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Bye, Bye Bush, Hello Barack: A Door Opens in 2009

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It's hard not to be excited by the change from Bush to Obama. The 60s activist in me couldn't help but smile at the sight of Bruce Springsteen backed by an African-American choir opening the Inaugural Concert on the Mall -- and later, Springsteen brought Pete Seeger on to lead the massive crowd in singing the classic, "This Land Is Your Land." It was a far cry from Ricky Martin headlining the Bush Inaugural eight years ago.

To celebrate the passing of my Yale classmate into history, my wife and I plan to attend a preview of Will Ferrell's new one-man play, You're Welcome America, when we are in NYC. It will be a fitting send-off. To prepare for the Obama administration over the holidays, I have been doing my duty for Occidental College where I teach -- promoting my colleague Roger Boesche who was Obama's mentor and taught him courses on American political thought, and appearing myself on NPR to publicize "BarOxyWear", the line of clothing and collectibles the campus store is selling. I've also done a little serious reading, as well watching the NFL playoffs and going to see the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (where the threat to humankind's existence is ecological not nuclear).

I highly recommend Adam Cohen's new book, Nothing To Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America. It is a fitting companion to Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment which I recommended in an earlier article. Cohen does an excellent job describing the backgrounds and personalities of key FDR policymakers, and how they worked with the President to pass significant reform legislation during the first 100 days of the New Deal. The book also reminds us how important Congress and a reform-minded President's relationship with powerful members is to accomplishing change. Of course, having an active citizenry and populist social movements to lobby Congress and the White House helps too -- and Cohen does not neglect these influences.

I was reading such books over the holidays because I am still hopeful about progressive change in America -- and I want President Barack Obama to preside over a new New Deal for the country, although one adapted to the 21st Century. I am also a realist; even in the midst of an economic crisis, change in a progressive direction is not preordained.

What should we expect from Obama and his team?

On the economic front, I am confident that Congress will pass a significant economic recovery package -- to use the Obama administration's preferred phrase. Let's call it StimPac for short rather than ERP. Whatever the name, the $800 billion package will contain a lot of vital and much needed public investment in traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges, and schools, and in new environmental and digital age projects. As part of Bill Clinton's economic team in 1992, I had argued for a large public investment package, but the idea did not survive the politics of the day. Obama is better prepared and better positioned than Clinton was to achieve a serious down payment on a public investment strategy. As Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, was fond of saying: "If anybody opens a door, one should always go through. Opportunity comes that way." The economic crisis is just such an open door. We can be certain that Obama and his Congressional allies will make good on the StimPac initiative and have it on his desk to sign by early February.

It is less clear exactly how Obama's economic team will tackle the ongoing bailout of the financial system. Bush's team at Treasury has been content to hand out billions of public money to banks large and small which seem content to protect their balance sheets rather than begin lending again to businesses and consumers. Much more will have to be done to reconfigure the bank bailout -- expect an announcement on this front in Obama's first days in office -- and in the months to come, there will have to be new regulatory initiatives on the scale of FDR's securities and banking reform legislation. Look for Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Kent Conrad to play key roles, as well as Congressman Henry Waxman. One of Obama's friends from Chicago days, law professor Cass Sunstein, will also be a key player in regulatory reform. Sunstein is the author of an important book, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, as well of his earlier study The Cost of Rights (with Stephen Holmes). He is one of the most original and progressive thinkers whom Obama brings with him to DC -- and he might well deserve a chapter in some future history of the Obama team's inner circle. I also expect that Vice President Biden and his chief economist (the first time a VP has had such a post) progressive Jared Bernstein will weigh in on matters of structural reform and economic justice.

There will also be a lot of damage repair to do in the first 100 days and the first years of the Obama administration. It is hard to underestimate how much damage Bush and his gang did to the country, but we certainly know that they severely undermined the rule of law. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team will have an immense task to do restoring the credibility and competence of the Justice Department -- and not only on the domestic front. On his first day in office, President Obama will most likely announce his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo, and Holder will have to figure out the legal and logistical ramifications of making that happen. To help him, Holder should be able to recruit the best and smartest lawyers of Obama's generation, just as FDR and his supporter Felix Frankfurter recruited top legal minds for the New Deal. I've already had numerous former students with law degrees contact me about recommendations for joining the administration.

For a reality check on Obama's environmental appointees, I asked my friend Peter Barnes what he thought of them. Peter is the author of Climate Solutions: What Works, What Doesn't and Why, and Newsweek recently labeled him one of the most influential policy intellectuals in the country. A longtime activist in solar power and a board member of GreenPeace International (as well as the founder of the first progressive credit card company, Working Assets), Peter usually fears for the future of the human race. He is most likely to go see a movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still and conclude that we have passed the "tipping point" in ecological damage to the planet, and that not even a visit from an extraterrestial eco-super being can save us. But Peter is optimistic about Obama's choices to lead the EPA and the Department of Energy and to serve as top science advisors, so I am confident that Obama has people in place who understand the seriousness of global warming and the dangers of continued reliance on fossil fuels. Whether or not his administration can create a Green New Deal at home and abroad remains to be seen. Much will depend on how much support the green dream team can muster from citizens and from environmental groups. This is one area where we will see what good political use can be made of Obama's millions of names from his campaign network.

On the global stage, Obama is already an international hit before taking office -- but expectations are incredibly high.He is expected to end the war in Iraq, win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, capture Osama Bin Laden, forge a final peace between Palestinians and Israelis, engage with Iran, stabilize Pakistan, manage the rise of China, open relations with Cuba, and reenergize US involvement in Latin America -- and perhaps, bring about immigration reform and make Mexico more stable and democratic. He is also expected to lead internationally on climate change and reform of the international financial system, and make globalization a win-win proposition for the world's poor. This is a daunting prospect even for a man who has already been compared to Lincoln, FDR and JFK. Inspite of the good will afforded him at the outset of his Presidency, it's going to be a rocky road -- and much harder than leading reform efforts at home.

Obama has a valuable asset in his new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She will be one of the stars of his administration -- and not because she will personally resolve all the conflicts listed above. I believe that she will become a voice for global social justice, especially for women, as well as a firm advocate of US national interests abroad. She will expand the role of the women's office at State and bring with her more talented diplomats to carry the message. She is also confident enough as a politician to bring in strong, smart, experienced diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross to deal with the international repair work that needs to be done. Holbrooke will oversee huge challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Asia, and Ross will do the same for the Middle East. Both will have to help settle ongoing wars through aggressive diplomacy and engage key regional players like India and Iran in post-conflict settlements. It is smart politically of Obama and Clinton to use these "tough guys" to do this work. Without them or individuals of their caliber, the President and the Secretary of State could spend all of their time simply getting out of the holes dug for the US by the Bush administration and have neither time nor energy for any future-leaning initiatives in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Finally, I am hopeful because Barack and Michelle Obama and their family seem to be approaching these very serious tasks with a sense of optimism and fun. The White House will once again be a place of culture and of outreach to the citizenry of the nation -- not a fortress of the War on Terror with timeout for personal work-outs. Even Obama's workouts will be social -- testing his friends and allies on the basketball court (as an Occidental professor who still plays competitive b-ball, I have volunteered for a pick-up game when he visits the campus). And for the first time, the African-American communities of Washington, DC and of neighboring cities in Maryland and Virginia, will have a President who knows their lives and who will be a true neighbor not a foreign presence in their midst. That certainly is another part of this truly new New Deal for America.

It is a new day for America. Let's make the most of the door that has opened. Bye, bye George Bush, hello Barack Obama.