THE BIG DISAPPOINTMENT?
The change we can believe in, the change we can't
Noah Dove - Nov. 5th 2008 - Noah Dove
The big board at CNN has gone out, the parties are over, the lawn signs are being pulled up and put away. After a long and grueling election cycle, and after endless debating, and speaking, and late night shows, it's official: Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States of America. Any time you're facing off against a person who is of the same party as a two-term president, THE strategy is to take the position of the force of change and to pin your opponent as more of the same; a tactic that the Obama campaign played very well. Of course, like all campaign rhetoric, it is likely to fade into non-existence even before the inauguration. So, we've got to ask ourselves, now that we've elected the candidate running on the "change you can believe in" ticket, how much change should we really expect to see?
First, let's run through Obama's victory speeches (both when he was officially nominated, and when he got the presidency after McCain succeeded), as they tend to give a good highlight of the big topics.
The first substantial thing of note comes from Obama's nomination speech. Obama said "More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet... the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush" So, what do we expect Obama to do about this problem? The first way of handling this, of course, is to get more people into houses (say, through affordable housing initiatives, or whatever). This would have the added effect of increasing the value of homes as supply outstrips demand. The problem, of course, is that it was this exact attitude of cramming people into houses they can not currently afford that was mostly responsible for all the economic problems we're having now. Indeed, having houses that are high in price, AND having lots of people stay in their homes is mutually exclusive. In the end, the only real solution is to foreclose all of the bad homeowners out there as a form of a fresh restart, but nobody (much less his party) would let him do that. The end result? Obama will talk tough, but in the end, he will do absolutely nothing to fix the problem, just like the last administration.
Continuing with the nomination speech we get to "This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work." This, of course, brings us to entitlements. Before you begin to think about who deserves to be helped, you invariably have to look at the question of how all of your necessary, life-saving, standard of living improving programs are actually going to be funded. There are, of course, two ways to handle this. The first is to keep tax rates at more or less the same and have it ride on an increasing wave of prosperity. This worked fine under Clinton, but Obama is not going to have nearly the same economy. The only other option, then, is to raise taxes while prosperity is about the same. Of course, given that prosperity is going DOWN at the moment, it means that you'd have to raise taxes a lot.
Here's the catch, though. Government does not raise wealth, it only evens it out. A corporation, for example, exists first and formostly to increase wealth. Governments, on the other hand don't (we don't expect the government to turn a profit, for example). As such, taking money out of the private sector (which raises money, which can be turned around to fund entitlements) and giving it away for non-productive ends, no matter how legitimately noble and necessary, in the end either decreases the overall wealth pool to draw from, or, at best, breaks even (at which point, it's eroded away by inflation).
As such, there has been a long pattern of increasing demand for government solutions for which, by fact that there isn't enough money now, there will never be enough money for. As such, Obama will not be able to do anything new at all (without further unbalancing the budget and increasing the national debt), as he's not going to have anywhere near the funds required to maintain current levels of funding, much less bringing things to maintenance levels. Unless there is a huge economic glut, at which point Obama can ask to start new things that will go unfunded when the bubble invariably bursts, look at the incoming president to do nothing different from the old one.
Continuing to another topic, we get "We're a better country than one where a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment that he's worked on for 20 years and watch as it's shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news." Here we have a clear stand from Obama: this president is going to favor protectionist policies. In other speeches, Obama talked about subsidizing companies that retain jobs in the United States (with what money?) and penalizing those companies that send jobs overseas. As well, a lot of liberals have been chafing at the bit of free trade, and have never approved of organizations such as NAFTA.
We have to ask, then, what would be the result of protectionist policies? For one, nobody that isn't the protectionist country likes countries that practice protectionism. As such, not only would world opinion likely take a little hit, but it would be entirely possible (if not highly probable), that other countries will enact similar policies against the United States (or, conversely, the US could take a hit from the WTO, and other big international organizations). In the end, when coupled with increasing fuel prices and the "wal-mart economic model", we're likely to see a rise in the price of foreign goods. As well, of course, jobs in the US makes products more expensive, and as such there will inevitably be inflation problems. While such protectionist policies might possibly in the long term help, in the short term, the unemployment that currently exists due to things like globalization, an economy that is teetering on recession, and a financial section in tatters, when combined with this increased inflation is a recipe for absolute disaster.
