he is the president of a democracy, with some responsibility to explain and justify his actions, rather than a military dictator,” as Dissent editors Tim Barker and Sarah Leonard wrote last November.

Astoundingly, Brennan has refused to deny outright that the government could carry out arbitrary assassinations within the United States, instead underscoring that the war on terror has no geographical limits. Obama himself has refused to delimit the scope of his government’s assassinations, deferring the controversy to his CIA nominee; his administration’s evasiveness on this issue has been so extreme that anti-war activists and ultra-conservatives alike have rallied to block Brennan’s confirmation. Three weeks after his hearing, Brennan’s confirmation vote has once again been delayed.

The members of Obama’s executive team not tasked with drone assassinations are settling into their new positions on Capitol Hill. Though less murderous than Brennan, they largely share regressive track records and offer, at best, tepid prospects for the next four years.

In the midst of a fiscal fiasco, Obama selected longtime adviser Jack Lew to preside over the Treasury. In 2010, when Lew was slated to become Office of Management and Budget chief, Shahien Nasiripour at the Huffington Post examined his involvement in a branch of Citibank that bet against the housing market in the lead-up to the subprime meltdown. Mother Jones revisited the story in early 2012, when Lew took over as White House chief of staff.

More recently, Josh Eidelson alleged Lew’s earlier involvement in busting NYU’s grad student union, first in Salon and then in In These Times. Meanwhile, Harper’s columnist Jeff Madrick labeled Lew a deficit hawk. Is this the same Jack Lew who, in high school, “rallied against the Vietnam War and made the case for a legendary, divisive public housing project in the middle-class neighborhood in Queens”?

The OMB, meanwhile, remains without a permanent director as budget deliberations rage, but reports suggest that the next director may be Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of the Walmart Foundation. In The Nation, Josh Eidelson and Lee Fang call the likely nomination “a coup for Walmart and its foundation, which under Burwell’s watch has wielded its massive budget to expand the retail giant’s influence at all levels of government and to pave the way for store expansions.” They continue:

The most recent tax disclosure from the Walmart Foundation, obtained by The Nation, shows that between February 2011 and January 2012, the company gave over $175.68 million in grants to charities, municipalities, churches and various community groups across the country, from the Environmental Defense Fund to Friends of NRA to Puppies Behind Bars. Our review of the foundation’s giving reveals that it has donated considerable cash to groups that have gone on the record to support Walmart during its most contentious political disputes, including the ongoing effort to open stores in New York City. The foundation also donates directly to municipalities, funds groups tied to powerful elected officials and instructs grantees to publicize Walmart’s generosity.

Leslie Dach, who oversees the foundation as Walmart’s most senior executive devoted to political affairs, touted the benefits of the company’s philanthropy during a presentation to investors in October 2010. According to a transcript, Dach described “our reputation” as “a lever” in pursuing the company’s goals, which he said include “new markets,” among them “urban America.”

If things are looking pretty sour on the fiscal front, Obama’s environmental appointments are just as toxic. Replacing Nobel prize–winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy is Ernest Moniz, the director of MIT’s Energy Initiative, “a research group that gets funding from industry heavyweights including BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco for academic work on projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.”

Not surprisingly, Moniz and his team have heralded fracking, the controversial drilling practice, as a “bridge” to a clean energy future. MITEI’s most important report, “The Future of Natural Gas,” is regularly cited by industry pundits in their defense against scientists like Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell, who have demonstrated the enormous risks fracking poses to the climate (in addition to damaging local environments).

Describing the MITEI’s relationship with its “inaugural Founding and Sustaining Members, BP and Chevron,” the report’s authors state that “Our program was designed with these partnerships as the core element of MITEI, and we remain convinced that this is the pathway to maximum impact for advancing MIT’s research and educational mission, for meeting the companies’ science, technology, and human-capacity strategic objectives, and for influencing the energy future.” For more detail, read Peter Mantius’s in-depth account of the MITEI’s fossil fuel industry funding and its results at DC Bureau.

Another player in the fight over the expansion of domestic fossil fuel drilling is Sally Jewell, Obama’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, whom the president promises “will balance the agency’s sometimes conflicting mandates to promote resource development and preserve the nation’s natural heritage.” Pending her confirmation on March 7, Jewell is set to succeed Ken Salazar in the position, which includes overseeing the Bureau of Land Management—a Bureau that incurred fierce protests from environmentalists early in Obama’s first term for pursuing illegal Bush-era auctions on public lands. Major conservationists, such as the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, have praised Jewell’s nomination, but it remains to be seen whether the professed environmentalism of this former Mobil engineer will outweigh her ties to the oil industry.

Stay tuned.

Elsewhere online:

Berlusconi’s back! (Sort of.) Is he bringing his sympathies for Mussolini along with him?

Before pleading guilty to ten of the twenty-two charges against him, Bradley Manning details his experiences as a whistleblower in his personal statement before a Fort Meade court-martial.

The Nation‘s Ari Berman examines why voting rights are on the chopping block.

Richard Brody of the New Yorker‘s “Front Row” discusses the links between real and representational politics at the Oscars.

Congress finally passes the Violence Against Women Act.

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