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Obama's Promise Meets Reality

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Can President Obama make the sweeping changes he proposes? Where is he most likely to succeed? Which promises will he not be able to deliver upon?

Cascade magazine brought together five faculty from the Department of Political Science to join the debate...

Panelists: Jane Cramer, Dennis Galvan, Daniel HoSang, Joe Lowndes, Dan Tichenor (moderator) 

Read speaker bios   •   Listen to audio  •   Audience Q&A

A man speaking to a group

Dan Tichenor: I want to set the table a little bit by thinking of Obama in comparative context. It strikes me that we could probably identify a president or two who has come into office with more daunting economic circumstances to deal with. And we could probably do the same with regard to foreign policy and national security crises. But it is hard to think of someone who has faced such profound domestic and international challenges at the same time. A second comparison that I would draw is the fact that we've had a handful of presidents who've come into office after the American public has grown exhausted with what they see as executive excesses, abuses in executive power. And we've usually expected very little from these presidents -- in fact we're happy to see contractions of that executive power, such as Warren Harding's "return to normalcy" and Gerald Ford after Nixon. Other chief executives have come into office with great expectations, with huge warrants for power, with the American people wanting the president to right the ship during major crisis.
Obama is in both of these situations, where he is asked to balance economic and foreign policy crises and likewise is expected to show executive restraint, respect for rule of law, transparency, constitutional fealty -- and also be an energetic steward providing solutions to problems. I think these are very difficult and tricky balancing acts for him to deal with.

President Obama and other presidents in a photo collage

Now, on a lighter note, we have this foolish tradition in this country of having as our milepost the first 100 days to see how a president is doing. It has always been an incredibly unrealistic period to focus on. You may recall that, with Bill Clinton, his first 100 days ranged the spectrum from disappointing to disastrous. He quipped to the White House correspondents after he hit his 100 days, "I'm not doing that bad, I mean, at this point in his administration, William Henry Harrison had been dead for 68 days!" Well, I think (perhaps with the exception of some tax-evading nominees) Barack Obama is doing a lot better so far than both Bill Clinton and William Henry Harrison.
So let me begin with our first question: Looking back at Obama's campaign and the way he conducted himself during the transition period, what does this say to you about the potential character of his presidency and his leadership?

Joe Lowndes: I think that over the course of his campaign he often strove to appear kind of sober, grave and even fatherly. He expressed this in his political positions as well, a careful centrism across a great range of issues. Rarely did he lean leftward and only when pushed did he emerge with a major speech on race, which was quite extraordinary.
What he wanted to offer in that time period was a cool-headed pragmatism, where pragmatics and technical solutions were seen to do more work for him than politics. I think he wanted to steer clear of ideological positioning and talk about what works. Like in his inauguration speech: "The question isn't bigger government or smaller government. It is: Does government work?"

A man speaking to a group

This served him well in the election season, but he may need to develop more combative chops now and he has begun to show it a little bit. For the most part he has bent over backwards to serve cookies to Republicans in the White House and to negotiate all he can and appear to be someone who can be reasonable over differences -- at a moment when he actually has warrant for extraordinary action. And if you look at kind of the major transformative presidencies, they all had fights with major institutions early on.
It's hard to say now what is going to happen -- he may not control events as much as events control him, to paraphrase Lincoln. We seem to still be in a freefall with the economy and the economy is probably going to shape much of what's going on.

Dan HoSang: If we speak to the question of what kind of warrant Obama in fact has, if we look back at his campaign, we would describe it as some sort of populist formation or assertion.
Historically, populism is often framed in opposition to something else -- religious elites, economic elites, Reagan's "the government" as a kind of abstraction. But who is Obama's populism aligned against? Which is to say, can he marshal of a notion of an "us" and "them"?

