Sunday, 21 June 2009

Obama- where are we at?

An interesting piece by Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books this week does a quick analysis of where President Obama is and where his administration is going. 'The Unencumbered Man' looks at how Barack Obama interplays with the political factions within the Democratic Party in Congress and comes to the conclusion that his independence from both the liberal and centrist wings is a political asset. Tomasky quotes Will Marshall of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council:
"He's the least experienced president we've had in some time, but he's turned that into an asset. He comes in with no great mortgages held by any of the party factions."
So he keeps the liberal wing of his party in check by refusing to release torture photos and hold an independent inquiry into torture (mistakenly in my view but that's another matter.) On healthcare and the environment he will disappoint many. How the Obama administration maintains its political capital will depend in large part on the willingness of the left in the United States to take a glass half-full rather than half-empty attitude. As John Podesta, puts it in the Tomasky piece:
"I fundamentally disagree with this idea that we're accepting warmed-over spit and that he's only moving an inch at a time. Insuring 30 million people? The equivalent of taking 500 million cars off the road [in reference to the proposed cap and trade legislation]. These are big, huge deals."
In foreign policy also, the administration is setting out its stall- criticism of expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements, reaching out to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech, positively influencing the Lebanese elections in so doing helping to prevent Hezbollah's coalition from winning, reaching a successful conclusion on a G20 Summit deal. However, if the measure is going to be the creation of Palestinian state, Iran falling into line, or the final defeat of the Taliban then the bar is set too high.

This is a pragmatic administration but one which is grounded in US liberalism. Its starting point is in the liberal terrain. Where it ends up will be closer to a centrist position. This is in marked contrast to the Clinton administration which often started in the centre and too often ended up nowhere- and often found itself in complete reactive mode. Because of its starting point, and the favourable congressional dynamics, the Obama administrations has every opportunity to achieve things that liberals have been unable to since the 1960s. What a tragedy it would be if, despite monumental achievements, it was still to face all too predictable accusations of betrayal. The administration's pragmatism is essential. Let's hope US liberal politics- while not sacrificing its responsibility to engage in constructive criticism- manifests a similar pragmatism.

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