As Crikey’s resident Obama-phobe, most of my thoughts on the new President can probably be safely ignored. After all, I called his nomination a McGovernesque disaster and described him as the least substantial candidate in a generation, and worse. I even thought McCain would win handily, up until Wall St imploded. Be very careful if I ever start talking about Palin ’12.
Even so, it’s hard to avoid a real sense of joy that the long global nightmare of the Bush years is over, a disaster that has plagued us since Election Night 2000, when the Republican theft of the Presidency began, right through to the last lies and spurious moralising of Bush’s legacy publications on the White House website — now thankfully removed by the incoming administration.
But the inauguration of Obama also presents a benefit impossible to predict this time last year when people like me were averring that Hillary Clinton was the superior candidate. The sight of a woman, even one with as much baggage as Clinton, becoming president would undoubtedly have sent a wonderful signal to the world’s misogynists — especially those who lurk in most religions — that their hatred of women belonged in the distant past, if it ever belonged anywhere. But to watch an African-American becoming president is one of the genuinely uplifting and redeeming moments in political history, and America needs uplift, needs joy, needs a genuine sense of starting over, now more than at any point in decades.
For much of the last two hundred years, African-Americans — and Washington D.C. is an African-American city — have watched white men, usually Democrats, come to their capital and wield power directly at their expense, relegating them to non-citizenry through discriminatory laws and legalised violence. That only began to change slowly after WW2 with Truman, Nixon when he was Vice-President, and then Lyndon Johnson.
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Now their country has turned to an African-American Democrat at a moment of crisis. Contrary to the views of some reactionary commentators, you don’t have to have suspended your critical faculties to find this inauguration special, and deeply moving.
There will, assuredly, be disillusionment and disappointment to come. The 100 Days, an artificial and irrelevant media event, will doubtless be the cause of sniping and complaint, since virtually none of the many problems confronting Obama and his team are amenable to resolution in three months, or probably even within three years. And Obama’s reaching out to opponents has already upset some fans. Robert Gates remains in place, Hillary’s at State, John McCain is being assiduously consulted. And the fervently non-ideological tone of the inaugural address, the emphasis on “what works”, is also bound to disappoint those who want to see a sharp swing to the left, or what counts for the left in the US — much as Rudd’s non-partisanship and emphasis on “what works” has annoyed progressives here.
No, the much-anticipated speech wasn’t quite the Lincolnesque oratory some might have expected from a bloke who virtually won the White House on the quality of his speech-making, although there were plenty of those balanced phrases and Greek contrasts so beloved by the Great Emancipator. Having spent his campaign trying to channel JFK, Obama evidently made a deliberate decision to switch mythic predecessors to a century earlier, using the same bible as Lincoln and taking a train ride, although he refrained from growing a beard or slipping into Washington in disguise. Evoking the great presidents may not exactly be the smartest way to manage expectations for the new administration, particularly with Lincoln, who remains perhaps the most cunning politician, and certainly the greatest speechwriter, ever to occupy high office in the West. Still, nothing wrong with aiming high, and maybe South Carolina can be convinced to attack Fort Sumter.
How Obama will implement this “whatever works” agenda has naturally occupied acres of newsprint, usually ill-informed and entirely speculative. You can bet the man himself isn’t quite sure. What we do know is that Obama has no executive experience, and managing a cabinet, particularly with significant figures in it like Clinton, Gates and Geithner, will be the first challenge (and one, to belabour the point, that also faced Lincoln). The media and foreign governments will be alert to every possible sign of foreign policy tension between Obama and Clinton, a none-too-healthy base from which to start.
The professedly non-ideological character of the new administration may also pose a problem once Obama and his cabinet have their feet under the desk, because the basic principles of his administration’s leadership, its defining characteristics, will have to be established on the run, rather than providing a guide for action. Still, after eight years of “faith-based reality”, albeit with a final six months of getting mugged by reality-based reality, let’s give the new kids a chance.
The other object of speculation lies — or should lie — at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. How effective Obama’s team is at working with Congress, even with a heavy Democratic majority, will fundamentally shape the effectiveness of the Administration’s response to the economic crisis. This is a point not necessarily conveyed by foreign media coverage of US politics, which concentrates on the executive rather than the men and women who control the purse strings and make laws.
The fine art of legislative wrangling seems to have been lost by recent Presidents; until Bush the Worserer, most Republicans have had to deal with Democratic congresses anyway, and neither Clinton nor Carter were exactly Johnson-style wheeler-dealers capable of hammering out deals for major pieces of White House-initiated legislation. Clinton eventually discovered triangulation anyway, an approach that might work for Obama’s re-election prospects, but deeply alienate his party.
At the moment, however, executive authority isn’t sufficient for dealing with the American recession, and there’s no supine Congress of the type that instantly gave a newly-elected FDR whatever he demanded. Obama’s non-partisan reaching out — although it’s not as if any president has ever come in promising to be resolutely partisan — will be a critical element in ensuring the legislative and executive branches pull in the same direction. Republicans might find that cooperating with an initially-popular president yields more votes than fighting him.
Still, for the moment, it’s OK to surrender to emotion. Yes the new administration is untested and its leader inexperienced; it cannot possibly meet the expectations that Americans and the rest of the world hold of it; it faces historic challenges in just about every major policy area at home and abroad. But for the moment, hope — yes, that word — is the biggest thing going for Obama and it’s something Americans need right now more than anything.