While I couldn't find any good quotes from these speeches on this subject, it is still definitely worthwhile to look at Obama's projected foreign policy. To begin with, I would point to one of the presidential debates in which Obama said he'd be willing to hunt down and kill Osama Bin Laden, even if he was inside someone else's country. Being the idealist or neo-idealist that he is in foreign policy (nothing wrong with that, if you like that ideology), it is clear to see that Obama is following a very, very old dogma when it comes to American presidents: when it comes to a conflict between America's interest and foreign sovereignty, America's interests win. This, of course, is the primary reason why so many people don't like America. If you hated Bush because commenced "illegal wars" (namely, violating other nation's sovereignty rights), then you need to be prepared to hate Obama. Anyone who voted for Obama because he looked like he would be the "peace candidate" is looking out for the biggest disappointment of this election. In any case, Obama's policy is not going to be one of change when it comes to the importance of national interest (like he had a choice), and he's going to behave a lot like the last administration, and every administration before him dating back to president Wilson (if not Monroe).
The second aspect of Obama's thought on foreign policy is also old. He correctly, at least in my opinion, believes in the doctrine that democratic nations don't go to war with each other. For example, in his president-elect acceptance speech, he used such language as "To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if Americas beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."
As such, he has definitely used the language of bringing (could be read forcing) the blessings of liberty and democracy in the world, which, when combined with the methods described two paragraphs ago, draws a straight line to the previous Bush administration. While few argue against the fact that democratization brings violence, Obama has said nothing to the effect of that it isn't worth violence now for a future full of peace. Of course, I think we can legitimately expect a change in strategy from the Bush administration. No American president in the near future, Obama included, is going to have the political capital to put boots down on foreign soil in the interest of America's national interest (at least not a lot of them, and they would probably be covert like Reagan's missions). Instead, we're likely to see a lot of American "illegal actions" in the form of tomahawk missile strikes that will blow up the unsuspecting from the political safety of allied states and international waters. Once again, people who think Obama stands for peace will be sorely disappointed when they realize that he believes in democratization and America's national interests more.
The third part of Obama's foreign policy that he wants to "repair alliances" and "work closely with our allies" when it comes to foreign policy. First, I think it's important to break down who, exactly, our allies are. Firstly, there is a big group of countries that, let's be honest, have little impact on global foreign policy. This consists of a few nations and blocs that don't like us, it also consists of a big pile of countries that do. The fact that over two dozen countries were willing to send at least a couple of soldiers at least for morale support for the invasion of Iraq shows that there are still a lot of people out there that like us. The second group is actors and blocs that could actually change things. Once again, most of these like us (eastern Europe, Africa, any former British colony, etc.), and those who don't were never really our ally in the first place (like Russia or China). Just to make things clear, when Obama talks about repairing our alliances so that we can work together with them, he's really talking about western Europe.
So, how do you repair an alliance? In short, it's doing what your allies want, at least an awful lot more of the time than we're doing now. Likewise, the only way to work with your allies is to only undertake things that your allies already want to do, or take only a very minor amount of convincing. Such, of course, is the problem with all alliance structures: the only actions which are ever likely to happen are those in the least common denominator of every actor's self-interest. Think of it like a Venn diagram, where the only actions that get taken are those in which everyone overlaps. Not that challenging with two countries, but western Europe puts us in a Venn diagram with at least a dozen other circles drawn on the graph.