A man in a sweater speaking to a group

To the extent that he really only specified generic change and rising above "politics as usual," that gives him some room to move, but it also seems to me that any time his opponents want to take on a specific agenda they simply can invoke the same rhetoric he did: "Your candidacy was premised on moving beyond politics as usual and that's a partisan move." And indeed with the stimulus package, that was how he was immediately confronted.
Tichenor: In terms of the campaign and the transition itself, Jane and Dennis, did you detect how this was perceived globally and did you perceive any strengths or potential limitations with regard to security policy, foreign policy?
Jane Cramer: From a foreign policy perspective things look really different, shockingly different. You said Obama has come in the midst of a foreign policy crisis, but he has actually come in the midst of a foreign policy consensus. It's amazing and it's going to be radical, even transformative, especially because both sides really do want to get out of Iraq now.
Obama had to say very tough things in the campaign about Afghanistan, that we are going to go there with boots on the ground -- which he has just done. But I went to a conference right after the election and was amazed that everybody agreed: "Don't go to Afghanistan. This is a quagmire. It won't work, and we won't be more secure. We can't win in Afghanistan because of Pakistan." And now Obama has taken it under review to look at his policy there.
We are not going in a big way. This is very helpful, even though many of us thought we had no choice but to go to Afghanistan after 9/11. But we can't win now -- not because Al-Qaida doesn't exist, but because it won't help.

A woman speaking to a group

The other thing that is really radical -- and he is delivering on this because the conservatives want it, too -- is that we are going to move toward nuclear disarmament. He has already had Bill Clinton talking to Putin in Russia. They're discussing restarting the strategic arms reduction talks. Britain has said we're moving toward zero nuclear weapons; their foreign secretary outlined the six steps toward disarmament that the arms control community has agreed on for 20 years. So we have a consensus on nuclear arms control and Obama can deliver it because he didn't stake that he wouldn't do treaties -- he staked that he would.

Dennis Galvan: I would agree that when we turn to foreign policy we see a very different situation right from the beginning. We are really looking at a simple return to multilateralism, to international cooperation. So in some sense Obama has a lower mandate and a very easy mandate. The time is ripe, obviously, to return to multilateral cooperation on everything Jane mentioned -- as well as global warming, as well as the fight against disease and poverty in various parts of the world.
But we don't want to lose sight of the fact that the quagmire in Iraq is not going away and the pull-out of U.S. troops is not going to ensure security in the country. We are going to need some kind of overarching security vision for Iraq. This is going to plague this administration until we see the articulation of a very serious new kind of vision that is going to have to dovetail with multilateral cooperation.

A man speaking to a group

It would not be an overwhelming stroke of genius to combine the problem with Iraq with the problem of really reinvigorating the United Nations by putting money into training an all-Muslim peacekeeping force -- from India, from Bangladesh, from Indonesia, from Senegal, from Nigeria, from all sorts of Muslim countries around the world -- that would be trained over three to five years to put two or three hundred thousand troops on the ground for an interim period in Iraq to really stabilize the country.

Tichenor: I want to switch to a question that digs into the race dimension of both the campaign and Obama's presidency: What does it mean to have our first African-American President of the United States? We can all recall the stirring pictures of John Lewis and Jesse Jackson crying [on election night] but we also had a kind of stampede to the microphone by a lot of Republicans, from President Bush to Condoleezza Rice, suggesting we have a postracial moment in the U.S. What's the meaning of this for racial politics in the United States?

HoSang: While there's some heightened expectations around it, there is no evidence of any large mandate in dealing with structures of race in the country. It didn't come up in the campaign.
If you think about the crisis that we are now talking about and the worst-case scenario: 15-25 percent unemployment, the majority of households with almost no net worth, collapse of the basic safety net, environmental pollutants running rampant, a healthcare system in deep distress, massive incarceration -- this actually describes, in aggregate terms, much of black America -- certainly for the last generation. Were Obama to take that up, I think he would be accused of trading in a narrow kind of partisan politics. For that reason, I think we have to absolutely lower our expectations.
But just two quick things on why we might think about some possibility for transformation: One, there has been this longstanding current -- particularly against black candidates, but even toward liberal white candidates -- within appeals to white voters: that "your whiteness is at stake in this election." We saw it in Clinton's comments about hard-working white Americans, Sarah Palin commenting, "He doesn't see America the way you and I do," attacks on Rev. Jeremiah Wright and so on. The fact that those ultimately didn't stick suggests some kind of reorientation in terms of how appeals can be made to that identity.
Second is the cultural symbolism of having a black president and first family. A lot of attention to race these days focuses on those kinds of very informal signifiers. I think those are two ways we might go in new directions. But we can't think of the prospects for greater racial equity as an agenda-driven process. I would argue he has less room to address any of those issues than almost any other leading Democratic candidate.  

