Monday, January 19, 2009

A defining moment in the history of America

Business Times - 20 Jan 2009

Millions hope Barack Obama will change Washington's tone dramatically


FROM the podium set up between the two grand staircases of the West Steps of the US Capitol, President Barack Hussein Obama will see at noon today (Wednesday, 1am, Singapore time) hundreds of thousands of people listening to his address, many of them applauding, cheering and crying. Before him will be Pennsylvania Avenue that connects the Capitol and the White House, the parade route that he will be travelling later; and the grand national monuments in this city - the Washington Monument, the obelisk for the first president, George Washington; and the memorials for two other great US presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

President Obama will have a panoramic view of a beautiful city that for the next four years will be dominated by his policies as well as by his persona. Even if he fails to achieve any of his stated goals of reviving the ailing American economy and bringing back home the US troops from Iraq, the man who will be entering the White House today will be recalled as a man who had made history. From this day on, a black man will be leading the US, ending an era when the leader of this nation was by definition white.

Indeed, that a black family will be occupying the White House, which had been built by former black slaves, is clearly an event with tremendous historical significance and emotional appeal, and explains why so many people from around the country have gathered in Washington this week.

But there is a certain irony here. On a day that Americans are celebrating the triumph of the democratic ideals of their nation (that even the Founding Fathers - some of whom owned slaves - had failed to measure up to), there is also a certain sense of uncertainty, if not distress in the air about the future of this great republic.

It is not only the economic downturn and the Iraqi quagmire that is causing so much anguish this week. It is the feeling that the foundations of this historic political experiment has been eroding in the last eight years of the administration of George W Bush, who, when he had entered the White House, had insisted that he was committed to uniting Americans and making America more prosperous and secure.

That after these eight years, America is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression while its military forces continue to fight in two costly wars and its diplomatic influence is in decline, are not the only challenges facing President Obama as he enters the White House today. More important, he will need to renew the trust between the American people and their leaders in Washington - the glue that holds this nation, its markets, and its military together.

That process of renewing the national trust starts in the White House that instead of serving as a symbol of American Exceptionalism - of a leadership that derives its power from the people and their Constitution - has been transformed in the last few years into a bastion of political deception and personal deceit, of vice and not of virtue, controlled by an elite whose members regard themselves as being above the law and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of the American people.

Indeed, once upon a time, at least until the start of the 20th century, the White House, the residence of the US president, used to be the People's House - its doors open to visitors and job seekers who wanted to chat with the president for a few minutes. In 1829, President Andrew Jackson was forced to stay in a hotel during his first day in office after more than 20,000 people followed him home after his swearing-in ceremony to celebrate his inauguration inside the White House and made a mess there.

Such an open-door policy was not maintained when I visited Washington, DC, for the first time in 1980. But you could still drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, the road that stretches in front of the White House, and pretend that you were waving to its then occupants, President Jimmy Carter and the members of his family (well, in case they were watching). And the White House was still accessible to visitors who wanted to tour it. In fact, the sidewalk still served as a queuing area for the daily public tours of the White House.

Although security was certainly tight even then, you still felt welcome at the White House. This continued even after May 20, 1995, when in response to the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, the US Secret Service closed off Pennsylvania Avenue to vehicle traffic in front of the White House, and later extended it an additional block to a small street between the White House and the Treasury Building.

But during the first year of the presidency of George W Bush, and in the aftermath of the Sept 11 attack, the White House has gradually been transformed from the People's House into the fortified sanctuary of the War President.

The daily public tours of the White House were suspended and resumed on a limited basis for groups making prior arrangements through their Congressional representatives. And barricades sprang up not only in the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, but everywhere - around the Washington Monument, in the once-accessible neighbourhoods near the US Capitol and at every federal building. And a fortress-like mentality seemed to be dominating Washington.

No one challenged the notion that the 9/11 terrorist acts required more restrictive security arrangements in the White House and other official and public sites in Washington. But at times it seemed as though President Bush and the leading warriors around him - Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld come to mind - in the name of fighting the Long War against terrorism, were provided with justification to expand the power of the presidency and the executive branch, to subvert the US Constitution and impose new restrictions on civil rights and press freedom, to mobilise support for new military intervention and to build the prison in Guantanamo, Cuba.

From that perspective, Fortress Washington with its distinguishing traits of militarism, nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism became a metaphor for the Bush Age. And unlike the time of World War II, when the general public and the administration seemed to be united behind common national goals, Washington under Mr Bush saw its public spaces being cut back, its government more secretive and its residents more anxious.

It was a Washington that seemed more divided over the future of the country and less responsive to the concerns of the American people and more dismissive of international public opinion.

It goes without saying that America - and the rest of the world - are hoping that Mr Obama will succeed in reversing all these trends. Pundits will measure his performance by studying such indicators as consumer confidence; the ups and downs of the Dow Jones; the level of inflation or deflation; the number of US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan; the results of opinion polls that reflect the popularity of Mr Obama at home and abroad.

Will the new president be able to mobilise enough support for his fiscal stimulus plan? Will the stimulus coupled with the Federal Reserve's monetary steps help prevent the current recession from turning into a big depression, and perhaps get the American economy going again?

Will Mr Obama be able to press his ambitious plans to reform the American healthcare system and create new 'green' jobs? Can he move ahead with his strategy of withdrawing from Iraq, engaging Iran, and pushing peace in the Holy Land?

And what about America's long-term relationship with China, India, the European Union, and Russia? Will multilateralism and diplomacy replace unilateralism and militarism as the global tools of choice under the Obama presidency?

If Mr Obama succeeds in pursuing and implementing even a minuscule part of this ambitious policy agenda, he would probably be recalled as a great president.

But at the end of the four (or eight) years of his presidency, Mr Obama's real success will be measured not by his policy performance but by his ability to open the White House to the people who really own it, to remove the barricades that have helped turn it into an armed fortress, and in that way, to revitalise the promise of America, chiselled with the words that President Abraham Lincoln delivered in his 1865 inaugural address. 'With malice toward none,' Lincoln said, 'with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . .'

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