Revolutionary figures rarely make it to the Promised Land. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were gunned down 40 years ago, just as they seemed on the verge of transforming American society and political life. While hopes were dashed and the question of “What might have been” lingered, their untimely departures nonetheless cemented them as iconic figures of hope. They never grew old, and their soaring rhetoric never had to face the difficulties that come when attempting to translate poetry into prose.
Barack Obama’s election as President, therefore, represents a stunning departure from the status quo. While the world celebrates, and African Americans in particular rejoice over the election of a black president, Obama must begin the transition from revolutionary to chief executive of the United States government. And as CEO of “America Inc”, he faces hurdles unprecedented in American history; hurdles that unless handled correctly threaten to overwhelm the euphoria of his historic election.
Comparisons to Jimmy Carter immediately come to mind. Carter, like Obama, came from out of nowhere in 1976 to be elected President. Like Obama, Carter’s election was something of a protest vote against the recent political past. Americans, exhausted from the ordeals of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, elected a man who promised a government “as good as the people”, and when Carter stepped out of his limousine and walked in his inaugural parade, Americans felt that a “breath of fresh air” had come to Washington.
But reality hit the Carter Administration hard. Despite Carter’s best intentions, a Congress controlled by the same party and his sharp mind (apparently the smartest President in history) Carter was buffeted by an unending wave of problems. Rising inflation, double digit interest rates, an energy crisis, a recession and a 444-day hostage ordeal in Iran, made the “most powerful man in the world” appear powerless. Four years after it had begun with such high hopes, Carter was voted out of office in a landslide by a former actor named Ronald Reagan. And unfortunately for Obama, Carter’s problems pale in comparison to what America faces today.
Obama will assume the presidency at a time when America is not just in recession, but is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the reckless spending of the Bush years to contend with, Obama will not inherit a surplus like Kevin Rudd to help the economy along; instead he will find a balance sheet that is already close to a trillion dollars in the red. How then to implement the domestic reforms that he promised, in particular a complete transformation of America’s health care system that has rightly been called “sick”?
Abroad, the problems only seem to multiply. With Pakistan on the brink of collapse, a war in Afghanistan with no end in sight, and the continued problem of extricating America from Iraq, Obama will confront a world in chaos. And that’s not even mentioning a resurgent and bellicose Russia, an Iran on the verge of going nuclear, and the ongoing war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist allies. No wonder Obama tempered his victory speech with a warning about the difficulties that lie ahead: he knows all too well that with the challenges so profound, many peoples’ expectations about what is possible to achieve will need to be lowered.
But despite these almost insurmountable obstacles, how can Obama make his presidency a success? First, he must surround himself with experts and then empower them by delegating authority. President Reagan had a sign on his desk that read: “There is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”
One of Carter’s greatest failures was his inability to delegate: a control freak who demanded that his staff ask his personal permission to use the White House tennis court, his inability to “let go” helped crush him. Obama would do well to take the Reagan model of management and delegate to those with experience in government. It appears that Obama is going to do this with his appointment of ex-Clinton staffer Rahm Emmanuel as his Chief of Staff. However, Obama should be careful to ensure that those he appoints are loyal to him and not to the Clintons: a task that will be made harder if Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State.
Second, Obama must be a President who stands with the American people in this time of crisis, and thereby save himself from becoming their target of frustration when things don’t improve overnight. A major factor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s success as President during the Great Depression were his “fireside chats”, when over the radio he explained to the people how his “New Deal” program would take them to economic recovery. Including the people step-by-step will keep the solidarity alive through the long haul.
Finally, Obama must use American power shrewdly to create a new international order. Richard Nixon transformed America’s role from a position of dominance to one of leadership, and if Obama is to do the same he must reach out as Nixon did to Europe, China and Russia, playing one off the other, and using American power when necessary to demonstrate that diplomacy is always backed up by force. If he manages this structure of power successfully, then America will restore much of its tarnished reputation while at the same time achieving its national interests.
Becoming President when things are so bad may prove to be a bonus for Obama: with the situation so dire, some say that things can only get better! And if Obama can lead America towards peace and prosperity, then the man who has won an extraordinary victory has the potential to become an extraordinary President.