Obama's looking at the bigger picture

Business Times - 14 Aug 2009

Obama's looking at the bigger picture

By not shaking up the political foundations, he's less likely to create conditions that could threaten his presidency


OUR friendly Martian trying to make sense of the life and times of Barack Obama by monitoring what the members of America's chattering class say about him six months into his presidency would probably be quite confused.

Who exactly is this guy who just a few months ago had been heralded as a 'transformative' post-partisan, post-racial president? Is he changing the way business is done in Washington, standing up to entrenched economic and political interests and their well-paid lobbyists? Is he shifting the direction of US foreign and defence policies?

The answer to these and related questions depend very much on where one stands on the political map. Pundits on the political right are portraying the White House occupant as a left-leaning liberal - perhaps even a 'socialist' who is promoting economic and social policies given the huge stimulus package, healthcare reform programme and new energy plans that are going to expand the scope and power of the federal government. This trend, they contend, would lead to rising taxes on the middle class, balloon the already bloating deficit, extinguish America's entrepreneurial spirit, and destroy the entire American economy.

And the same conservative and Republican critics also accuse Mr Obama of weakening US national security by closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and by denouncing the interrogation methods of the Bush administration, not to mention the White House's 'appeasement' of Islamic radicals and anti-American dictators in Teheran and Pyongyang.

But then, on the political left, the narrative sounds quite different. Mr Obama is criticised by liberal columnists and bloggers for refraining from challenging the powers that be in Washington and Wall Street.

After all, instead of taking advantage of the financial crisis by taking on the powerful financial industry and nationalising some major banks, Mr Obama has decided to continue pursuing his predecessor's policy of bailing out greedy and irresponsible investors. At the same time, his attempts to reform healthcare and energy policies seem to be half-hearted and amount to nothing more than a timid tweaking at the margins.

And the same left-leaning critics contend that when it comes to diplomacy and national security, Mr Obama hasn't done more than engage in global public relations which has proved to be quite effective. In the real world, many US forces are expected to remain in Iraq for many years to come while US military intervention in Afghanistan is deepening. Where is the problem?

Mr Obama's advisers will counter by proposing that if their man is being attacked by both liberals and conservatives, well, that probably suggests that he is doing something right. Mr Obama has never promised to launch a political or economic revolution, they will add. He has embraced pragmatic policies that are not based on any ideological dogma and that have incorporated the best of what liberals and conservatives have to offer as part of an effort to protect the interests of Main Street at home and defend America's national interests abroad.

Hence, according to Mr Obama, his plan to reform the healthcare system is aimed at providing assistance to the needy and at cutting costs and reducing the deficit. He has succeeded in helping revive Wall Street and Detroit, and is trying to fight climate change and create new green businesses.

In the global arena, he is pursuing a diplomatic opening to Iran and expanding the military offensive against terrorists in Afghanistan, 'resetting' US relationship with Russia and strengthening ties with Georgia.

It's true that the American electorate that voted Mr Obama into the White House was not brought together by any coherent ideological platform - either 'liberal' or 'conservative' - but more by a sense of frustration with what was going on in Washington, culminating with the economic and foreign policy disasters of the Bush administration.

From than perspective, electing a young and inexperienced African-American politician with the middle name of 'Hussein' - an event that would have been inconceivable four years ago - was a clear message to the entire political class that the American people wanted a real change - as opposed to adjustments on the margins.

And indeed, during the election campaign, Mr Obama and his aides compared the candidate to former President Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, two transformative presidents who were not leading revolutions but were responsible - for better or for worse, depending on your point of view - for pursuing revolutionary changes in US domestic and foreign policies.

At the same time, Mr Obama the 'agent of change' was contrasted with senators Hillary Clinton (his Democratic rival) and John McCain (his Republican opponent) who were portrayed as conventional Washington 'insiders'.

Moreover, there is little doubt that Mr Obama's strong opposition to the decision to go to war in Iraq and his criticism of Washington's benign attitude towards the financial mess in Wall Street helped him win over the large chunk of independent and even some Republican voters, in addition to the majority of Democrats who voted for him last November.

As pointed out by almost all public opinion polls on the eve of the presidential election, the majority of Americans were demanding that Washington bring US troops back home from Iraq and elsewhere and to punish the fat cats responsible for the financial mess.

Mr Obama's historic victory should not have been seen as a start of a revolution, but against the backdrop of a long and bloody military quagmire and a costly and painful economic crisis, it did reflect mounting populist sentiments against Washington around the country that seem to cut across political, geographical and demographic lines.

If anything, it is becoming clear that Mr Obama has refrained from riding on this populist wave, choosing a veteran Wall Street figure to run his Treasury Department and selecting the former Republican Pentagon chief to manage his Defense Department, sub-contracting veteran Democratic pols on Capitol Hill to prepare his stimulus package, relying on old Washington hands for foreign policy advice.

That explains why Mr Obama's plan to reform the workings of the financial industry sounds like nothing more than a mish-mash of wishy-washy proposals or why the steps taken by the Hillary Clinton-Robert Gates national security team look more and more like a user-friendly version of the policies pursued by the Condoleeza Rice-Robert Gates duo, a Bush-Lite foreign policy smoothed over by Mr Obama's friendly touch.

Why has Mr Obama been turned to be such a untransformative president? It's possible that, as the first black man occupying the most powerful political position in the nation, he feels insecure about confronting the members of what is still the confident and mostly white political and economic elite whose members - whether it's in Wall Street or in the Pentagon - continue to resist change.

Populist rage

And notwithstanding the persisting populist rage among Americans, such a sentiment has yet to develop into a concrete political agenda.

But in any case, Mr Obama's failure to challenge 'The Man' - what Americans use when they refer to the government, heads of big corporations, and other powerful figures - also explains why many remain sceptical about the president's claim that his plan to reform health care will constrain the power of the large insurance companies and help cut the healthcare costs of middle class Americans.

That scepticism seems to be shared by the majority of independent voters who are telling pollsters about their disappointment with Mr Obama.

That doesn't mean that Mr Obama is headed towards political downfall. A gradual recovery of the American economy and a gradual withdrawal of US troops from Iraq coupled with the fact that the Republican Party has become a regional (Southern white) minority party may help Mr Obama win a second term in the White House and the Democrats to maintain their control of Congress.

And a pragmatic, as opposed to a transformative, Mr Obama who avoids shaking up the political foundations of Washington is less likely to ignite the kind of explosive environment that could threaten his presidency. The challenge to the status-quo will probably have to wait for another president.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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