Monday, January 19, 2009

The New President

The inauguration of Obama is a milestone in the history of the United States. One does feel a relaxing of racial tensions, and an enthusiasm for the country and the political process that has been absent for the last number of years. His presidency gives a measure of esteem and respect to people of oppressed cultures around the world, a world even more divided by skin color than the United States.

But, political popularity can turn quickly. It was stunning to watch Schwarzenegger's endorsed ballet propositions go down to defeat, two years after his successful recall of Grey Davis. And George W. Bush had a 75 + % approval rating for what seemed like a year, only to see it fall to the lowest rating, upon leaving office, of any U.S. president.

Leaving the pageantry of the next few weeks aside, it is interesting to think about what Obama's policies in the White House will be, as he works with the Democratic Congress.

Though as a politician he is brilliant, in terms of policy, Obama is a fairly mainstream centrist-liberal Democrat. Chicago is the source of his political upbringing, and a such, he has a different power base than recent presidents. Chicago is a union town, and the Upper Midwest in general is built around domestic manufacturing and agriculture. Unions and domestic manufacturing are pushing for protectionism against China, and I expect Obama will move in that direction in his first year.
"I don't think just jawboning will be the approach of this administration," Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs a key trade subcommittee in the House of Representatives, told reporters.

"I think it will look at all options, including a (WTO case), including working through the IMF, including looking at present legislation," Levin said.

Protectionism will fit the mood of the U.S. by the time late 2009 rolls around, and Obama will be hard for foreign leaders to demagogue. But it does bring the risk of an international backlash, as the global economy contracts, and countries feel their backs against the wall.
On the issue of Afghanistan, Obama has talked himself into a corner:
Despite plans to send up to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to reinforce the 32,000 already in Afghanistan, of whom about half serve in the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the prospect of routing the Taliban is remote.
Afghanistan is landlocked and more isolated than Iraq, has a longer history of successful rebellion, and very little recent history as a functioning state. Obama has positioned it as the real fight in the so-called war on terror, but he risks sinking his presidency on what could be an interminable stalemate.