Then, of course, we have to look at where western Europe falls. While there are many similarities and differences, there is one key difference to note. Western Europe is not NEARLY as devoted to the ideology of bringing liberty and democracy to the world as America is. America was founded on the principles of liberty and democracy and overthrowing tyranny, and these ideas have been constantly refreshed over and over again through both world wars and the cold war. President Wilson's 14-point plan to "make the world safe for democracy" was almost uniformally and completely rejected by every power in western Europe in 1919, and the outlook doesn't look much different now. In short, different cultures promote different goals, and western Europe is far less wanting to shed it's blood and spend its dwindling treasure on American ideals. For example, Obama has already called on countries such as Germany to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan. Germany has little, if really any national interest in Afghanistan (if anything, it was drug in due to its NATO membership), as such, it is unsurprising that Germany is trying as hard as it can to get out of its committments, much less be responsive to the idea of spilling MORE German blood and treasure into the mess over there.
So that leaves president Obama with a choice. Either he can abandon his call for liberty and democracy (which would, indeed, be a real change), and can allow genocide to take place all over the world, and can allow the forces of hate to grow (which was a big contributing factor to the 9/11 attacks), or, guess what, he can break with his allies just like the Bush administration, and pursue American ideals with only limited support from our allies. Bush faced this exact problem that Obama will have to face once he steps into the oval office. Given everything I've heard, I'm very much betting for Americans ignoring foreign country's sovereignty, while simultaneously badgering and ignoring our "allies", and being the same old America, rather than betting on any change whatsoever.
Now that we have the issues down, let's draw some historical comparisons. First, let's look at Bill Clinton.
Like Clinton, Obama will probably have the chance to appoint a couple of new Supreme Court Justices. Given how much of the actual process is run by the judicial side of things and in the legislature, Obama is very unlikely to pick someone to be a judge who is a left-wing radical. As such, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Clinton-appointees would be swapped for someone very similar to said appointees.
As well, I'd think it's fair to say that Hillary Clinton's policies were pretty close to Bill's, and, if you can remember the primary, Obama's policies look an awful lot like Hillary's. But it doesn't stop there. Obama, as has been mentioned ad nauseum, is inexperienced, especially when it comes to being an executor. As such, Obama will be relying heavily on his cabinet. The thing is, though, that he hasn't been around long enough to have selected people himself. As such, he is most likely going to appoint experienced democrats to key positions. Who are said experienced democrats? People who worked for Bill Clinton. As such, a combination of his cabinet and his personal views are likely to make this a Clinton-esque presidency.
Personally, I rank the Clinton presidency as a 3 out of 5 stars. On the one hand, he presided over some very necessary entitlement reform, and had some other decent domestic policy (although, remember that he was floating on a much better economy). On the other hand, his foreign policy was atrocious. At it's best (the Balkans), it was a nearly decade long grind of constant American involvement, spending billions of dollars and a handful of American lives in a civil war that America (along with its allies), didn't actually have a whole lot to do in its ending (really, the Balkans stopped much more because everyone had killed each other or fled as refugees to the point where fighting could come to a temporary conclusion on its own). While it ultimately achieved peace, it did so at the price of a festering Kosovo problem which has, almost by compulsion, been the biggest factor in the worst US-Russia relations since the cold war. At it's worst, Clinton's foreign policy was launching tomahawk missiles at unsuspecting civilians, and letting the genocide in Rwanda happen (which could have been avoided with a strategic use of American soldiers early on), while at the same time turning around and saying "never again".
The problem, of course, is an abstract tapestry of problems. On the one hand, you want to stop genocide, civil war, and promote democracy. On the other side, however, you have an unwillingness to commit to real action (that might actually fix the problems) unless you have multilateral support (which will rarely, if ever occur. See above), because otherwise real, honest to goodness action will be difficult, if not impossible to support, given the hefty price of unilateral action. In the end, Clinton was unwilling to put American resources on the line, and foreign countries were unwilling to fill in the gap. This left the Clinton administration with the options of "do nothing", "do basically nothing" (such as imposing sanctions on Iraq for it's nuclear program. Sanctions, by the way, have been proven over and over again to do absolutely nothing. The reason anyone uses them is that they require little capital or resources, while at the same time generating the impression that you're actually doing something), or "do a little bit", namely, using the American military in such a way where they don't have the resources or mandate required to actually weed out the source of the problem. In the end, Clinton launched a lot of tomahawks, and did a lot of nothing. Will the Obama administration with Clinton's ideals and his cabinet do the same?
