Business Times - 31 Dec 2009
Obama's real job: cleaner and group therapist
By LEON HADAR
AS ONE of the most exhilarating - and yet depressing - years in the history of Washington comes to an end, many pundits are already writing the political obituary of the leading character in this chapter: Barack Obama is predicted to become a one-term president.
Indeed, some of Mr Obama's former groupies have become very melodramatic, depicting him as the Fallen Messiah or as the God that Failed, and insisting that they will not be stuffing envelopes or knocking on doors in Iowa on his behalf if Mr Obama decides to run for a second term in 2012.
It is certainly too early to start making political bets on the outcome of the next presidential race or, for that matter, on the Congressional midterm election in 2010.
But the collapse of the Cult of Obama and the recognition that he has become a 'normal' political figure and will probably not turn out to be a 'transformational' president should be regarded as a very positive development - and one more sign that reason and realism have come back in fashion in Washington this year.
Indeed, many of us who last year applied the term 'earthquake' to describe the election of Mr Obama as president, have discovered this year that the political, economic and social earthquake had taken place before the 2008 vote.
Mr Obama was elected, not to lead a revolution, but to clean-up the mess left behind by the devastating upheaval that included two never-ending and costly military quagmires, a crumbling financial system, an ailing economy and a nation that is experiencing growing social-economic inequality and deep political divisions. And much more.
There is a tendency to attribute much of this mess to specific decisions that were made by this president or that Congress.
If only US officials and lawmakers had made more effort to regulate the financial industry, Wall Street would still be partying.
If President George W Bush had not invaded Iraq, the United States could continue maintain is pre-eminent strategic position.
And what about the growing US deficit, global warming, the stalled Middle East peace process?
If only Washington had done more to resolve these and other problems.
But these and other policy choices that were made - or not made - reflected more than just a lack of leadership in Washington. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, US political, economic and intellectual elites have been pursuing policy agendas based on what could be described as a faulty meta-narrative - a certain grand theory about America's political and economic power and its role in the international system and global economy.
It assumed that the American democratic system and its free-market economic model have been perfected to such an extent that they will not only continue to bring about more economic growth and prosperity at home, but they could and should serve as a model, and needed to be exported through peaceful means (trade and investment) or through military force to the rest of humanity.
In a way, 'free-market fundamentalism', to use a term coined by investor George Soros, helped create the foundations for a powerful political axis between Wall Street and Washington that resulted in thriving wild-west mentality in the financial sector and the housing industry and a unique form of American crony capitalism.
At the same time, the celebration of American capitalism seemed to provide intellectual legitimacy for marketing it to the emerging economies in the form of the Washington Consensus, while the 'colour revolutions' and the occasional military-driven 'regime change' were supposed to help plant liberal democracy worldwide.
While members of the elites in Washington continue to publicly express their commitment to the old meta-narrative, they are now all aware of the high political and economic costs of trying to promote this project that are obvious for all to see - whether it is a shrinking and economically depressed middle class at home or the challenges from rising economies or aggressive nation-states and movements abroad.
Mr Obama does not have the power or even the will to help draw the outlines of a new meta-narrative. That kind of intellectual transformation will take a long time and will require a collective effort.
Instead, Mr Obama is now presiding over a process of re-matching American goals with the eroding means in its disposal, of bringing Americans back to earth to face the glum realities, whether it is the jobless economy or the quagmire in Afghanistan.
It is a cross between being a head of cleaning-crew and a group therapist, a very unromantic and thankless job as he has discovered this year. But someone has got to do it.
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