America Officially Enters the Obama Era
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 21, 2009
On January 21, 2009, at 1:00am Taipei time, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. He delivered a 17 minute inaugural speech. Ever since he won the election, his every move has been the focus of domestic and worldwide attention. Obama, who has always been good at speechmaking, outlined his vision for the future. How will Obama faces the challenges ahead of him will be the real test, and will determine whether he becomes a great President.
Obama's election victory not only shocked the United States. It also sent shockwaves around the world. Past presidential elections meant foreign policy change at most. But there has never been someone with an effect on people like Obama.
First of all, Obama's election victory is the concrete realization of racial equality. According to polls taken before Obama was elected, only 35% of African Americans considered Dr. Martin Luther King's dream fulfilled. One year later however, Barack Obama has been elected. Now twice as many African Americans, 70%, believe King's dream has been fulfilled. In terms of socio-economic structure, the racial divide still exists. But in terms of political symbolism, the goal of the black civil rights movement, Martin Luther King's dream, has been achieved. On this point alone, Obama will go down in history.
Obama's election victory was of epoch-making significance not only for the United States, but for the whole world. America's image as a hegemon has been transformed. A member of a disadvantaged racial minority has become head of state through the democratic process. For the world's ethnic minorities, the American hegemon was merely the strong bullying the weak. Obama's election is a source of inspiration.
Although America has ushered in the Obama administration, and ushered out the Bush administration, the problems remain, and still need healing. Among them, one of the most serious is the War on Terror.
Withdrawal from Iraq is a top priority. But in order to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam, Obama must be careful about the transfer of power. He must support the government of Iraq via the democratic process. Troop increases may be effective In Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. Any incident during this period, such as large-scale suicide bombing attacks against U.S. troops, would plunge Iraq and Afghanistan into genocidal warfare. Any U.S. withdrawal would be delayed, and become a hot potato for Barack Obama.
Secondly, America is America. In America, unlike many developing countries, political retaliation is unfashionable. Many human rights groups are calling for the prosecution of senior Bush administration officials. In particular they want to discover whether it authorized the abuse of prisoners and committed human rights violations. But Obama has pledged to "look forward." He has received bipartisan support and does not plan on settling old scores.
But leaders who knowingly violate the law, who abuse power, are a no-no in democratic nations. Human rights groups are demanding an accounting. A comprehensive investigation is essential. Some European nations are even more determined. They have declared that if former high officials of the Bush administration go abroad, they will take them into custody. This may create problems for Obama's domestic and foreign policy.
The real test for Obama will be his first 100 days in office. A new president's first 100 days usually determines his historical legacy. This has to do with public expectations and with how aggressively the new president pursues reform. The public has high expectations for new presidents. Congress is usually afraid to oppose his initiatives. What a new president wants, he usually gets. But if the public's expectations are disappointed, either because they were too high or too unrealistic, it will soon become disillusioned. Other elected representatives will seize the opportunity to resist, and the result will be gridlock.
The most urgent issue is the financial crisis. Obama's popularity ratings are very high at the moment. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are under the control of the Democratic Party. Passing major bills should be no problem. But there have been exceptions. Clinton encountered difficulty passing the National Health Insurance Act, despite a House of Representatives dominated by his own party. Bush encountered difficulty passing his immigration bill, even though his party held a majority in the House of Representatives. Obama has asked Vice-President Joe Biden, with several decades of experience in the Senate, to craft a First 100 Days plan for Congress.
The New York Times recently invited five authors of presidential biographies to write about the challenges five presidents faced during their first 100 days in office. Among these was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who faced the economic crisis known as the Great Depression. He was sworn in immediately after an emergency session of both houses of Congress. Six hours later he pushed through the Emergency Banking Act. We predict congress will follow the precedent established by Franklin Roosevelt, and approve any economic revitalization programs or astronomical deficit spending Obama proposes.
But this does not really solve problems. If anything, it is congress shirking its responsibility. If Obama is smart, he will realize policies seldom yield immediate results. Time and again he has attempted to reduce people's expectations. But eventually the public's patience will wear thin. Economic recovery will take time. Once this gap between expectations and realities appears, Obama will face his first real crisis of governance.
The next four years will be the Obama Era. But the Obama Era will also be Obama's severest test.