As my very existence post-dates the Carter administration, I won't belabor the point, but there is the definite chance that Obama might be another President Carter. While he has been a very successful post-president, let's just say that there was a reason he was a one-term president in the first place.
Carter, like Clinton, had a strong aversion to decisive military engagements. Carter, though, was much more reluctant, on a matter of principal, to get involved in things where American boots would be on the ground in foreign countries. As such, his policies were far less useful, which would have been forgivable, if not for the circumstances. By circumstances, of course, I mean Iran. The Iran problem was something that was very much forced on Carter, in part by a long string of previous administrations' problems. In the end, though, they exploded on his watch, and it was his responsibility. As such, in part due to his aversion to military action of any sort, when he was forced by circumstances to use the American military, well, the end result was one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in American history. In the end, Iran went from a friendly regional power at the beginning of the Carter administration, to an ardent enemy that was clearly supportive of terrorism and it's tactics. The situation with Iran remains unresolved, several decades later. As such, if Obama winds up being much more of an anti-war candidate than I am otherwise predicting, if put in a circumstance where Obama doesn't have a choice, we might well see a repeat of Carter's foreign policy.
The other big deal for the Carter administration, of course, was the craziness in the economy. If I haven't said it already in this essay, let me make it clear that I don't believe that the president has much of anything to do with the economy. That being said, Carter used his very limited power in such a way that exacerbated a pre-existing disaster. Likewise, Obama is inheriting a pretty poor economic outlook, and the little that Obama can do has the chance to make things worse. As mentioned above, Obama is big into protectionism, and will likely be guided by his party to move against fair trade. As such, we could see a repeat of the Carter administration in that in a world where production is going down, and unemployment is going up, Obama's protectionist policies, if actually enacted, could throw inflation on top of the mess. This gives us, yes, stagflation.
While Obama is by no means guaranteed to be another Carter, there is the chance. If it happens, look forward to a deep-seated feeling of betrayal which will cut off Obama's tenure as president to a single term.
Yes, Obama definitely needed to present himself as the opposite of George W. Bush in order to get elected, and I don't fault him on that in the slightest. In the end, though, I actually wonder how different from the current president he will actually be.
As explained before, Obama has a very similar outlook on foreign policy to many American presidents, George Bush included. Indeed, if Obama's desire for liberty and democracy is legitimate, it's much more likely that Obama will stray from Clinton's foreign policy and will start looking spookily like Bush's. If Obama is really serious when he said "To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you." In his presidential acceptance speech, it means that he will be willing to break with allies and be willing to take real action to send real troops on real missions to make the world a better place. In which case, he will be a carbon copy of the previous Bush administration.
As well, given Bush's economic policy, it's very likely that he'll wind up being like Bush. For example Bush put out the infamous "tax cuts" long ago, which, of course, was actually a decrease in the increase on taxes on the rich. Likewise, Obama has promised tax "cuts" to the middle class. Either Obama will completely ignore this campaign promise and raise taxes on the middle class after all (something I personally consider more likely), or, in order to both fund all the projects required to fix America AND look like he's keeping his word, he will do a similar tax "cut", in which people will be convinced that they will be saving money, when actually they are paying more, just not AS much more as previously thought.
Of course, there will undoubtedly be a change in attitude, for example, in the rhetoric about climate change and renewable energy and blah blah, but Obama still needs to be able to raise the funds for actual change: something which he is unlikely to get, at least for quite some time. As such, he will undoubtedly rely on the next best thing: promising a lot and then underfunding it. Can someone say "Bush administration"?
That all said, there are a few things I really fear from this incoming administration.
The first is racism. No, I don't mean a white supremacist shooting the president. We have the secret service for that. I mean racism that's used for the powers of love rather than the powers of hate, but it's still racism. There has been a LOT of talk, especially in the post-election coverage about how "historic" it is that America finally has a black president. So what if he's black?
