Archive for January 22nd, 2009

The challenges ahead

The new president must decide on the size of government, his foreign-policy philosophy and whether to govern from the center

By Gil Troy, Freelance, Montreal Gazette, January 21, 2009

Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.
Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.

Photograph by: JESSICA RINALDI, REUTERS, Freelance

The hoopla surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration was moving. The challenges he acknowledged in his speech are sobering. But beyond the policy conundrums of today and the future hopes of tomorrow that Obama’s inaugural speech focused on, he must address three underlying dilemmas that continue to bewitch America’s presidents. Barack Obama is joining a two-century-old conversation about just how big government should be, just what kind of foreign policy America should have, and whether a president should lead as a partisan or lead from the centre.

Regarding the first question, President Obama – along with his predecessor George W. Bush – is trusting big government. Since the American Revolution, Americans have debated how much independence they should have as individuals and how much dependence they should have on government collectively. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan rejected the half century of government expansion that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal jump started and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society intensified.

Reagan’s inaugural declaration that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” proved so compelling that in 1996, preparing to run for re-election, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who proclaimed “the era of big government is over.”

Actually, under both Clinton and Reagan, government continued growing, although more slowly. Even before the stock- market crash, George W. Bush had emerged, anomalously, as a Big Government Conservative. Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and occasional bursts of compassionate conservatism expanded government. Still, many people, especially Democrats, viewed the 2008 financial meltdown as history’s verdict on two decades of Reagan-Bush deregulation (overlooking Clinton’s role in it all). Bush himself put ideology aside to approve hundreds of billions in bailouts.

Obama has embraced the narrative and the policy. So far, his ambitious ideas for a fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, massive energy investment, suggest he is banking his administration’s success on repudiating the Reagan Revolution with a twist. In his writings and speeches, Obama has insisted he is not a Sixties-style, throw-money-and-big-programs-at-any-problem, kind of liberal. He has promised a new synthesis, with a more vigorous, effective government wary of big bureaucracies, avoiding unrealistic goals, and sensitive to the eternals of faith, family, friends as partners in nation-building. In that spirit, Obama said yesterday that we don’t need big government or small government, but government that works.

The second dilemma, regarding foreign policy, hinges on two longstanding debates. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned Americans to avoid “entangling alliances.” It is often obscured with the U.S. so enmeshed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but the country has a strong isolationist streak. While arguing whether they should be more isolationist or interventionist, Americans also debate whether their foreign strategy should be realist or idealist. Realists emphasize U.S. needs; idealists focus on spreading democracy and other U.S. ideals worldwide.

Thanks to the backlash against Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist and isolationist schools are ascendant. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But 24 hours into the job, Obama already knows the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal.

Finally, while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is somewhat imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of Earth.” Or, as the new president put it, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

As he defines his domestic and foreign policies, Obama will be demonstrating just how he wants to lead. Bush, coached by his political guru Karl Rove, spent much of his presidency mobilizing the conservative base, playing to partisans. This strategy helped Bush win re-election in 2004 but lose big in the court of public opinion, retiring with a dismal 22 per cent approval rating.

Despite having strong, big-government-oriented, liberal roots, Obama has displayed a more pragmatic and moderate leadership vision. He seems committed to leading from the centre. So far, he filled his government with pragmatists, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, nominated as Secretary of State, and the economic gurus Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Obama believes in muscular moderation, in being rooted in principle but reaching out, building bridges, seeking unity.

This leadership tradition stretches back to George Washington, who urged Americans to work together in building their “common cause,” and Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves slowly, gradually, to avoid alienating the critical, still-slave-holding Border States.

Inauguration Day is a day of potential, with the new administration facing a bright, golden wave of tomorrows. As Obama begins to govern, he will have to navigate some tough days and, inevitably, end up with some failed yesterdays.

In going from campaigning to governing, from speech-making to policy-making, Obama will have to find what works in the moment to build toward a better future, ever sensitive to the echoes of the past, as by virtue of his position and his power he starts shaping – and being shaped by – history.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.


