Thursday, November 06, 2008
The Next US President
I suppose I couldn't let this election pass without making a note about it. Friends and regular readers should undoubtedly infer that I'm quite pleased with the outcome of this election. While I still harbor a few misgivings about his vapid, often hollow rhetoric, I think he is the first American president in a long time to have a realistic sense of where America really is and where America is really heading. And while I'm not completely abandoning my cynical and pessimistic forecasts for the future of this country (or lack thereof), I think his election represents a real opportunity.
Why do I think he might be good for the job? His ethnicity and wildly successful courting of a diverse electorate suggest that he has a real sense of the many parts that comprise the whole of this country. While Obama sought votes, support, and volunteers from all classes, segments and aspects of American society, McCain only ever seemed to seek the support of Joe the Plumber, or whatever was considered the "real America." But it was Obama who recognized that, while honest hardworking plumbers in the Mid-West are an important part of this country, America is far more than that. Barak Obama showed that any politician who fails to recognize this new reality does so at his own peril.
But beyond being the first African American president, he is the first president in many other, and I think more important ways. He is of mixed ethnicity, and will have unique insights into both cultures, something I believe has made him the brilliant and formidable communicator he is today. Growing up in Indonesia for a time, he is the first president to spend a significant portion of his life as a minority in another country and culture. I think this early experience gives him unique perspectives and empathy that made him such a powerful, charismatic figure. These will serve him well as a president. He's gone from Kansas to Indonesia, and from the housing projects of Chicago to the halls in Harvard. As a historian I can't recall a single president with such a diverse medley of life experiences.
Too often I find the leaders of this country (especially our most recent commander in chief) come from the most narrow, insulated, well-bred, societal elite . Living their lives out in the marbled halls of gated communities, exclusive private schools and colleges, country clubs, and the corporate boardrooms they dominate, the good ole' boy network lacks not only the perpsective required to lead intelligently, but often harbors serious conflicts of interest. One is often reminded of the first president Bush as he related his story of walking into a supermarket in the early 1990's and being astounded at the laser bar-code scanners. How can someone who hadn't shopped for groceries for years possibly have the perspective and vantage of society as a whole, much less share their interests? And while our new president elect undeniably runs in the elite circles of the wonkish, upper-middle class intelligentsia, I think Obama can be different from the rest, and can relate to the needs of everyone. How else could he have run such a successful campaign?
Besides being the first to President to bridge so many of societies gaps, Obama is also the first Gen-X president, and carries none of the serious intellectual impedimenta that I believe plague so many of America's leaders, especially as it relates to foreign relations. Repeatedly attacking Obama for his willingness to talk to Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela "without preconditions," proved in my mind that the old war veteran just doesn't get it . Such uncompromising rhetoric confirmed that McCain clings to an outdated, romantic vision of America as a superpower acting as some kind of great force for democracy and freedom in the world. I think Obama recognizes that America no longer has the diplomatic strength to impose its unbridled will anywhere it chooses. Bush's refusal to talk to Iran has gotten us nothing but a country much closer to nuclear arms. McCain doesn't seem to get that, even if the US and its European allies stonewall and impose sanctions on Iran, Russia and China will not, ultimately neutering any threats we make against Iran.
Barack Obama's Gen-X perspective also gave him the wisdom and foresight to know that invading Iraq was a bad idea from the start and would only serve to solidify America's image as the global monster it truly is. While McCain and his Washington counterparts authorized the invasion on dubious intelligence, with delusions of "protecting Americans" and "spreading democracy" Obama recognized that despite Americans' perceptions of itself (especially among older generations), the rest of the world does not share that image. The USA has overthrown governments in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq to name just a few of the dozens of military interventions the United States has participated in since the end of World War II. Many of these were democratically elected governments. And this doesn't include the scores of other dictators and oppressors the US supported around the world for a variety of reasons. Obama knows that to win the war of ideas, we have to live out those ideals ourselves.
Unlike McCain, Generation X understands that the United States can no longer violently implement its foreign policy objectives. With the balance of global economic power shifting to Russia, China, and Southwest Asia, any long term solution to protect United States security and interests must require engaging enemies diplomatically, and not simply refusing to talk and/or murdering them. I think Obama, along with most people his age, recognize this reality. Perhaps this was something he picked up on during his time in Indonesia, where the evil, US-backed dictator Suharto killed over a million people??
I think Obama also recognizes the complete and utter failure, both morally and intellectually, of Reagan's trickle-down economics. Facts show that, despite their wildly unbelievable claims of "fiscal responsibility," during the Reagan, Bush, and Bush II years, the federal deficit grew more than during all other presidencies combined. And not only as a sum dollar total, but also as a percentage of GDP as well. There are also no economic studies that show a higher tax rate stifles economic growth. Europe is proof of this. I think Obama knows that tax cuts for the super rich are nothing but that: tax cuts for super rich people. When Clinton raised taxes on wealthy people, everyone howled that it would kill economic growth. But just the opposite happened. All that money the government was borrowing was instantly freed up and infused the economy with hundreds of billions of dollars in investment capital. Someone should probably explain to Senator McCain that the best solution to the current credit crisis might be to raise taxes, and not lower them.
But while I think Obama has the better mindset and understanding to lead, I have yet to join in the euphoria of many of my friends. In my estimation, I'm not convinced anyone can be very successful. Powerful corporations, trade associations, and large blocks of special interests know exactly how to promote their own agendas in Washington. I have yet to see the spirit of compromise, consensus, and co-operation required to solve the United State's formidable problems. When JFK said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," he understood that people have to work together, compromise and put aside their egos, and sometimes, their personal interests for the greater good of their communities. Obama has been good about fostering this spirit within his own campaign and organization, as evidenced by my friends who volunteered a lot of their own time and money to put him in office.
Whether he can foster this attitude in Washington DC, where he will undoubtedly anger and disappoint people, step on toes, and be forced to bring many people with many competing goals together and make them agree to solutions has yet to be seen.
Until this fundamental attitude adjustment get solved, it probably won't matter how talented, smart, good looking, or eloquent Barack Obama might be. If the American people as a whole can't put aside their petty differences for the good of the country, I don't see any of Washington's problems getting solved.
If people don't work together and take an interest in the course of their country, the next president will inevitably succumb to the pressure of moneyed interests and morph into just another puppet dancing to the will of corporate America. If people don't come together in unity, eight years from now will simply bring us millions more people who will be uninsured and bankrupt and without access to medical care, whose swelling market costs will swallow up everything. If we don't come together, America will still be forcefully asserting its interests around the world through military might, spawning a new generation of angry terrorists bent on our destruction. And we will still be financing a huge, towering fiscal deficit, borne on the backs of the great export economies of the Far East.
So its time for Americans to stop placing their hope in the next American president, change their thinking and start working together as a team for the betterment of their own country. Barack Obama probably understands the need for this change. But he won't be able to accomplish much unless enough of everyone else does as well.