Listening to the radio one day, I heard an African American gentleman say "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama is running so your children can fly." After I get over the nausea, my initial, heavily sarchastic reaction is "yes, this is a great victory indeed for people who have a different skin color!" It is a horrible thing to even consider the idea of not voting for Obama because of his skin color, but somehow it's not only fine, but "historic" to vote FOR him because of his skin color? Frankly, all of this blatant hypocrisy, and this blatant racism makes me want to barf.
But that's just ignorant people being annoying, fine. What does that have to do with real fear? My fear is this: that people will be willing to completely overlook Obama's failures (which, him being human, will mean there will be many) solely because of the color of his skin. I have the fear that critics of Obama policy will be shot down because of Obama's race, and I have the fear that history will not look at Obama based on his policy (which I believe will invariably be ahistoric), but will simply remember him as America's first black president, nothing more. I'd really like to hope that we will live in a world where people are judged on their choice of policy, but I have the fear that it won't be the case for Barack Obama.
The second big fear I have is where Obama is from. Having moved to Illinois from Minnesota, I was frankly shocked by the state of politics here. In Minnesota, a bad public official is treated with scorn, and a really bad public official will have the sporratic calls for resignation. In Illinois, bad public officials spend time in state prison, their reputation forever marred, but they may use corruption to get back into influence. REALLY bad public officials spend the rest of their life (after their term is up) in federal prison.
Thus, the fear I have is that we'll see another Clinton, in this regard. Both Clinton and Obama vastly outspent their opponent (After he refused to agree to equal campaign money in the form of campaign finance reform by taking public money, in Obama's case he outspent McCain by 6:1. Can someone say "bought an election"?) and were covered in a vastly biased way by the media (In Obama's case, he had a 4:1 bias compared to McCain, and international media was 10x worse). In any case, the "slicker" candidate won, and both of them were from notoriously corrupt states, and both of them had enough money for campaign cover-ups, and a near total lack of press scrutiny. Eventually, like with Clinton, the media's rabid hypnosis will fade and people will eventually become critical. Coming from Illinois, I have the fear that somewhere, somehow, Obama was connected to Ryan (once Illinois governor, currently in federal prison), or worse. I'd hate to see a candidate that promised so much hope be so completely riddled by illegalities, but I really don't count it out, given his political origins.
The final fear I have is that of another crisis of confidence in the United States. Obama didn't just talk about America's desire for change but he talked about the HOPE for change. In the end, there is likely to be a lot more of the same. If there isn't, there is the very real risk of repeating some grievous past failures. In either case, the hope for change is very likely to be forsaken.
This brings me to my final big fear. Obama has gambled on the very soul of America. When he fails to live up to the expectations that he will be just short of the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (I've actually seen pictures of the painted icons), it will do more than damage the economy or foreign opinion, or whatever may or may not be damaged. It will damage America's hope that at some point in the future a candidate that is actually promising real change will come, and will actually change things. There are some real problems that actually require a lot of political capital to be spent on odd ideas. That capital may simply be stripped away by an Obama administration of more of the same. People expected a brighter future, and after Obama's done, we're very likely to still be viewed poorly by western Europe, we're very likely to still have a massive national debt with an unbalanced budget, and we're very likely to continue to have a bankrupt social security system without a viable way of getting healthcare access to all Americans.
Americans could easily bounce back from a president who promised more of the same, or even something slightly different, and delivered more of the same, but I have a fear that this will be a real blow to the hope of the American spirit which it may take some time to recover from.
THE REAL HOPE FOR CHANGE
But let's not end on a negative note. After all, like it or not, Barack Obama will, indeed, be the next president of the United States, and we all have to make the best of it. Given that we really can't believe in the hope that Obama promised, there still is some real hope to be had in the things that he didn't.
