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
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.