The 2008 campaign is heading to a decisive conclusion. Barack Obama is sailing towards a triumphant finish on the winds of economic distress and financial crisis. Obama has demonstrated a steely coolness under fire, while John McCain has turned into a caricature of himself as an old man, out of touch and losing it. Temperament does matter in a President -- and on that score, Obama has won hands down.
I am hearing from friends abroad who assume that Obama will be the next US President (as I do), but who worry that the optimism and hope that characterized the earlier days of the campaign have been diminished by the economic crisis and by the angry tone of McCain's ads and rallies. They worry that Obama might inherit a damaged, angry and divided country, and not be able to reverse what they see as a nation in decline. A former British Admiral with whom I worked on NATO peace keeping asked me if America's best days are over and whether Obama can really reform our debt-ridden economy, and free ourselves from Iraq.
An Australian writer in country to film a documentary showed up at our house to interview friends who had gathered for a debate party. The informal working title for the project: "Is America Screwed?" The filmmaker asked guests to consider whether the US is going downhill, and whether Obama can repair the damage that Bush has done to the country at home and abroad. Can an Obama administration reform the American economy and renew the promise of American life as FDR did with the New Deal?
As a native Californian, I tend to be optimistic -- and I have always been a New Deal Democrat at heart and in practice, as much as possible over the years. Of course, I vote for giving hope another chance -- but we should not leave matters simply to chance. Bold action will be required of President Obama and his administration at home and abroad -- and we should all expect it of him. He will need to show boldness in his selection of his team and boldness in the initiatives that he lays out in his first 100 days in office and beyond.
He will need to take immediate action on numerous fronts -- and, equally important, explain to the nation (and the world) what he is doing and why he is doing it. FDR used folksy fireside chats to restore public confidence in government by explaining his decisive steps such as shutting down the nation's banks for a short "holiday" with language and metaphors that the public could easily grasp. Obama will need an analogous communications strategy of his own -- not a fireside chat nor a rap, but perhaps a tutorial model that works well with his cool and calm demeanor. He will have to go beyond the hapless Oval office speeches and Rose Garden reassurances of Bush, and find his own effective and emotive way of speaking directly to the American people.
What should he talk about?
On the economic front, he might well be faced in January with a deepening recession, and he will have to explain the imperative of an economic stimulus package -- one with immediate goals of restoring credit, restarting economic activity, shoring up the housing market, and reestablishing confidence that a competent leader is in charge in the White House. He can talk about nation-building at home -- about the need to signal priorities in the stimulus package with investments in infrastructure (highways, bridges, schools), in alternative energy sources, and by providing economic help for the unemployed, and for those faced with losing their homes or their jobs.
Obama should also make clear his commitment to reforming Wall Street and the financial sector of the economy. His choice to be Treasury Secretary and how he explains the person's mission will be an early indication of his willingness to find individuals to serve in an Obama administration who combine competence with a willingness to protect the public interest -- first, in carrying out the financial rescue package already passed by Congress, and then in supporting smart regulation of financial markets. A first order of business might be the appointment of a Presidential commission headed by the Vice President or by a populist like Senator Byron Dorgan to examine the most effective ways to regulate hedge funds, derivatives, credit default swaps and other arcane financial devices. Such a body could be tasked with looking at foreign regulatory models in Canada and Australia as well as at European proposals for a new regulatory regime in the US -- one that protects the public interest while not stifling genuine enterprise. Like the 9/11 Commission, it should have a clear (and short deadline) for reporting back to the President.
Obama's appointments to the Council of Economic Advisors, to the office of US Trade representative, and to Secretary of Labor will also signal the strength and depth of his commitment to reforming the economy. His first Federal Budget as President will spell out national needs and priorities and provide him with an opportunity to start making good on his campaign promises to reform the tax system towards greater equity, to build a better social safety net for the globalized economy, and to invest in a "green" economic future.
Bold action and strong Presidential appointments will also be required for dealing with problems beyond our shores. Obama will need to appoint a strong team of his own to lead in foreign and national security areas. He might select someone like Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican who opposed the Iraq War, as Defense Secretary. He does not need nor should he keep on any of Bush's people. There needs to be a fresh start.
On day one in office, President Obama should make good on his campaign promise on Iraq by calling home Central Commander David Petraeus for talks about a timetable for withdrawing all US forces from that country. Only a clear ultimatum to the Iraqi government will push them to get their act together and to understand that they are going to have to take responsibility for governing the country. At the same time, he should announce a major diplomatic "surge" in the region -- calling for a conference of all involved countries including Iran and Syria to plan for regional security and stability. He might also send a high level envoy to Tehran -- perhaps Vice President Biden or former top military leader like Admiral Bill Fallon or a former Defense Secretary such as Bill Perry -- to initiate talks with Iran. These talks might lead to a grand bargain between the US and Iran not unlike the Shanghai accords that President Nixon signed with Chairman Mao -- i.e., an agreement to disagree but to engage and talk on all issues, and to normalize relations in order to do so.
