Obama, transformative president in the making

Business Times - 02 Apr 2009

Obama, transformative president in the making


IF you were listening to some of the criticism directed against Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama last year, you might have concluded that his detractors were confusing the African-American senator from Illinois who was raised by a young single mother of modest means and who had to study and work hard before being accepted by Columbia University and Harvard Law School with the scion of a wealthy WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) family from New England, who had studied in a prestigious preparatory school before his well-connected dad helped him get into an Ivy League university.

Indeed, Mr Obama was depicted by some of his rivals as a salad-eating, Chardonnay sipping, over-educated and snobbish intellectual, who was out-of-touch with the concerns and values of hard-working 'regular folks' in the small towns and rural communities of America.

Republicans and conservatives, who for years have been winning points in their campaign against Democrats and liberals by raising the cultural populist flag and bashing their opponents as unpatriotic atheists who would confiscate hunting rifles and force pregnant women to have abortions, were hoping that Sarah Palin would convince blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania and regular churchgoers in Virginia that Mr Obama was member of the much loathed un-American and defeatist 'liberal elite'.

Moreover, the Republican political machine, echoing some of the earlier comments made by then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, warned that Mr Obama was a wimp who lacked the strength of character and the political spine that a president needed to have and he would probably end up trying to placate powerful domestic interest groups as well as foreign dictators and terrorists.

Sixty days into the Obama administration it is safe to say that the new White House occupant has mostly proved his detractors wrong. In fact, President Obama has emerged as a resolute national leader with a set of firm convictions who has taken dramatic - and on some level, historic - steps to reshape American economy and to realign the country's politics in a way that should shift the balance of political-economic power from the wealthy - the real elites - to those who have been left behind - the members of a depressed middle class, those blue-collar workers from Pennsylvania and churchgoers from Virginia, the unemployed and the poor.

President Obama's US$787 billion economic stimulus package that Congress passed last month and the social and economic priorities embodied in it as well as in his proposed budget proposal - redistributing wealth from the upper strata of the moneyed elites to those in the middle and the bottom; creating the foundations for a national health care system; increasing federal spending on social programmes and education; supporting new 'green' industries - are a clear indication that the new Democratic and liberal White House occupant plans to be a transformative president. Clearly, he intends to do away with many of the fundamentals of free market Reaganomics and promote a more social liberal agenda that depends on the machinery of government.

Conservative radio talk show hosts and some Republican lawmakers are accusing Mr Obama of trying to import 'socialism' to America. But the fact is that even under Mr Obama's own best-case-scenario, he would be providing for a stronger social safety net, including a national health care system that has already been adopted by most of the industrialised nations - in addition to acting in a responsible way to start closing the growing income gap in the US.

If the election results provided him with a clear political mandate, the economic crisis supplied him with an opportunity to move with added speed to advance his ambitious agenda.

What bothers the Republicans and the conservatives is that Mr Obama's new economic-social populist message could prove to be more powerful than the Republican's cultural populist battle cry - attracting more 'regular folks' to the Democratic party and creating the conditions for a historic political realignment.

The problem facing Mr Obama is that his current plan to save the financial system through a massive bailout of Wall Street firms has not only failed to revive the banks and resolve the credit crunch; it is also igniting even more populist rage around the country that could turn against Mr Obama and make it difficult for him to market himself as the champion of the interests of the people.

At the same time, without a resolution of the financial crisis, Mr Obama could find himself with no resources to fund his grand social and economic programmes. The Transformative President could find himself facing a powerful counter-transformation.

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


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