David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

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Has Obama Ended the "War on Terror"?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:50 PM EST

Has President Barack Obama ended the "war on terror"?

On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that would prevent any officer of the US government from engaging in torture. As he placed his name on the order--keeping a prominent campaign promise--he declared that this move "effectively ensures that anyone detained by the United States for now" will be interrogated in a fashion consistent with the Army field manual, which notes that the use of force, threats, or inhumane treatment is prohibited by law. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture," Obama maintained. In other words, good-bye to waterboarding.

Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of retired generals and flag officers who had advocated a torture ban. It was yet another historic moment in a series of such moments this week. Obama reiterated what he said during his inaugural address: that the United States need not be forced into the false choice between protecting its values and honoring its ideals.

What was intriguing was how Obama characterized the fight against terrorism. He said, "The message we are sending around the world is the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism" vigilantly, effectively, and "in a manner consistent with our values and ideals." Notably, he did not use the term "war on terror." And moments later, he proclaimed, "We intend to win this fight and we're going to win it on our terms." Again, no "war."

Is this a purposeful shift in rhetoric? Has Obama decided to drop the war on terrorism metaphor that the Bush-Cheney administration used extensively?

At Robert Gibbs' first briefing as White House press secretary on Thursday afternoon, I asked if the president had booted the war metaphor. Gibbs replied that Obama had used language that was consistent with his inaugural address. In that speech, Obama had indeed said that "our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." But he did not use the standard "war on terror" phrase. Instead he threw the word "war" against a specific target.

At the press conference, I followed up and inquired if Obama had decided not to deploy that phrase as president. "Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs answered.

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

UPDATE: Speaking at the State Department later in the day, Obama characterized the battle against terrorists as a "twilight struggle." But when listing the national security challenges the nation faces, he quickly ran through the line-up: "the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology." He's obviously not allergic to the term. But it's not the description he reaches for first when he publicly discusses the matter. Not so far in his presidency.

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MSNBC Video: Corn IDs the Money Quote of Obama's First Day: "Openness Prevails"

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 11:14 PM EST

On Wednesday night, MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue featured the recent Mother Jones piece on changes at the White House website. In the segment, I discussed President Barack Obama's first-day moves to make his administration more transparent and accountable, and I identified the money quote of the day, which was contained in a memo the president issued: "In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Because I've written about such matters, MSNBC's David Shuster awarded me the highly coveted "Muckraker of the Day" award. Or is it more like a designation? No cash comes with it, but I was honored to be chosen on such a historic day.

You can follow my postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

Obama's Inaugural Address: A Bad-Weather Speech for Bad-Weather Times

| Tue Jan. 20, 2009 6:11 PM EST

With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.

Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, "I stand here today humbled by the task before us." He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the "greed and irresponsibility" of "some"), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.

Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America's past, "obscure in their labor," who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He maintained that Americans "must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." And that renewal, he said, would demand "bold and swift" action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.

Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them--that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." Obama can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." This was a speech of progressive notions--without explicitly championing them.

We Win!: The Inaugural Celebration Caps a Victory in the Political Cultural War

| Mon Jan. 19, 2009 3:43 PM EST

It was a moment of victory in the political cultural war that has gripped the United States since the tumultuous days of the 1960s. It came in the middle of the inauguration celebration held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. And its bearer was Garth Brooks. The man who has epitomized country music, the official music of Red-State America, was hailing the election of a man who represents what many people with a Red-State mentality oppose: an America that embraces liberal attitudes of diversity and tolerance, that does not equate Ivy League-style education with effete elitism, and that does not hold on to traditions to block social change and progress. True, Brooks is no rock-ribbed redneck. His 1992 song, "We Shall Be Free." essentially endorsed gay marriage. But when he performed the old Isley Brothers soul classic, "Shout," before a massive crowd of Obama supporters, you could almost hear some Red-Staters wail, "They've turned our Garth into a black guy!" When he finished, Brooks doffed his cowboy hat toward President-elect Barack Obama, who sat with his family to the side of the stage.

The show at the Lincoln Memorial contained other moments signaling that the cultural civil war that began with the civil rights crusade, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the rise of hippie-dom was done—at least for now—and that the libs had won. Toward the end of the HBO-aired event, Bruce Springsteen, once a greaser-rocker, brought out folk music hero and activist Pete Seeger, once derided by conservatives as a commie, and Seeger led the crowd in "This Land Is Your Land." This song is the liberal national anthem, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a populist-minded response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which was too rah-rah for Guthrie's liking. (Beyoncé then hit the stage and belted out "God Bless America.")

Earlier in the day, minutes before HBO threw the on-switch for its taping, gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson delivered an invocation that probably would be considered heretical by many fundamentalists. He began:

What Bush Left Out of His Flat Farewell

| Fri Jan. 16, 2009 12:03 AM EST

George W. Bush gave his final speech to the nation on Thursday night. I skipped it to see my daughter, who has known no other president, perform with her school chorus. But when I later sat before my television to see how the speech was being punditized on the cable news shows, I was surprised. The water-landing of a US Airways flight in New York City dominated the coverage. There was little chatter--almost nothing--about Bush's farewell.

After watching the speech on the White House website, I understood why. It was flat and short. Bush said little of interest. He dwelled mostly on 9/11 and the so-called war on terror, once again (and for the last official time) characterizing the invasion of Iraq as part of his effort to take "the fight to the terrorists." He suggested that although the Iraq war was the subject of "legitimate debate," there "can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

Was the nation's safety ensured because Bush invaded Iraq and did not finish the fight in Afghanistan? No doubt, he and his ever-dwindling band of defenders will continue to insist that it is so--just as a rooster might insist there is a connection between his crowing and the rising of the sun. And Bush defended himself for having been "willing to make the tough decisions"--as if making hard choices is the same as making wise ones.

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