There is little doubt that Tuesday’s inauguration of Barack Obama will be historic in that an African-American will occupy the White House for the first time.
In a country whose venture into a new era of freedom, independence and republican virtue was stained from the outset by race-based slavery, in which black people gained full political rights only a couple of generations ago, and in which bigotry is still a real, if dissipating factor, this is historic indeed.
It represents a coming-of-age of a new generation of black political leaders who have moved beyond the struggles of the civil rights era to operating (for good and ill) like any other politicians.
The face of America has changed, and in this respect for the better. I doubt that we will ever become a completely color-blind society, but we have come a long way in my lifetime.
Having Barack Obama as the face of America to the world will change perceptions and attitudes in ways it is difficult to predict. Whether it will defuse some of the resentments some foreigners hold toward the United States enough to make for more effective diplomacy and/or cooperation once the novelty wears off is more questionable.
Many international disagreements are more deeply rooted than attitudes toward the occupant of the Oval Office. But the new president will assume office with an unusually large reservoir of international good will.
This movement toward racial/ethnic reconciliation is not a trivial matter. As encouraging as it is, however, it tells us little about the kinds of policies a President Obama is likely to pursue and his chances of being successful. His campaign and even his transition to date have left numerous questions open, and new presidents almost always encounter challenges nobody had predicted.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make some informed guesses about the shape of an Obama administration.
Perhaps the most striking thing is how little the foreign policy of an Obama administration is likely to differ from the actual practices of the Bush administration over the last couple of years, especially given that Obama’s first surge of enthusiastic support was based largely on the fact that he had opposed the Iraq war from the outset, unlike almost all of official Washington.
By retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama has stressed this continuity. His plan for drawing down U.S. troops from Iraq (assuming a civil war doesn’t break out among the numerous factional militias) is a gradual one and conditioned on whether U.S. troop reductions increase or decrease stability in Iraq — very close to what the Bush administration has already put in place. Even if things go smoothly, it is likely that there will still be tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq by 2011.
When it comes to grand strategy, the appointment of Hillary Clinton suggests an overall policy of “liberal internationalism” similar to what her husband pursued during the 1990s. It’s worth remembering President Clinton intervened militarily in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo while in office, though he was careful to keep U.S. casualties low.
Many Obama supporters have no problem with intervention as a policy so long as it is called “humanitarian,” seeing action that doesn’t promote core U.S. geopolitical interests as somehow more noble and desirable. Expect more multi-lateralism and diplomacy, but don’t expect a more modest view of how many global disputes the U.S. needs to handle.
On the domestic front, Obama seems to have bought the notion that only massive government deficit spending and borrowing can cure a financial/economic crisis that was to a great extent precipitated by loose money and government mandates that distorted the housing and financial markets.
Serving more hair of the dog is more risky an approach than most commentators realize.
The incoming president is getting a boatload of advice from those to the left in his party that an economic crisis is the ideal time to impose national health care and heavily subsidized “green” technologies and alternative energy sources. The indication to date is Obama is likely to scale back his extensive ambitions in these areas and propose only modest reforms in the direction of more extensive government control in these areas. But he will face plenty of pressure to be more radical. And his appointments to labor, energy and environmental positions are notably activist.
Given the number of bigfoots who have held past high-level jobs slated to serve in the White House itself, it is likely that an Obama administration will continue the trend of centralizing more authority in the White House, with little or no pretense of a decentralized cabinet-oriented executive branch. .
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of an Obama presidency, besides the fact that he seems to be able to speak off-the-cuff (if slowly) in complete and coherent sentences, is the quality that may account for his unlikely primary victories. He seems to be cool and methodical, able to listen to a variety of viewpoints before formulating his own policies, then implementing them in a systematic fashion. He doesn’t seem to get rattled easily, and has been able to retain the loyalty (and discretion) of highly talented people (if talented in the dark arts of politics). His very self-confidence could lead him to think he can do more than he can, but it is unlikely that he will make hasty, seat-of-the-pants decisions.
Whether they’re the right decisions or not is another question.
Alan W. Bock is senior editorial writer for The Orange County Register.