Sunday, January 18, 2009

Official Pre-Inauguration Post

Is it hard or not?

Some would emphasize the opportunity part of this "danger opportunity", as the Chinese might or might not say. All Obama needs to do is deliver the economic recovery, and re-election is virtually guaranteed.

They think back to Reagan, who outlived the previous "worst recession since the Depression". The application of high interest rates broke the back of stagflation, and he had enough time to make tax cuts work to recover from the resulting high unemployment. It just takes a couple of years.

I agree with them on the last point, at least. I'm not of the "100 Days" philosophy, that somehow Obama has 3 1/3 months to set the tone and establish his Administration's fate. He can enunciate principles and initial efforts now, and work on making it all real in the following months, as his Administration's appointments in the domestic departments all come on line and re-discover their moribund (or worse: evil-minded) organizations' potential value. It does take a couple of years.

It is the return of competence that should ultimately prove Obama's great strength, and about which I have the highest confidence and greatest expectations. Obama's hires are experienced, seasoned leaders of great knowledge and integrity, who should work through consultation and up-to-date, purposeful communication methods to produce policies built on principle and sound reasoning. I think we're off to a good start with this, but it's so easy to be derailed.

This is not easy stuff; no job for a latter-day Ronald Reagan.

Expectations: Scylla, or Charybdis?

Expressions of what people expect from the Obamadministration seem drawn by the currents toward the extremes: maximalism and "putting his feet to the fire" demands on one side, and lowered-bar, minimalist ones on the other.

Those who advocate the lower expectations have plenty of history on their side, and they quite reasonably argue that Washington will demand its accommodations and Obama have to make his, as well.

Obama's inclination is clearly to emphasize the practical outcome, even while maintaining a high-quality discourse and moral tone. If there are any of his supporters doomed to be continually disappointed, they would be the ones who are looking for symbolic gestures that have no direct practical import. No capital is likely to be expended for their benefit.

A good example would be federal liberalization of marijuana laws. He might support it, but has shown no sign of doing so--if it were to happen with Obama I would not expect anything until the second term. Ending the "don't ask, don't tell" in the military, on the other hand, will probably be decided soon, and on a caluclation of the net benefit--additions due to the "open tent", as it were, versus losing some homophobic veterans.

My own expectations are ambitious, but only somewhat so. I expect Obama to be the best President since I've become aware of politics. But I don't think that's saying so much--I expected that of HRC when she was practically crowned, and I think Obama can be a much better President than she could have done.

(For the record, I wasn't really what I'd call aware of politics when JFK was assassinated, though I did observe what was going on, and certainly had my own opinions by the next time around.)

From the first term, I expect improvement in the healthcare insurance offerings available to those who are not full-time employees. I expect a reasonable muddle on Social Security (which isn't so broken) and some modest improvement on the out-of-control growth-rates of Medicare. I expect some upward adjustment in taxes paid by those in higher tax brackets by the end of the term, including retirees. No change in tax loopholes--we're looking to protect jobs here, not eliminate them, right?

Foreign policy progress may develop faster than I expect, because I don't expect much for six months or so. Still, there can be huge improvements. I'm waiting to see Obama's initial position toward Russia, which will have to be carefully considered. I expect Obama to meet with both al-Sistani in Iraq and Khamenei in Iran before the first term is over, and I am hopeful that a confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons can be avoided.

I think the most nuanced policy to come from Obama will be in the area of executive powers, those extended by the Bushites in the interest of the "unitary executive". He will pull back only selectively; in other words, he will give back the Bushite power-grabs only when they were applied incompetently or abusively, not on principle. I now suspect that Obama will retain the Hobbesian principle of a theoretically unlimited state, as long as nations are in a state of nature amongst themselves.

In order to address that last issue--the complete disrespect of international organizations by the Bushites--he will have to tread on the shaky ground of U.N. Charter reform, but I believe that will be a second-term initiative.

My pick for the most likely Obama quote for his inaugural address is this bit, which could be properly planted into the declaration of a new posture toward the rest of the world:

to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It's from Lincoln's Second Inaugural ("with malice toward none..."), the greatest touchstone for Obama's whole approach.

As for the economy....

I'm going to withhold judgment until I see it, but I am somewhat skeptical of the stimulus package. The question is whether we know what sort of deficit spending and what sort of tax reductions will produce the desired result (i.e., a turnaround in the recessionary trend without rampant inflation).

Tax cuts are the attempt to provide direct stimulus to the largest number of people. The problem is, spread so thin, people don't get enough to change their behavior much. I see only marginal relief, in the form of some recovery in consumption levels, from those.

It's really a matter of the spending and whether it will produce sustainable jobs. On this one, I'm afraid that there's a real question if there's enough real need for labor to go around (i.e., maintain our lifestyle) in normal times. I think that the experience of the last dozen or so years has clearly shown that we don't need to be in the manufacture of cheap plastic items, that we don't know how to run a proper financial cartel, and that the Internet is fully portable (as in, no boundaries).

On the other hand, we have a good start in providing services in the Internet, and we still have abundant natural resources (even if we've depleted our crude oil more than some). We also have a central role in the evolving World culture, and that is something we have earned and from which we will be hard to displace. I find the argument that most of the deficit spending should be directed towards creating a new strength in energy technology and its application to be a compelling one, but it will also be slow in creating jobs.

My bottom line expectation is that Obama can "arrest the decline by end of oh-nine"; that may not be a good-enough result to produce his re-election, but I say we can't expect more.

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