Jan 15th 2009
From The Economist print edition
George Bush has left a dismal legacy, but Barack Obama can do much to repair the damage
SHORTLY after midday on January 20th, Barack Obama will sit for the first time at the desk where the buck stops. The American presidency is always the world’s hardest and most consequential job, but it seems particularly so this month. A global recession of a severity not seen for perhaps 80 years; a new war in the Middle East and old ones in Africa; missions very far from accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan; a prickly Russia and a rising China. These international challenges must jostle for the president’s attention alongside noisy domestic concerns like rocketing unemployment, the desperate need for a better health-care system, exploding deficits and failing cities. The burdens, surely, are too many for one man to bear.
Yet neither America nor the world seems to see it that way. A crowd of 2m or more is making its way to Washington, DC, to witness the inauguration of Mr Obama. Billions more will watch it on television. All will do so in a spirit that has been missing for a while—one of optimism. This is not just because a presidency knocked sideways by the events of September 11th 2001, is ending. Next week’s inauguration also bears witness to America’s awesome power of self-renewal. Because he is young, handsome and intelligent, and also because as the child of a Kansan and a Kenyan he reconciles in his own person one of the world’s most hateful divisions, Mr Obama carries with him the hopes of the planet.
Too much so, for sure. But what might the world realistically hope for from Mr Obama’s presidency? Many would argue, after the disaster that surrounded George Bush’s Iraq adventure, that to rebuild its foreign relationships America must become a more modest giant, more obviously constrained by international law and more committed to working even-handedly for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. In some ways, that is surely right. Less of Mr Bush’s Manichaean arrogance would be welcome.
With us, not withdrawn
This does not mean that America should become more isolationist. Most of the world’s biggest problems still cry out for its leadership; and an America that withdraws to heal its domestic wounds will not serve the world well. No one seriously imagines that peace can come to the Middle East without America. Neither Russia, nor China, nor the EU has any appetite to lead efforts to confront nuclear proliferation by Iran or North Korea. Sometimes, as with Kosovo in the 1990s, America needs to act even when the UN hesitates. Above all, America must lead efforts to grapple with the global recession, through its dominant position at the IMF, its vital role in resisting the siren call of protectionism and the stimulative effect of the vast government outlays Mr Obama is planning. Yet a president who understands, as Mr Bush did not, that America is not the uncontested hyper power of the 1990s—one who values “soft power” more than the hard version—will be a change for the better. An America led by such a man will listen more carefully to and work more closely with allies and rivals, will strive harder to respect the laws it has signed up to and might enter into new commitments, for instance to tackle climate change.
A renewal of America’s respect for constitution and law would be welcome at home as well as abroad. George the Second disdained the rules of governance established by his forefathers. He wiretapped citizens without authority, secretly permitted the use of torture and dismissed prosecutors on political grounds. Mr Obama seems determined not to follow his example. He has appointed a liberal outsider to run the CIA and a noted academic to head his office of legal counsel. America’s, said one of its founders, should be “a government of laws and not of men”. Under Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, it often seemed the opposite.
But it is the domestic economy which will consume most of Mr Obama’s time. And here American renewal must take two opposite forms. In some ways, the times cry out for more active government: for stronger regulation of banks and near-banks, for much more short-term government spending to counteract the contraction elsewhere in the economy, and for the establishment of a basic health-care system for everyone. But Mr Obama also needs a plan to shrink other aspects of government over the longer term. Without reform of expensive entitlements, the federal government faces bankruptcy. Cutting entitlements at the same time as buying hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of bad loans from Wall Street is difficult politics, to say the least. But at least Mr Obama has acknowledged that he will have to do it. A more equitable health system coupled with a path towards budget reform would, on their own, make Mr Obama’s presidency a remarkable one. And at least he has the votes in Congress to make it happen.
What chance success?
Mr Bush (see article) had a simplistic tendency to see the world through ideological and partisan spectacles. He hung on to bad advisers for longer than he should have; he divided the world too often into good and evil; and he plotted to establish a Republican hegemony although he had sold himself to the electorate as bipartisan. In economic matters, he was too prone to sacrifice the long-term good for short-term gain. He seemed curiously incurious about vital details, such as the conduct of the war in Iraq.
Mr Obama seems to be different. By offering the most prized cabinet job to his rival, Hillary Clinton, and by keeping on Robert Gates, the defence secretary, who has done a good job, Mr Obama has shown a determination not to surround himself with cronies. He has put together a team which has impressed almost everyone with its calibre and its centrism. He has been tough already, dispatching blunderers and being prepared to admit to mistakes. He has repeatedly warned Americans that he will have to do unpleasant things.
The next four, or eight, years may be a disappointment, a triumphant renewal or something in between. Mr Obama is inexperienced, and right now the world looks especially forbidding. But he is a respectful and thoughtful man, and that is a good start.