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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Get Used to Disappointment

What to Hope For (and realistically expect) in Obama's First Year

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Merle Haggard once famously predicted that "when a President goes through the White House doors, and does what he says he'll do, we'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble-Up, and eatin' that Rainbow Stew."

From the inaugural euphoria sweeping the press and large segments of society, you'd expect Barack Obama to show up today with a silver spoon and apron and start ladling out the Bubbly Broth of Salvation. To be sure, the election of a black man to the nation's highest office in a country where he wouldn't have had the right to even vote in some states just decades ago is a testament to how far we've come, and congratulations are in order as we pause slightly to consider the historic implications.

But enough already - there is work to be done, and a lot of it. The economy is in the crapper, armed conflicts rage in many parts of the world, and we are all doomed to environmental catastrophe in any event, if you believe what you read in the papers. Whatever your political stripe, I think we can all agree that there is much to be done.

But there is a difference about what SHOULD be done, which is obviously subjective, and what realistically CAN be done. The United States is just one player, although arguably the most powerful, on the world scene, and the President's role has historically been limited to two main areas - the formation and implementation of a domestic economic agenda and foreign policy matters.

First, let's look at the economic situation. Who can argue times are tough? The economy is shedding jobs faster than wool off a spring llama, and even yours truly has had downgrade from Miller products to the less expensive, but almost as tasty, Keystone beer. Some of my fellow liberals are eager to blame GW Bush for everything from the current recession to the inclement weather, but this is too easy and beside the point. We are told that the Bush administration fostered an atmosphere of deregulation and "anything goes" on Wall Street, which led to the ongoing crash of the housing bubble and mortgage-backed securities, and the ensuing credit crunch. In truth, deregulation began under Reagan, and was wholeheartedly embraced by the Democrat Bill (NAFTA) Clinton, so it is misleading and unproductive to point fingers. The question is, what can President Obama do about it?

The proposed, mammoth stimulus spending package seems a step in the right direction. I might be a bit thin in the smarts department, but investing billions of dollars putting citizens to work making badly needed improvements to the nation's crumbling infrastructure, and also researching and developing renewable energy sources would reap immediate and long-term economic gains both to small businesses and their employees, and will make the ongoing bailout of mismanaged corporations (which Obama supports) more palatable to the public.

I would also like to see Pres. Obama reexamine NAFTA, which has been a disaster from the start. It has, as predicted, resulted in the decimation of the domestic manufacturing base, and seen thousands of jobs permanently lost to offshoring. Entire cities and states have atrophied, falling under the ever increasing "rust belt" as skilled, high paying jobs have vanished, benefiting only the investors in the multinationals. In a perfect world, I'd like to see more emphasis on "fair trade" than "free trade," but this brings us back to my earlier acknowledgement that the U.S. is just one country. Wouldn't it then be disadvantageous to big business, and the millions they employ, to hamstring the economy with a slew of "feel-good" regulations, if other nations are not going to follow suit? As Obama said, such decisions are "above my pay-grade."

Ditto for the environment. We liberals tend to gleefully portray conservatives as a pack of money-grubbing "Heat Misers," who would use baby seals for target practice if there was a nickel in it for them, while painting ourselves as Elvin tree-nymphs who leave no carbon-footprint whatsoever. The reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle. I haven't found one of my conservative friends who are against a cleaner environment. Environmentalists are chomping at the bit, waiting for Obama to regulate the way to a zero-emissions world, but this is unrealistic. Again, as conservatives correctly argue, it does no good to enact environmental laws that will drive up the cost of doing business domestically if other nations aren't going to follow suit. I have yet to read of significant environmental protectionism in India or China, the world's fastest growing economies. Perhaps, instead of regulation, Obama might offer big tax breaks (a Republican favorite!) to companies who voluntarily start using "greener" production models. Make it economically attractive to investors, and you'll see better results.

I've probably already bored you, so let me quickly conclude with my own worthless opinion on foreign policy matters. Obama has indicated he will begin an orderly draw-down of forces from Iraq, and I think everyone is happy with this. There are no weapons of mass destruction, evil-dictator overthrown and executed - mission accomplished. Republicans assure us the surge has worked, so why not get out of this costly imbroglio and get serious. There are real bad guys out there. Peaceniks will naively pretend that if we all attend a nice weekend retreat somewhere, everything will suddenly be all right and we can all sing John Lennon's "Imagine" over a nice coffee-cake. To his credit, Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton understand that the very real threat of terrorism must be unfortunately be dealt with by force where necessary. No rational being desires war, but if war has been declared on us (and it has), then Obama has no choice but to fulfill his oath as Commander in Chief to protect the Republic.

Having said that, I do think that the opportunity exists for Obama to vastly improve relations with Latin America, which have deteriorated badly. How about sitting down with the players from Latin America (yes, including Cuba and Venezuela), and at least exploring common ground? It won't necessarily solve all the world's ills, but as the bumper sticker urges, "Think globally - act locally!"

Finally, there are no shortage of focus groups who believe that Obama ought to make their own pet causes his top priority, whether it be decriminalizing marijuana, legalizing gay marriage, or enacting a ban on baggy trousers. I'm a social liberal, but I also believe in states' rights, and think that such back-burner topics are best left to state and local legislative bodies who are more closely attuned to the wills of their constituents.

Obama is (only half-jokingly) referred to as "The One," who will in short order right all the perceived failings of America. Those foolish enough to subscribe to this theory are in for a great deal of disappointment, as we do not exist in a vacuum, and Obama's actions will need to acknowledge the global nature of today's geopolitical realities.

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