One of the real things to be hopeful of is a liberalization of the social policy attitude of America. For example, Obama is VERY unlikely to put forward the idea of a federal amendment to the constitution that will ban gay marriage or abortions. While such measures probably would have little actual leverage in a Republican administration (Bush didn't actually ban gay marriage, for example), the important thing is that the discourse about social issues will be different than it was in the Bush era. Many contentious social issues like abortion, homosexual rights, immigration, Guantanamo detainees and warrantless wiretapping, drug policy, and the death penalty are, indeed, likely to be seen in a new light with a new president talking about them. In this case, Obama does have a real chance to break not only from the previous administration, but from most presidents in recent history.
Another real ground for hope concerns the environment. If you believe that Obama is willing to run GM and Exxon into the ground in order to save the planet, or that Obama will enact real, meaningful anti-global warming initiatives that will actually be followed by the American people, once again, you're in for a major disappointment. That being said, Obama stands to make some real progress in this field. While Bush set aside more natural space to be federally protected territory than any president since Teddy Roosevelt (most of it is ocean, shoreline, and reef), Obama has the ability, and, dare I say, national consensus to enact real, sensible ecological policy. While Obama isn't going to find any more money to fund alternative energy, I would really not be surprised if the standards for fuel efficiency increase during Obama's tenure. Likewise I have the real hope that Obama will be able to conquer his party's fanatic fears about nuclear power, and get the ball rolling again on the biggest source of non-air-or-water polluting power source we have at our disposal.
As well, while I believe that Obama is likely to have a critical lack of faith in what the American military will do, and this is likely to enact policy that is far too little, and often too late, I highly doubt that Obama will repeat the biggest errors from the Bush administration (as far as foreign policy is concerned). Bush was useful to America in the very least for his ability to take American values and demonstrate the problems with trying to spread them using traditional methods. As such I see Obama as being unlikely to send American troops into foreign countries with either the purpose of, or accidentally sending troops in for missions that they are poor at accomplishign (like nation-building, for example). As well, I am already seeing the military doing an excellent job in recovering from it's mistakes (if anything, the strategic alterations that came with the troop increase during the "surge" has shown an incredible maturation in the American military). As such, Obama will be presiding over an American military whose force will have more utility than any time since the second world war. Obama very much has the ability to seize this new change and do some real good with it, so long as he doesn't listen to anyone who was involved in Clinton's foreign policy, and that he has the same spirit as the recent president Bush, without the same blockheads running the show. Obama's website claims "we [must] rebuild our armed forces, we must not simply recreate the military of the Cold War era. Obama and Biden believe that we must build up our special operations forces, civil affairs, information operations, and other units and capabilities that remain in chronic short supply; invest in foreign language training, cultural awareness, and human intelligence and other needed counterinsurgency and stabilization skill sets; and create a more robust capacity to train, equip, and advise foreign security forces, so that local allies are better prepared to confront mutual threats." If this is true, it demonstrates a maturity that comes from a baptism of fire that has been the Iraq war. As such, there is real hope that we will be better for it.
The final hope that I have for Obama is that he will be able to help ease Christianity out if it's current political makeup. Far-right wing evangelical Christianity has been a drag on the Republican party, and has been shocking and dismaying to those of us who are Christian and NOT far-right wing evangelical. I have the hope that Obama will be able to sound Christian enough throughout his presidency so that people will be more inclined to consider religion in America as a wide body of faith, both liberal and conservative, rather than some backwater regressive movement that puts Republicans into positions of power. The liberal Christian movement is huge in America, which is something that I hope Obama will help people see.
During Obama's candidacy acceptance speech, he said "... next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third." In all likelihood, a third term of Bush-like policy is what America will get. Once you strip away all of the crazy negativism that's been heaped on Bush, in the end, you get a three star president, just like Bush 1, Clinton, and, likely Obama. I have no doubts that Obama will do some good things for America (I'm not claiming that I'm going to move to Canada here), just as I have no doubt that he will wind up facing criticism for some of his policies long after his tenure as president is over.
In the end, though, I would highly recommend that people put aside the hypnosis caused by Obama's high-quality rhetoric skills and go back to being skeptical. Brace yourselves for the change that you really can't believe in, and look out for the change we might actually be able to. In the end, though, America will be America. Please try to enjoy the ride.