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Celebrating the Season and Obama's Victory: Will He Be a Great President?

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This holiday season, I'm most grateful for President Obama's hard fought win at the polls. At a time of high unemployment, facing a vicious, lie-based attack fueled by millions in donations from right wing individuals, coupled with unscrupulous attempts to suppress voter participation, the country's first black president won a sweeping electoral victory. It is a triumph for American democracy -- and a thumbs-up for the power of diversity.

We are celebrating Obama and his winning coalition. James Taylor's new holiday album, "James Taylor at Christmas," is playing in the house. Taylor was stalwart in his support of the Obama team, and almost as hard working as Bruce Springsteen, who toured the final weeks of the campaign with Bill Clinton. (When Bruce Springsteen makes a Christmas album, we'll play that too.)

A holiday shout out to former President Clinton for his speech at the Democratic convention, and his tireless campaigning for Obama and other Democrats. We give Clinton hugs and Obama fist bumps to our holiday visitors. We are not fretting about the "fiscal cliff," debating what to do about the fighting in Syria or gossiping about whether Hillary will run in four years. Politics are on hold.

Most of the world is celebrating, too. They are relieved that Obama won.

In the aftermath of the election, I was in the UK giving talks to students and professors at Cambridge University and St. Andrews (Scotland's oldest university) on what to expect from the Obama administration in the next four years. My narrative device was to ask them to consider whether Obama will be judged to be a great American president after his second term. I began by saying that I give him an A for effort in his first term, but only a B or B+ for his accomplishments and his leadership. I explained that Obama himself has had private dinners with leading U.S. historians to discuss other American presidents, and that he measures himself against the best American leaders. I also polled students in my course on Obama's foreign policy at Occidental, and together with the UK students, I found that opinion was split about 50-50 as to whether history would consider Barack Obama a great political leader.

Of course, the students and the rest of us get to watch and come to our own conclusions after four years. The Obama saga will be televised, and what could be more educational than watching history being made. Here are a few metrics to consider.

If he can accomplish any of these diplomatic coups: realize a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine situation; negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and normalize relations as Nixon did with China; bring about an international treaty on climate change; unite South and North Korea; or normalize relations with Cuba and revitalize relations with Latin America, then he will certainly deserve the Nobel Peace Prize which he was awarded in his first term.
On the domestic front, he could make history with comprehensive immigration reform and most importantly, with economic reforms which revive manufacturing in the U.S. and begin to improve American wages for the middle and working class. Above all, he could shift the public debate from the deficit to inequality and declining economic opportunity. He might also strengthen American democracy through permanent changes in voting rules and procedures to make it simple and easy for every American to vote in national elections. To achieve any of these will take political will and wile.

There will probably be other opportunities for greatness. Does Obama have the right stuff? A few signs are positive. Unlike the 2011 negotiations over the debt ceiling, Obama is taking a tougher stance on tax issues in the face-off on the fiscal cliff, and he is building public support for his positions with speeches and town meetings outside the Beltway. A few well-chosen holiday gifts might help reinforce these emerging leadership qualities.

I've given the president my fair share of public and private advice (see "After Obama Wins"). In the spirit of the season, I offer him these gifts (or at least gifting suggestions for Michelle). In the book department, there is no better choice than Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, and as for a film to show at the White House over the holidays, the hands down choice is Lincoln, with Daniel Day Lewis' extraordinary performance of a president using political skill to win passage of the 13th Amendment. The relevance of both is obvious.

For the girls Malia and Sasha, I suggest CDs by lively, upbeat Scottish bands which I have rediscovered -- The Proclaimers, twin brothers from the environs of Edinburgh whose music is being used as the soundtrack for the filming of Sunshine on Leith, a kind of Scottish Mama Mia, and The Bay City Rollers, whose classic song "Bye Bye Baby" is featured in the film Love Actually, our holiday favorite. I've also asked Jackson Browne to make sure that the Obama family has an ample supply of his delicious "Jackie and Eddie" all-natural ginger cookies. Jackson's partner, environmental activist Deanna Cohen, can gift Malia and Sasha with metal straws for sipping healthy sodas -- part of her effort to promote a plastic free environment in offices and schools. I'm confident that Obama's staff will maintain his supply of sea salt chocolate caramels from Fran's of Seattle -- the official chocolate of the Obama White House, packed in a blue box with the presidential seal.