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CTV Post-Inauguration Coverage

Barack Obama’s presidency will not only make history because of his ancestry, it also marks a generational gap in the leadership of the United States.

Will history be kind to Obama’s inaugural speech?

SHOW: CANADA AM CTV Television, Inc. 8:18:30 ET January 21, 2009



US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us. And we will defeat you.

[Taped segment ends]

THOMSON: President Barack Obama took a hard line against the threat of terrorist attacks. And he also signalled that the United States is tired of war and wants to leave Iraq to its own people. He also talked about Afghanistan in that speech.

For more on Obama’s inauguration, joining me now is presidential historian Gil Troy.

Great to have you on to discuss this. There are so many different measuring sticks as to the success or the impact that this speech is having or will have. What did you think of it?

TROY: I agree with most people that it wasn’t as lyrical and as soaring as people expected, as people have come to expect from Obama who’s just an extraordinary orator.

But I think the more we read the speech, rather than just thinking about it and listening to it, we see that there was a lot of substance in it. And it’s important to see that what he was trying to do — he was the one person in that sea of 2 million people who was saying: Whoa, slow down. I’m not the Messiah.

And I think that was important. But he also was showing the way that he’s going to govern. He’s going to not be someone who’s just going to be a mindless 1960s liberal. He’s going to bring back government but with thoughts. And he wanted to say also “I am not a wimp” — which was the message in that opening quotation you used.

THOMSON: You know, he also talked about a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. And he spoke about everybody needing to come together. And that was one of the points within this speech that the crowd just erupted in applause.

Have you ever seen — certainly there may have been more, you know, out-of-the-park speeches that you’ve seen in your time. But have you ever seen a reaction like that where a crowd that big, so many reduced to tears out of hope and faith?

TROY: You’re absolutely right, the crowd was the star of the day. Or a co-star with Obama and his family.

There were 2 million people there. And it was cold. And it was crowded. And it was really unpleasant. But there was something so magical about it that people didn’t grouch, they didn’t grumble, they were just so excited to be a part of it.

There have never been so many people at an inauguration. And I think it showed that the very essence of Obama, the very fact that he was becoming president — and not just because he’s the first African-American, I think that in some ways has almost been overplayed — but also because after eight years of Bush, because he’s young, because he’s charismatic, because the nation is facing such serious challenges, all these things came together and created this remarkable, magical moment.

And the hope is that he can actually now turn that magic into serious governance.

THOMSON: Well, certainly a lot of chatter about the first 100 days. What will you be watching for?

TROY: I think two things: how he plays the symbols and then turns it into substance. And most important, of course, he’s got to get a grip on the nation’s economic trouble. It was very sobering that the stock market dropped yesterday. It also dropped after his election. And I think he’s watching that. He knows that the bankers are worried, that the finance people are worried.

And in general there’s always a problem with the Democrats — they sometimes don’t have the same credibility with Wall Street. Although Bill Clinton was able to get that kind of credibility. So, it’s very important that he show that he’s going to be someone who’s effective with Wall Street as well as with Main Street.

THOMSON: How tough is it going to be for him to meet these extremely high expectations?

TROY: Extremely tough. And I think he knows that. He knows, you know, “hope” is this balloon that gets inflated and inflated. And on the one hand it can elevate us. But it can also be easily overinflated and pop.

And we forget how much hope there was surrounding that Man from Hope, Bill Clinton. We forget how much hope there was surrounding that first Southerner elected since Reconstruction, Jimmy Carter. And both of them ended up with much more complicated presidencies.

So, Obama is smart. He knows his history. He keeps on invoking Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because they were people who came in in some ways with low expectations and were able to soar. And I think he’d rather have that dynamic than the dynamic of yet another Democrat who comes in with incredibly high expectations and leaves people sort of disappointed and a little bit with a hangover.

THOMSON: Gil Troy, always great to talk to you about this. Thank you so much.

TROY: Thank you.

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