Barack Obama will begin his presidency under the pressure of great expectations. The world waits for a new chapter of American history to be written. Will the promised change deliver a better America?
It seems as if he knows how to bear the burden of history as well as make it. If President-elect Barack Obama’s first press conference three days after his historic election is any indication of things to come, it augurs well at least for the early days of the new presidency in America. Barack Obama sounded presidential and looked presidential. He was flanked by 17 of the most brilliant economic minds in the country, including Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the billionaire investor Warren Buffet, and former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.
The tone was sombre as the President-elect set out his priorities: an immediate fiscal stimulus plan for the economy, steps to ease the credit crunch and restore job losses along with confidence in the falling American economy. On that same Friday, Mr. Obama also made a radio speech, which bore all the marks of a presidential address. He spoke of all Americans uniting in a time of grim economic crisis, and coming together “in service of a common purpose [now] the voting is done.”
It seems also that the President-elect plans to move with “deliberate haste,” as he said, with his key appointments. The expectation is that this will be an administration that will reflect the diversity of the country, “the diversity of perspectives, the diversity of race and the diversity of geography,” in the words of Valerie Jarrett, co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition Team. She also said that with economy and national security being top priorities, Mr. Obama “will hit the ground running.”
Another top transition chief, John Podesta, has already appeared on television to say that several of George Bush’s executive orders could be swiftly undone by the new President, as many of these will not need to wait for congressional approval. The President-elect intends to reverse White House policies on important issues like climate change, stem cell research, and abortion rights.
Mr. Obama knows he has some serious promises to live up to. Having conducted a near-flawless campaign, he will be keen to ensure that some of the success that went into its making will go into the transition effort, and later on in governance and administration. In an article written after the election, novelist Ben Okri who travelled across the heart of America during the elections spoke of some of these aspects. They included Mr. Obama’s ability “to unify all the different peoples and concerns. He combined the black and the white, and wove a new whole. He alchemised his advantage, was clear in his policies, grounded in the issues and left nothing to chance.”
That same formula of idealism, a vision of the whole, and the possibilities of re-defining an entire nation laced with a strong sense of the pragmatic is likely to inform his approach to governance — beginning, of course, with the need to respond to the immediacy of the financial crisis facing America and much of the rest of the world. Mr. Obama does not underestimate any of the challenges and when he won, one of the first things he did was to downplay expectations with a characteristic honesty that is unusual in politicians. In his address at Grant Park, Chicago, on the night of his historic win, he spoke of the difficulties: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful … that we will get there. There will be setbacks and false starts [but] I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.”
The words may be reminiscent of another great American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who led America out of the Great Depression with striking leadership qualities. In his brilliant book on FDR’s ‘First Hundred Days,’ called The Defining Moment, journalist Jonathan Alter captures the extraordinary ways in which FDR transformed the presidency, including the speedy initiation and navigation through Congress of legislation in the midst of a huge national crisis to calm the markets. Mr. Alter quotes this passage in FDR’s historic Inaugural Address of March 1933: “We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by the old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.” Entering a presidency in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Barack Obama, who has repeatedly spoken of the influence of not only FDR but also Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, will work under the pressure of great expectations that he will do whatever needs to get done. The early statements from the transition team are a clear indication of the ways in which he intends to move ahead.
However, the historian Niall Ferguson, in an interview to the BBC, wondered if Mr. Obama could deliver on all the promises because of the financial crisis, and with close to a trillion dollars having already been spent on the bailout. Mr. Ferguson, who was initially a foreign policy adviser to John McCain during the primaries and later moved to openly support Mr. Obama, pointed out that although the world was going to look to him to deliver on everything, he might not be able to because of the current situation. However, he calls Mr. Obama a “morale changer.” This is what worked for him in the elections. The ability to change the national mood could be his strongest suit. Political analysts expect that new expenses will have to be funded by borrowings from the international capital markets.
In the opinion of Professor Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School, the economic crisis has finally shown people that ‘Reaganomics’ was not good for the country. “Now they see that without government regulation, markets don’t deliver the goods to average people. People now want more regulation and they want competent management of the economy,” she told The Hindu.
According to Professor Nussbaum, Mr. Obama will probably “govern from the centre” because, although he is an idealist, “his ideal is one of reconciliation.” She hopes he will appoint a liberal judge like William Brennan to the Supreme Court but her guess is that he will choose more centrist judges. She also hopes that Mr. Obama will appoint more women to the Supreme Court. One of his supposed top choices is Justice Diane Wood of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which will be an excellent one, according to Professor Nussbaum. Justice Wood is not only very strong on women’s issues, but is also known for her interest in the jurisprudence of other countries. Professor Nussbaum adds that Justice Wood is particularly interested in India.
As far as women’s issues are concerned, Professor Nussbaum commends Mr. Obama’s strong defence of a woman’s right of choice as well as his commitment to prioritise healthcare, which has a serious impact on the lives of women and families. She also has a special word of praise for Vice-President-elect Joe Biden’s long term commitment to women’s equality, calling him “a real hero” who long before “male politicians thought of women’s issues seriously, understood the issues of domestic violence and rape, [and] was the author of the Violence Against Women Act.” New legislation is also needed to make it easier for women to sue against salary discrimination, Professor Nussbaum points out. In the issue of the rights of gays and lesbians, she calls for strong leadership from Mr. Obama. “He of all people must know that the politics of stigma and hate is odious and unacceptable.”
With the promise of change also comes the burden of execution and responsibility. It means that the new politics, which triumphantly roused the energies of young people in America, derived great strength from the candidate consistently speaking of the change that they could all bring together rather than offering to be the one who brings the change. This notion of a shared national journey cutting across race, colour, gender, and party affiliations also means that the travellers are more than likely to be ready to make sacrifices for the common good. No one in modern American history understood and capitalised on this better than FDR.
The expectations from the presidency of Barack Obama are obviously great. Whether it be a principled vision or sustained leadership from the incoming President, or the speed with which he implements his campaign promises, the world waits for a new chapter of American history to be written. More importantly perhaps, it waits to see whether the promised change will deliver a better America — less militaristic, more peaceable, and ready to take only its due place in the international arena.
6 months ago