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Squaring the Triangle; Obama and Leadership

November 13, 2008 1 comment

President-elect Obama has stated that he wants to move swiftly once he kicks the Terrible Texan out of the Oval Office. He will, according to Chief-of-Staff designate Emanuel, be quick to implement healthcare, energy and tax reforms. To paraphrase Bush, Obama has political capital and intends to spend it. But the manner of how the new President governs is of equal importance to what he intends to do. Will be guided by principle or ‘triangulation’?

Democrats tend to look back on the Clinton era with rose-tinted glasses; they forget that for much of his two presidential terms he was intensely unpopular and fortunate to fight his elections against a strong opposition vote-splitting third-party candidate. The 42nd President is rightly praised in contrast to ‘Newt-the-not-so-Beaut’s Mad Mullah Congress; but it was Clinton who announced that the era of big government was over and Clinton who continued the Republican deregulation of the markets. His terms were the high-tide mark for government by opinion poll.

‘Triangulation’ was the ultimate in political pragmatism. Clinton’s association with political svengali-cum-hack Dick Morris was both hugely beneficial to his electoral success and highly damaging to his political reputation. When he followed his instinct for little popular gain, e.g. intervention in Kosovo, Clinton looked more Presidential and statesmanlike. Perversely, when he did what Morris told him to, he looked weak, cynical and indecisive. Clinton’s triangulation was an over-reliance on the media, opinion polls and Morris; it’s an integral part of his legacy.

Charismatic progressive leaders gain respect by leading from the front. There are no indications that Obama intends to do otherwise. But all good planning has inbuilt contingency escape routes; Obama has already demonstrated adaptability and the skill of making the ambiguous seem specific, (not necessarily a bad thing after the moral absolutism of the Bush years). He will think big but ruminate on the limits of Presidential Will; there’ll inevitably be compromises. His ability to carry out his programme will measure his greatness as a President and his historical legacy – how much ‘change’ will he able to achieve?

There’s an inherent paradox in governing from the Centre. In trying to please everybody, you can end up pleasing nobody. Obama will be making political trade-offs, deciding if a small hit on one issue, say the environment, is worth a big win on another, such as healthcare. His coalition is broad and goodwill among the American public will be at an all-time high for the crucial first few months of his administration; it’s an opportunity he intends to take advantage of. ‘This guy’, as Bush embarrassingly refers to him, will be setting down a marker to drive change through for the first 100 days and onwards. He will move swiftly to try and reverse some of Bush’s more calamitous decisions and keep an eagle eye on any sneaky or brazen executive orders the lame duck will invariably try to issue.

The incumbent faces a much more difficult set of economic and military circumstances than Clinton did. Most of Obama’s supporters hope that he’ll repudiate the Reaganomic zeitgeist that Clinton accommodated in his eight years at the helm. The name put forward for Treasury Secretary will offer us the strongest clue as to what direction the administration will take. Will there be an end to the failed neo-liberal experiment of the last three decades or will it just be trimmed at the edges? Is increased military engagement in Afghanistan the preferred course of action? Obama will need to take many long-term strategic decisions within days of coming into office; transition time is being well spent formulating post-inauguration actions. He should be wary of appointing too many Republicans; bi-partisanship can only go so far for a democracy to function properly. Loyal lieutenants are necessary to implement substantial and beneficial change.

Obama once said that he needs a period each day to sit and think strategically; this is a refreshing and encouraging statement. It demonstrates that he knows decisions have to be weighed, considered and pondered and most importantly, taken by the decision-maker in chief, not by his advisors or pollsters. It shows that the next US President has learnt lessons from the Clinton administrations. It proves that Obama is both a thinker and a doer. The people have thrown out the Republicans; Obama Phase II is about to begin. The hopes of millions are with Obama; much of the planet is wishing him well.

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Bush Goes Down In Blaze of Ignominy

November 2, 2008 1 comment

As the Bush era draws to a close (with a hideously awkward interregnum to follow Obama’s almost certain election) it’s time to reflect on his last eight years. Much of the world wishes this travesty had never happened. Bush’s assumed legitimacy was always hard to stomach. Looking back on his two terms, it’s hard not to use one word – disaster.

Bush will be remembered as the man who let 9/11 happen on his watch; much of his presidency has been shaped by this cataclysmic event. For most presidents, such an attack would have been a rallying call for unity and an opportunity to build up a new form of consensual politics. Instead, Bush has used 9/11 as a sword to attack his enemies, polarised US domestic opinion and as a result he’ll leave office as one of the least popular presidents of all time.

Iraq has been a bleeding sore in US foreign policy. Al-Qaeda suckered the US into Saddam’s torture state; Bush was all too ready to fall into their trap. History will judge ‘W’ to have been a useful idiot for Neo-Cons motivated by oil and power. The argument that the war can be justified by Saddam’s overthrow will offer slim consolation to the well over 100,000 injured and dead since 2003. Bush is retiring at a relatively young age; his lies over WMD will haunt his retirement.

The Patriot Act has been the most invasive piece of domestic legislation ever implemented in a peacetime democracy. It suited Bush, Cheney et al to say the US was at war on the home front; this terrorised the gullible part of the electorate into voting for them. ‘The War on Terror’ has diminished the rights of US citizens, attacked basic tenets of the law and given the intelligence and security apparatus powers that would have made a South American tyrant gag. Human Rights – from Guantanamo to DC – are considerably weaker.

Bush leaves DC having left the economy in tatters. He should take a huge share of the blame; Republican de-regulation is directly responsible for market arrogance and fictitious derivatives selling. Bush knows how to get rich but not how markets work – two different things. He has made ignorance of economics his badge of honour, he has betrayed ordinary Americans and left his successor with a broken economy. He allowed Wall Street to run riot and made the poor poorer – he feathered the nest of what he once called his ‘base’.

When it comes to science and the environment, Bush has promoted an irrational, superstitious and cynical view of the world. Corporations don’t like environmentalism, the religious right is either unwilling or unable to understand it and both have had the global warming-denier in chief pushing their shortsighted and harmful agenda. Challenge creationist nonsense and you’ll have your funding hit. Four legs good, two legs bad.

Bush’s legacy in the world at large is to leave most people utterly disillusioned with the US as a power for good, He has tied up the Republican Party to the intemperate and anti-intellectual Right. He leaves Office in disgrace.

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