Here are my other favorites of the year, all available for gifting or self-purchase:

Non-fiction

Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, a great book to read if you'd like an understanding of the President's improbable journey to the White House. Maraniss is the award winning author of First In His Class on the rise of Bill Clinton, and books on such iconic sports figures as Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi. In many ways, Obama's life story is the story of the 20th Century. For excellent reporting on Obama's national security team and his first term as a war president, there is no better source than The Obamians, by former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent James Mann. I used it successfully as a text in my fall course at Occidental.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. After the ill-fated Progressive campaign, Teddy Roosevelt retired from politics and took a trip down an uncharted river in the Amazon with his grown son Kermit, accompanied by the most famous Brazilian explorer of the day. This is a true story that reads like a thriller (and would make a good movie). Millard is a brilliant narrative writer who provides details on the natural and political history of Brazil. I read the book while in the country to give pre-election talks at universities in Sao Paulo and Rio, enjoyed every page, and came away with a new appreciation of Teddy's admirable qualities. I also recommend her other non-fiction narrative, Destiny of the Republic, on the assassination of President James Garfield and the advent of modern medical science.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It, by Arthur Herman. This is the kind of book from which you learn something new on almost every page. It is serious history, well researched, and written with verve and style. I read it in Scotland and came away with a feeling of pride for my heritage (my great grandmother is from Dundee), and for the contributions of the Scots to world history. Most of the story is set in Edinburgh, and as we walked the streets, stood by the statue of Adam Smith, a great moralist as well as a political economist, and took in the atmosphere of the town, I felt as if I could sense David Hume explaining his political philosophy in a near by coffee house. The Scottish National Museum had mounted an exhibition on the great explorer David Livingston whom author Herman profiles in the book, and we eagerly took it in.

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, by Pankaj Mishra. The author is Indian-born, living and writing in London. This is an important and thought provoking book, certain to win many awards. Mishra tells the story of 20th Century Asian thinkers who faced the superior power and status of the West and tried to analyze and advocate responses. It is a magnificent work which all Western "leaders" and policy thinkers should read for a different perspective on global history, especially now as India and China have emerged as rising powers. Mishra's earlier work, The Temptations of the West, is also an excellent read.

China Airborne, by James Fallows. If you can read only one new book on China this year, this is the one. Fallows is one of America's best journalists. He and his wife Deborah spent three years living in China, and this is his latest work based on that experience. Fallows tells the story of China's aspirations to become an international air power and construct a modern airplane industry; he reports the little known story of the role that western experts and companies have played in assisting China to become airborne.

The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics, by Thomas Edsall, is the best book of political analysis of 2012. Edsall's weekly on line column in the New York Times provoked sophisticated and thoughtful discussion of politics throughout the Presidential race. Edsall is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why conflict and partisanship will not go away any time soon.

The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail But Some Don't, by Nate Silver. The author is a statistics geek, New York Times columnist, and unlikely hero to Obama supporters during the campaign. Silver's analysis of polling data and his prediction of a strong Obama electoral victory (he called every state correctly) rattled Republicans, infuriated right wing pundits, and reassured Democrats. A famous poster read: Keep Calm and Read Nate Silver. He got his start with sports statistics and then turned his attention to public opinion polling and politics. New York Times editor Bill Keller made a brilliant call in signing Silver up as a columnist. The rest, as they say, is history. Silver has written a serious book on the use and misuse of data. It's not a perfect book, but if you are looking for a book on statistics and decision making this should be your choice. You can also leave it on your coffee table to impress your friends and keep them calm.

Fiction

My enjoyment of detective fiction goes back to university days when a friend introduced me to the Boston-based novels of Robert Parker and his engaging knight errant Spenser. Ever since, I have sought out well written novels with a strong sense of place -- and shared my favorites with other pals including my brother-in-law Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton, Tom Edsall, and others in our generational cohort. I'm also a fan of realistic spy thrillers, starting with the classic works by Eric Ambler and moving on to John Le Carré and others.

This year brought good reads from many of my favorite authors. Ian Rankin brought back his Edinburgh cop John Rebus in Standing on Another Man's Grave which I happily bought on my trip to Scotland. In The Black Box, former Los Angeles Times crime reporter Michael Connelly has produced another finely honed tale of his hero, LA cop Harry Bosch. The first book in the Harry Hole detective series, The Bat, by Norwegian author Jo Nesbro has been published, recounting Harry's investigative trip to Australia. Qiu Xiaolong, a professor of literature at Washington University, St. Louis, produced Don't Cry Tai Lake, featuring Shanghai detective Inspector Chen dealing with the politics and intrigue of environmental pollution. Reading the Inspector Chen series (which debuted with Death of a Red Heroine) is a good way to get a feel for life in contemporary China. Another ex-pat writer, Tarquin Hall, informs and entertains with another Vish Puri mystery (self-styled "India's Greatest Detective"), The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, which tackles the world of professional cricket and India's fraught relations with Pakistan. You learn a lot about modern India while enjoying Vish Puri's exploits.

In the future history/thriller category, I read Ian McDonald's Brasyl, a compelling tale told in three interlocking stories set in past, present and future Brazil. Reading it while on a trip to Sao Paulo and Rio made it all the more enjoyable. McDonald has written equally nuanced and challenging futuristic novels about India (River of Gods), and Turkey (The Dervish House). McDonald has also started a series for younger readers, beginning with Planesrunner -- an excellent gift for the thinking teen in your life.

My search for air plane and late night reading, led me to discover new authors in 2012. Among the best:

The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero is a rare treat -- a literary thriller set against the backdrop of the Chilean coup against Allende. It begins when Detective Cayetano Brule is engaged by Neruda himself to solve a mystery and develops into a political thriller as the investigation turns into an examination of Neruda's life, his loves, and his accomplishments as a Nobel prize winning and adored poet of the nation. It is a wonderful novel, and would make a fine film.

