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Obama's Urgent Need for Success

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Nothing is more urgent than a successful Obama presidency. A lot needs fixing, and he needs considerable leeway. He won thanks to coalition-building, economic crisis, and Bush's failures, not because everyone saw liberal light. Success depends on turning his coalition into a durable working alliance - which means his varied backers will have to accept compromises. It is premature, perhaps perilous, to speak of the Democratic victory as a realignment; but Obama could make it one, and that would be a great achievement.

The chief domestic priorities are evident: overcoming Bush's economic mess, reforming health care, passing labor law reform (that is, the Employee Free Choice Act), establishing a fair (more progressive) taxation system. Something less tangible, but no less crucial, must come with these: a reshaping of public conversation about citizenship, about what social goods and responsibilities every American ought to have, about why American democracy has been distorted, radically so, by an appalling growth in socio-economic inequality in the last quarter of a century. Dramatic socio-economic inequality gets translated into political inequality and damages democracy. So success for Obama must entail recalibration of power in this society -- a reinforcement and reinvention of countervailing powers (like unions) to those that have dominated the country's priorities.

Foreign policy covers, well, the planet, and so I mentioned only three issues:

1. Strengthening trans-Atlanticism. Constitutional democracies, for all their flaws, need to reinforce each other in our current world. (Trans-Atlanticism does not preclude like efforts by the U.S. with democracies elsewhere in the world). Improving relations with the Europeans means more than really listening to each other (which is needed). It also means coordinated, efficacious policies addressing urgent matters. One example is obvious: the efforts by Iran (or lesser but similar political actors) to obtain the most lethal weapons on the globe. You can think that terrorism and religious fanaticism represent real global menaces (and threats at home) even if Dick Cheney said so too.

2. Reinventing global coordination, both politically and economically. But it must be smart coordination, not the naïve kind that pretends countries don't have national interests or that the UN system, as important as it is, truly incarnates global democracy and fairness. New, vigorous American initiatives to help the poor of the planet would be good in themselves and help to repair America's image in the world.

3. Find a sensible exit from Iraq - one that doesn't create the preconditions of future disaster there. All the options are shaky, but the best of them would seem to combine an update of then-Senator Joseph Biden's plan (from a few years back) for increased federalism in Iraq with a decrease in the U.S. role. I would add increased internationalization of military security in this still fragile country. The Middle East will be filled with problems in the next years (as it has been for a very long time). Clichés should be resisted. Everything will not simply "work out" if we "just get out" of Iraq just as everything will not be peaceful in this region if a solution is found to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

What might cause failure for the Obama administration? The dangers are somewhat incongruous. Obama needs to use his policies to mobilize and to tug the center of America's political spectrum to the left. The right, especially the religious right, yanked things far to the right for decades with miserable consequences. We need a different sense of what is normal in this country. But this means Obama cannot be all things to all people. Recall FDR in 1936: he welcomed as his foes those who celebrated social selfishness at the expense of the good of the citizenry as a whole. Yet Obama's political strength could be sapped if some of his backers forget that they do not comprise a homogeneous majority and refuse compromises needed to sustain coalitions. If Obama can avoid both these dangers - it won't be easy - then he can realign American politics successfully and much for the better.

Where Obama is in eight years depends on where he is in four; where he is in four depends on where he is in two. He comes to office after a below-zero presidency. While it is very difficult to ascribe a number - domestic policy can be successful but not foreign policy, or the reverse - I think he has a real chance to be at a 7 in two years, and that would be good thing considering the scope of the country's difficulties. We'd have to see what succeeds and why between now and then, what new realities and contingencies emerge, before speaking of the next stage.