Before my readers conclude that I’ve completely lost it over Obama I figured it’s time I say something a bit more critical about the situation in the U.S. and the incoming administration.
Barack Obama, as so many people are willing to acknowledge, is about to assume the presidency at a very difficult time. He’s got his work cut out for him and the expectation that he’ll play the miracle worker will most assuredly be dashed. Before we know it it’ll be politics as usual in Washington; the honeymoon will eventually come to an end.
Eleven weeks before he takes the reigns, Obama’s effectiveness and the amount of power he’ll be able to exert remains an open question. I’m reminded of the excitement over Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and the expectations placed on him as a Rhodes Scholar. He was supposed to transform the White House and re-invigorate America. Clinton was never able to deliver on all the hype and hope; politics simply got in the way of all the excitement.
So, what makes us think that Obama, despite all his charisma and apparent political acumen, will be any more successful than previous presidents? It’s the same United States, after all, with the same institutions, petty politics, and entrenched two-party flavor.
Moreover, Obama hasn’t given any real indication that he’ll be anything other than a traditionally moderate Democratic president. Obama may have paved through some unprecedented political inroads on election night, but the popular ranking between himself and John McCain was shockingly narrow. Obama’s mandate is not as flamingly progressive as many have made it out to be. To go beyond it would not only be political suicide in a stubbornly conservative country, it would run contrary to his rather vanilla election promises.
Many Americans, I'm afraid, have confused his campaigning messages of "hope" and "yes we can" with that of actual progressive politics.
This is also an issue of relativity. Bush’s administration was so brazenly conservative, backward and hawkish that even a centrist administration will appear liberal by comparison. Republican accusations that Obama is running on a socialist platform will seem rather farcical in short order.
All this said, Obama does appear ready to re-invigorate some crucial areas like scientific research and the development of key technologies. He also looks poised to make the environment an important issue again.
Consequently, it looks like Obama will be engaged more in correcting the damage done by the previous administration than by introducing unprecedented reforms.
In terms of the economy, like the Democratic president before him, Obama has inherited an America in recession. As a result, his spending options will be severely constrained. Democrats may have firm control of both houses of Congress, but it will still be difficult for them to make due on a number of election promises.
Pulling back on George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich won’t be a problem, but introducing a new health care program may prove to be more difficult. Over 50 million Americans currently lack medical coverage; the cost to implement and cover this segment will be significant – even if it will be an insurance-based system supported by federal subsidies.
From a social perspective, the election of a black president hardly means that racism is over in the United States. Yes, it means a lot in terms of how far race relations have come in that country, but the reality is that the U.S. is still a country of privilege for whites. It will still be a long while before there is economic and social parity in that country – if ever.
As for foreign relations, it is here, I fear, that Obama will encounter the most trouble. And not because he’s inexperienced or because he has flawed policies (which in some cases he does), but because of the volatile geopolitical climate that has taken hold. There is simply too much happening in the world that is simply outside of his control; the level of complexity is daunting. Before he knows it, Obama will be spinning plates.
Obama plans to pull troops from Iraq by 2010. It is unclear as to how smoothly that transition will go, how the Iraqi regime will fare without U.S. help, and how Middle Eastern relations will change after the departure of American troops.
At the same time, Obama is touting the same kind of 'war on terror' rhetoric that was characteristic of the Bush administration. This may have been a political decision, but he has gone on the record of saying that he will continue to support American attacks on Pakistani territory without Islamabad’s permission. He also plans on increasing troop strength and the level of engagement in Afghanistan (a decision that will have a significant impact on Canadian and other coalition forces).
There’s also the issue of Iran and its efforts to build the bomb. The extent to which Obama will work to prevent this from happening and to protect Israel from a potential nuclear-armed foe is unclear.
And then there’s Russia and their recent efforts to re-enter the world stage as a significant geopolitical player. This is a story that’s far from over, particularly as the United States works to maintain a presence in the Caucasus region.
Looking to the future, it’s also possible that at some point during Obama’s tenure that an unforeseen catastrophe or global incident may occur (such as another 9/11 type event or a pandemic). Such a turn of events would come to characterize the administration and challenge it in terms of its potentially unprecedented scale. Hopefully nothing of the sort will happen.
My feeling, though, is that Obama would rise to the challenge. He would, at the very least, assume a leadership position unlike George W. Bush before him and guide his people through any potential turmoil.
Indeed, given the fiasco that was the Bush administration, Americans will likely have more patience and understanding for Obama than for other incoming presidents. They’re likely going to cut him some slack and recognize the difficult challenges that lie ahead.
As far as many Americans are concerned, it’s more about intention at this point than results. They finally have a president at the helm that they don’t need to be embarrassed about. Someone who, at the very least, is ready to set things right.