Lowndes: In fact, Obama himself has resisted addressing questions of racial stratification and its remedies, and has promoted instead culturally conservative responses, like his fatherhood speech where he used a cultural pathology language from the '60s -- where the problem with poverty and black communities has a lot to do with people not being married, with fathers not being in the household, with other behavioral kinds of problems -- and not with structural inequality. He's pushed that over and over, I think, as a way of flirting with the conservative vote. I mean, he grew up without a father and he seems to have done okay for himself.
Nevertheless, I think there are all kinds of disruptive things that will happen when you have an African-American president in a historically white supremacist nation. Blackness now is re-signified in America in ways that reinterpret American history -- because presidents are our most national symbol, our biggest symbol of our whole selves, of our national selves. If it's a black man in the White House, a black first family in the White House, suddenly things become different. Racial demonization will continue to happen, but it will look different, it won't have the same kind of valence, and I think it opens up the territory for all kinds of things that we can't quite guess at.
Galvan: Blackness and its re-signification is pretty important both domestically and globally. Domestically, I think in a way it already was being re-signified in many realms of popular culture and ordinary life, particularly among younger people. Think of The New York Times article right around the time of the inauguration about black lead characters in Hollywood films, which portrayed Will Smith as a kind of precursor to the Obama presidency and campaign, with the mainstreaming of a cool, hip, black figure.
Globally, of course it's a kind of truism to observe that the rest of the world was surprised that this guy whose middle name was Hussein, who arguably has some Muslim ancestry, became President of the United States. There's a big wave of enthusiasm among the intellectuals I've talked to in places like France, West Africa and Southeast Asia, but there's also a counter-wave that says, "Well, you know you can't really change the United States. You can elect a black president, but the United States is a big battleship that is very hard to turn. We're not going to see massive change."
That's what intellectuals and elites say. In little villages in Senegal and little towns in Indonesia, there's still a pretty amazing wave of raw enthusiasm and a pretty remarkable sea change from how these same people thought about the United States over the last eight years.
The turnaround is really quite impressive and I think that will last. I think there's a real reservoir of goodwill there that will last a while.

Tichenor: We've talked about broad warrants for change, Obama's mandate, lots of goodwill and so forth. It begs the question: What change does Obama really desire, what change can he actually accomplish, and what does he really not want to change? We have heard about smarter government, transparency, bipartisanship, getting rid of special interests. Is there a governing philosophy that you can articulate? Or is he an FDR experimenter and we will just kind of get there?
Galvan: If you think about environmental policy, if you think about global warming and energy policy and job creation, it seems like you get a nexus at which you can intervene and pull a lot of threads at once. I suspect we are going to see that because we have no choice on all of those: on job creation, on energy dependency, on global warming.
HoSang: I think it is exactly right that we would think about the moment as a synthesis, rather than some kind of realignment -- and certainly not a revolution or any kind of broad change. It's a deep synthesis of the governing philosophy of the last 30 years and you can see the imprints of every administration since the Great Society in the agenda.
Galvan: On this point about synthesis, I think it is an excellent point about Obama. What I think we are going to see is someone who -- in the true sense of the word "pragmatist" -- has a tendency to take issues that have highly contentious and contradictory positions behind them and look for a way to take those positions apart, decompose them and recombine them as new positions.
He does this often -- for example, in the race speech. He did this on the question of gun control. Instead of hewing to a particular ideology he says, "Look, I am not going to take people's guns away, but surely we can agree that there is no reason for people to own AK-47s and carry them around." On the question of gay marriage: "I'm opposed to [gay] marriage, but surely we can agree that I should be able to visit my dying or sick partner in the hospital."
He is looking for this kind of middle ground and so it makes perfect sense that the entire slogan and rally banner of the transition into the early administration is extremely amorphous, because he is going to pragmatically work out a pastiche of policies and initiatives on issues like energy and environment and healthcare and so forth. And it is going to be deeply unsatisfying along the way for ideologues on both sides.
Cramer: I think that where he is being bold, and where it is really, really dangerous for him is with [special envoy] George Mitchell in the Middle East. Obama is very serious about a Middle East peace agreement; he has made that clear. It is bold. It is dangerous. And he might get eaten alive. I used to be afraid he was going to get eaten alive by the deepening quagmire of Afghanistan. Now I am afraid he is going to get eaten alive about this.
I think that Mitchell is a brilliant choice, but in going for a peace agreement, you get chewed apart by extremists on both sides. I think he sincerely wants one. I think he's going to try to be the most honest broker in history. But you have extremists who will take no prisoners. And yet it is possible that he will succeed because Northern Ireland [where George Mitchell brokered a peace agreement] at one point looked impossible as well.

