Friday, January 02, 2009

Obama on the spot

No other American president in history will be under utmost careful scrutiny than president-elect Barack Obama. Being the first African-American to be elected U.S. president, whether Obama likes it or not, his race will always be a significant factor in the public judgment of his record in the Oval Office. This would be a tough challenge for Obama: whatever he accomplishes or fails to accomplish during his presidency will be the yardstick used to measure up future non-white U.S. presidents.

Running on a mantra of “change we can believe in,” Obama was able to ride on a wave of enormous popularity no one in America has heard of, except perhaps during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. But that celebrity status can easily be shattered by a single misstep. The public who adored Obama could easily become his greatest critic.

Obama is assuming the U.S. presidency amidst an economic maelstrom that resembles the economic depression of the 1930s. His economic advisers will be torn between the orthodoxy of the free market economy and deep-rooted fear of government spending and private regulation. The decision his government chooses will always be attributed as his own, and rightfully: the buck stops at the Oval Office.

Once he assumes office, Obama cannot continue blaming the Bush administration for pushing the country to the brink of economic collapse. It’s easy to blame and discredit an incumbent administration when you are running to replace it with your own. This time, he will be the new captain of the ship, and that ship will either float or sink on the skill of his command.

Economic stimulus package

An economic stimulus package was passed by Congress under Bush. How much of the money earmarked to help Wall Street is still to be accounted for. The balance of this package or additional outlay required to stimulate the economy will be under much scrutiny. Obama’s record will hinge on the success of this stimulus in turning the economy around.

Obama will have to be more truthful, and simpler in his message to America. No more of the lofty rhetoric that filled most of his speeches during the campaign. The free-fall in the market cannot be solved by an economic bailout alone, a rescue package that seems to provide a safety net for the financial giants and not much else about their losses. Nor by a single stroke of cutting down interest rates. Any meaningful and effective government stimulus must also address the ordinary people and their problems such as unemployment, housing mortgage defaults, lack of access to health care, rising costs of education, aging road infrastructure. A masterful broad stroke is required of Obama and his administration, and the expectations are high.

Foreign policy and security

On foreign policy and national security, Obama needs to be more definite and decisive. He cannot retreat, as his predecessors had done time and again in the past, in the language of diplomatic double-talk.

As in the current crisis on the Gaza Strip, Obama needs to regain the effectivity of negotiations versus military interventions. He cannot continuously assure Israel of its right to retaliate militarily against attacks on Israeli settlements when it is disproportionate and is founded on the discredited logic that negotiations will be successful only when your enemies have been destroyed. This has not worked in previous Israeli military engagements with Arab militants in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon. Every ounce of military might that Israel presently has is tied to U.S. aid, thus Obama has the power to direct its use only for the purpose of achieving peace, and not destruction. If the Arabs and the Israelis need better adult supervision, it must come now and not later when Iran has developed its nuclear capacity to threaten Israel.

Bringing home U.S. troops

Obama must keep his promise to bring home the troops from Iraq. For standing against the war in Iraq earlier in his career, Obama has seen the fallacy of going into war. It is now up to him to deliver what he promises.

Rearranging the theatre of war by bringing more American troops to Afghanistan is not a wise alternative. In invading Afghanistan, the U.S. rationale was to punish Al Qaeda for its 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil. It was never against the Taliban, which was the ruling regime at the time in Afghanistan. Now that the Taliban is resurgent and becoming more efficient in its drive to topple the corrupt American-supported regime, perhaps now is a better time to explore diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban and the warlords that the U.S. installed in Afghanistan to explore a power arrangement scheme between them, provided that none of them continues to provide a haven for Al Qaeda.

Obama will have his hands full in his first one thousand days in office. He may not be successful in rescuing the country from its most serious economic downturn since the 1930s, in brokering peace between Israelis and Arabs, and in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as long as Obama has laid down an effective roadmap to accomplish all of these, he would have earned the right to be adored by every American. Not because of what he is, but because he is the president of the United States.

The French poet, Paul Valery, wrote that “the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.” Well, Obama could have the unprecedented opportunity of rewriting it if he’s able to make the future better.

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