The Dawn Patrol, by Don Winslow is easily the best surfer detective novel ever written. To say that I got hooked on Winslow's work this summer, would be putting it mildly. I'm a California native son, born and raised in Southern California, and while an indifferent surfer (after standing up on my board once, I retired), I love the history and politics of the region. No one writes about surfing, crime and politics (including the drug wars south of the border) better than Don Winslow. I ended up reading every one of Winslow's novels this summer, including Savages, which Oliver Stone turned into an exciting film. I have passed on the books to other friends like law professor Anne Bloom who doubles as a surfer girl and Ben Bergman, a former Oxy student, who covers Southern California politics for LA public radio. Winslow's research on the history of Southern California is informative, and his writing is smooth and compelling. Check him out, dude.

The Dewey Decimal System, by Nathan Larson, and the sequel, The Nervous System, are inventive riffs on the hard-boiled detective genre. Set in New York City after another devastating terrorist attack, the damaged hero lives in the ruins of the New York Public Library, protecting what remains of the collection while trying to make sense of his friends and enemies outside the library walls. The author is an award winning film composer and the writing is musical, staccato-like, with wonderful punk and hip-hop slang. A great candidate for a Showtime or HBO series.

Holy City, by Guillermo Orsi, is the best crime novel set in Latin America that I have read. The author works as a journalist in Buenos Aires, and knows his city and its corrupt police, politicians and violent criminals. It's not a pretty picture, but it smacks of truth, at least one truth, about life in today's Argentina.

Music

The best album of the year is no contest. All hail Bruce Springsteen and his latest, "Wrecking Ball." New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would agree. He's a big Springsteen fan, and Obama won points by introducing the two of them in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Christie was thrilled. Springsteen's creative energy and political stamina -- he keeps stepping up when needed -- is a national resource. It's no coincidence that the Obama campaign chose one of his tracks as its anthem. My favorite "good cause" album of the year is "Chimes of Freedom," produced by my talented daughter Julie Yannatta and her colleague, my Culver City high school classmate, Jeff Ayeroff. The four-CD set celebrates the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International with 80 different singers from Miley Cyrus to Pete Seeger covering Bob Dylan's songbook. Julie produced a two CD version which was sold nationwide in Starbucks. The liner notes are by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, 'official' historian of the Dylan website and author of a noted book on Dylan. Combine these with CDs of the "Best of the Proclaimers and the Bay City Rollers," and you have a great holiday gift pack.

Film

Our favorite feature film of the year is The Intouchables, starring Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet, which gives new meaning, compassion and humor to the term "buddy movie." If you can see only one foreign film with subtitles, this is certainly the one. It should be nominated for a number of Academy Awards. My favorite documentary of the year is Marley, directed by Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) which provides little-known details of Marley's mixed parentage similar to Obama's. Marley's father was a British soldier passing through Jamaica; he lived his early life as a social outcast, and then rose to fame with the Wailers as one of the world's most famous Reggae singers.

I also loved the documentary, The Other Dream Team, a moving story of the rise of the Lithuanian basketball team in the aftermath of the end of the Soviet Union. I plan to add it to the play list for my course on Sports, Diplomacy and Globalization. From the BBC, comes another superb global documentary by world traveling actor and author Michael Palin. In Brazil With Michael Palin he tackles one of the rising BRIC nations, soon to play host to the World Cup and then the Olympics. It is a fun and informative introduction to an up and coming player on the world stage.

My wife Sue and I are partial to BBC and European dramas and order them on line from Amazon UK even before they appear in the U.S. After seeing the new Bond film in the theater, we ordered Sword of Honour starring Daniel Craig; it's a cinematic version of Evelyn Waugh's novel of life and politics in WWII England. Watching it makes clear that Craig's talents as an actor extend well beyond James Bond. The same goes for Benedict Cumberbatch, currently starring in the BBC's modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes' adventures. We watched him play an uptight and agonized hero in "Parade's End", based on the novels of Ford Maddox Ford. We also binged on Nordic noir fiction, screening The Bridge -- a detective thriller which begins with a body cut in half at the mid point of the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmo. A Danish and a Swedish detective must team up to solve the crime.

Borgen (Government), from the makers of the Danish thriller The Killing, is a multi-part political thriller about the first female prime minister.

We also are thankful for the Danish firm Lego. Our grandson loves Star Wars-themed Lego sets, and is now moving towards Lego's more educational architecture series. Lego has teamed up with Mattel to provide Barbie construction sets for young girls which are engaging our granddaughter and make us feel less sexist about indulging her passion for dolls. It might be a Barbie fashion shop or a design studio, but at least it involves building and enterprise. I'm proud of my Danish heritage too.

We wish the Obama family the best of holidays. We salute their courage under fire, and we offer kudos to all those who worked hard in the campaign. Whatever 2013 brings, the past year has ended on a high note for our country. Stay calm, and keep reading Nate Silver.

Holiday Greetings and Happy New Year,

The Ambassadude

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