Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama, or Will Things Change?

So ... Canadians love US President Obama and who can blame them. I cheered for him on election night. I cheered for him for a number of reasons, including my own sense that the Republican party had become bankrupt of anything approaching a constructive ideal to address both America's domestic and foreign policy problems. And, I'd rather have a healthy and happy US next door to Canada than one strewn with internal conflict and isolated on the world stage. Canadians -- and the rest of the world -- are better off with a US administration that is committed to progressive reform, which open, committed to inclusion, and is concerned about the human dynamics of life then one animated by New American Century realpolitik and a belief that force is a primary and effective means of accomplishing goals.

So ... how will Obama pan out? The short answer is that no one knows. Nine years ago, few people imagined the mess the Bush administration would get itself into. In retrospect, of course, the signs were there and historians will be able to trace the trajectories of thought and policy that led to the US to this point: a refusal to pay attention to the warning signs in financial markets, a commitment to a "New American Century", the increasing marginalization of moderates in the Republican party, a mean/ends Rovesque political rationale, among others. What about Obama and his administration? Can we see similar trajectories in his government?

The good news is no. While one might wonder about the intelligence and scruples of some of Obama's appointees, the discourse they bring to government is markedly different than that Bush brought in. From what I can tell none of Obama's key appointees are tied to realpolitik practices and, from what I can tell, the Democrats have attempted to build a winning political coalition in a way differently then did the Republicans. Instead of trying to get out their core vote, for example, the Democrats have attempted to appeal to those who don't vote. Instead of emphasizing an exlusivist morality supposedly ratified by God, the Democrats have appealed to traditional liberal-democratic values. The real tests will be whether or not the Democrats are willing to break with American tradition and engage the international community in a way that puts global issues first. On the domestic front, the test will be whether or not, or to what degree, they are willing to reign in capitalism and subject it to popular discipline through the state.

Despite Canadians love of Obama and despite the good warning signs, I am, however, skeptical. I think Obama will be a good president. Having someone talk about justice and hopes and dreams and American being better than it is, is not a bad thing. Those who have criticized Obama (mainly Republicans) for not doing enough fast enough to address economic problems are missing the importance of discourse. For the first time in a while, the US is led by a person who is not forever talking about threats from others and is instead talking about putting the domestic house in order. I like all of this. My skepticism relates to none of this. Instead, it relates to the sheer scope of the problems Obama confronts.

Let's take foreign policy as one example. A "surge" in Afghanistan combined with support for an internal move against terrorists in Pakistan might or might not be a good military strategy. By itself, however, it can do nothing to lessen the concern of Muslims about the course of American policy. Instead, the US government needs to bite the bullet and support programmes and policies that address the human concerns of Muslims "on the ground." This means support for democracy in Pakistan regardless of who is elected. Efforts to encourage increased democratization in Arab countries. A two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and increased anti-poverty activism in a range of countries. It also means a sincere and deep commitment to anti-racism at home and freedom of religion. I recognize that this is easy to say and hard to do. Hence, my skepticism.

I'm also not convinced that the problems with the US economy admit easy solutions. Even if there are recoveries, the need to find a mechanism that provides effective regulation of capital markets, the need to address income disparities, the need to address basic health care concerns, the need to address skewed economic success rates for ethnic minorities, will all still be there and this is what really needs to be addressed. Capital markets are indeed a serious problem but they become an even more serious problem if poverty rates are already too high, if ordinary people cannot afford basic health care, and if gross income disparities breed contempt and anger.

In my view, the best Obama can do is set the US on the right course to address these problems. He can do this by: developing a real anti-poverty strategy, by introducing socialized medicine, by taking the advise of allies seriously and, potentially, not acting against it, by signing on to international agreements, and by pressuring allies to make democratic reforms at home. I think Obama wants to do these things. I also think that the complexity of the American political system will slow him down and potentially detract from his objectives. And, Obama faces fairly formidable political foes at home. While they increasingly appear as an embattled and shrinking minority, they are also entrenched and well financed. Expect Fox News alone to settle into a long-term on-going campaign that will blame Obama for everything from the problems Bush created to the mis-designation of Pluto as a planet.

What this amounts to is this: the problems of America are so deep and so entrenched that it will take some time to rectify them and there were be a loud chorus continually singing another tune (perhaps even bringing out Bush nostalgia!). Progress will be slow. Let's hope it stays on track.
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