Galvan: This is where I think the concrete dividend on the reserve capital of global goodwill could matter. America's stature as an honest broker in this con- flict just changed dramatically. And the Israelis know it and are going to have to deal with it. The fact that Obama chose to have his first interview with Al-Arabia [television] was a pretty striking little symbolic gesture at the same time that he is taking bold steps on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Tichenor: I want to end with what might be a tough question: By what metric should we evaluate success or failure for Obama?
Lowndes: That is a great question. There are any number of measures you could use. Presidents are at once head of their party, head of the nation itself, head of the executive branch, and so there are these different ways in which we put demands on them and want certain things out of them. Given that Bush was so historically unpopular, it seems like much of what's expected of Obama is to undo a lot of damage that people think Bush has done. I think a lot of it is going to have to do with healing wounds, both internally and externally.
The metric we often use is: What warrant for action does he have? What kind of power does he end up with? How much power does he have vis-à-vis the other branches? And we don't know whether or not there will ultimately be a major showdown with the Republicans. Clearly the economy is going to drive a lot of this, and it is probably not going to get any better this next year. So it may be that he is going to fail no matter what.
HoSang: I would like to say something -- and this is certainly over the long term -- about the question of much broader popular engagement. If the narrative that he invoked again and again -- about the kind of cynicism of ordinary people and the rhetoric of "it's not about me, it's about us" -- if there is some truth here we have acknowledged, it's going to take certain kinds of ongoing mobilizations to break apart the kind of paralysis that he was noting. So that would be one metric of transformation.
Cramer: One little thing that builds on that, and that could help him, is openness in government, putting everything on the web. We just went through the most secretive administration in the history of the country and Obama has already revamped all the openness rules -- you now have to ask to classify things rather than to declassify them, which is totally different.
Galvan: I would just add a couple of metrics: The value of the dollar against the euro will tell us a lot. The percent of Afghan territory controlled by the Taliban, which correlates with the stability of the Pakistani government -- these are going to be really important. The degree to which we are having petty squabbles with Medvedev and Putin in Russia, or that we're cooperating with them (which can be measured). One that we haven't talked about at all: Keep an eye on Hugo Chavez -- not because he's important in and of himself, because he's not, or because Venezuela is important -- but because he's an indicator. The spread of Latin America leftist populism is very important as a sign of anti-Americanism; it's the canary in the coal mine. And, if Obama is doing well, if there's any dividend to this reservoir of goodwill, what you'll see is something that looks a little more like the president of Brazil, Lula, who is a left populist and a good socialist, but plays ball and doesn't throw grenades at the U.S.

Read more:

Jane Cramer on: North Korea as nuclear poster child and the struggle for hearts and minds

Dennis Galvan on: The importance of Africa, Obama's star quality and American boots on the ground.

Dan HoSang on: The coming confrontation over healthcare, the private vs. public sector and "politics of consumption"

Joe Lowndes on: Obama's "personal identification factor" and rethinking the Right

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