Obama could also announce a special envoy to the Middle East to signal his commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement -- someone like Bill Clinton or Sam Nunn. He should also announce that he is sending a US ambassador back to Damascus, and that the US supports the ongoing talks to establish permanent peace between Israel and Syria. As part of this action on the Middle East, he might also explain that the US government is not at war with the Muslim world. He should drop the usuage of "The War on Terror," announce the closing of the prison at Guantanamo, and state that the US does not condone torture by any American soldiers or intelligence officers. Such actions taken in the first weeks of an Obama administration would be an unmistakable signal to all the countries of the Middle East and to Muslim nations around the world that a new government is in charge -- one that will take a more nuanced approach to resolving the deep-seated problems of the region, and one that will listen to its friends and allies, and not fear talking to its adversaries.
As part of the First 100 Days, President Obama could also send a strong message about global warming. He could announce naming someone such as Al Gore to be his special envoy to lead the US team in Copenhagen to consider the follow-on to the Kyoto Accords. Whatever innovative research the US develops on alternative fuels in the future (and Obama is committed to this path), it will not come on line soon enough to begin significantly slowing the environmental damage caused by climate change.There has to be an international accord with more than platitudes. A world recession might make such an agreement even more difficult to achieve, but the problem is not going away. President Obama could signal both his understanding of the seriousness of the situation and communicate it to the public in an Obama "tutorial."
Such a bold, progressive 100 days will, of course, bring a reaction from the losers in the election, especially from right-wing Republicans and retrograde conservatives in media and business. In addition to standing up to the attacks and pressing ahead, the Obama administration and his allies in Congress should not stop exposing the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush administration. Efforts such as the hearings led by Congressman Henry Waxman and Government Operations committee should be stepped up, not stepped down. Investigations into possible illegalities in the Justice Department, Interior Department, and other agencies should continue. The public needs to know what went on during eights years of Radical Republican rule -- and it needs to know how much damage has been done by the Bush "hollowing out" of the Federal government. It will be a huge job for the Obama administration to restore not just public confidence in government, but real competence inside the government. This also will be required in the areas of Homeland Security and Intellingence where politicization of intelligence and security matters and disdain for professionalism led to disasterous policies that squandered billions of dollars and severly damaged the reputation and interests of the United States. Understanding the extent of the damage is essential to a good repair job.
Neither the first 100 days of an Obama administration nor the first four years will proceed smoothly and easily. There will be political battles won and lost, mistakes made, and unexpected events that aid or impede reform. On a plane ride from the east coast, I re-read a terrific book, The Defining Moment -- FDR's First Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek columnist and skilled author. In it, you can find an exciting story of hope restored to a nation by a courageous President, Franklin Roosevelt, who took bold action, and who brought the public along with him by telling them what he was doing and why.
But FDR did not do it alone, and he had no plan set in stone. He was progressive and experimental -- above all, he acted. And he had allies in the country at large, as well as in the Capitol. Grass roots groups such as the Townsend clubs in California pressed for old age pensions, and the CIO union organizers risked their lives to mobilize workers. In Congress, leaders like Senator Vandenburg of Michigan (a moderate Republican) and Senator Wagner of New York (a pro-labor Democrat) fought for and won far-reaching legislation that went beyond FDR's initial positions and broadened his horizons of the politically possible. Pick up Alter's book and dip into it. You will find it instructive and inspiring.
With WWII, Dr. New Deal became Dr. Win the War, but FDR and his team did not stop at defeating fascism and nazism. They also took bold action to win the peace. FDR's deep seated commitment to realizing Woodrow Wilson's vision and his adroit political maneuvering led to the creation of the United Nations. His team of economic advisors helped to establish the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Obama's team will be have to reform these institutions and perhaps create new ones for the new century.
The lessons of the New Deal are clear: A reform-minded, progressive Democratic President governing with a Democratic Congress in a time of crisis can reform and renew our country, and at the same time, provide strong global leadership. History shows us that as a nation and as a people we have the capacity to renew our system of government and to play a leadership role in the world. Decline is not inevitable -- and it certainly is not here yet. The damage of the Bush years can be repaired and reversed -- but it will take bold action on the part of President Obama, and all those who join in him the effort in and and out of government. It is not a project for the timid nor faint of heart.