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Obama's Daunting Job

Can he fix entire economies? The world?

Rafe Mair 8 Dec

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here.

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He'll have to be super.

I woke up with a start at 6 a.m. on Nov. 5 while on a trip through the Mediterranean. Because it was so early in the morning for us, I didn't watch the U.S. election results and as I flashed on CNN was delighted to learn that Barack Obama had won. Tommy Toad would have been an improvement over Dubya, over John McCain and certainly over Governor Palin. And there he was in the middle of his victory speech. It was a fine and generous speech but it was more. It had a ring of confidence to it. It sounded Rooseveltian or Churchillian, though God knows he's far, far away from those lofty heights. And great orators don't necessarily make great leaders and sometimes bad orators -- Harry S Truman and Dwight Eisenhower come to mind -- do show considerable leadership.

Before venturing further, let's concede that six months from now -- max -- President Obama will be taking it on the chin from all quarters.

We tend to forget that this is supposed to happen in a democracy. The mainstream media, almost all of it owned by Republicans, will be all over him. But we must remember that though the American media isn't as bad as ours -- none in the western world are -- the public seems quite able to sort all that out. Most of the time, anyway.

President Obama's task is not as tough as that of Churchill, as he had a nation and perhaps a world to save from Nazism. Still Obama's challenge and opportunity is very much like that Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in March of 1933 when he took over a nation sinking fast into a huge depression, orating his ringing phrase "the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself..."

Obama's broken globe

The similarity doesn't end there. Both in 1933 and now in 2008, the opposition Republican Party was in tatters. Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt's opponent and the sitting president, a bright enough man with a wonderful record as an engineer and as a humanitarian, simply couldn't cope with the fallout from the 1929 stock market crash. George W. Bush, an idiot, was not up for re-election (Thank God for the 22nd Amendment), but, like Roosevelt with Hoover, Obama had an able and well thought of opponent in John McCain.

All this by way of saying that president-to-be Obama, as did FDR, won a substantial victory, has a favourable Congress and a very substantial mandate to do something.

The question is what?

Unlike FDR (Mr. Obama is not likely to be known by his initials BO) in his first term, the 44th president faces foreign calamities. They were different times in the '30s. For example, Roosevelt, embarrassed by the antics of Nicaragua's dictator Trujillo, simply shrugged and said "he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch." And while the U.S. still has the same sort to deal with, most of them have oil and must be dealt with politely.

What a mess! Just a partial list: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and now, for the first time in decades, a South American country, Venezuela. Israel/Palestine, Somalia, Republic of Congo... dear oh dear, is there no end to it?

New Cold War brewing

The biggest problem internationally is Russia. Of all the damned fool things the U.S. has done in the last decade the most foolish has been to gratuitously alienate Russia. Put yourself in the Kremlin for a moment. Communism has gone and with it Russia's internal and external empires. The Cold War is over and what does the White House do? Instead of disbanding NATO, now that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are dead, it extends it into former Russian satellites. Is it surprising that this pissed off the Russian leaders?

Then, to have the insane "missile shield" located in former Warsaw Pact countries beggars belief. This was Donald Rumsfeld's great idea. As most people understand, a working missile defense shield gives the power to strike without fear of retaliation, which means, duh, the object nation must spend all the money it takes to find a way to penetrate the shield so that the principle of mutually assured destruction, which kept the Cold War cold, is re-established.

In short, a new and more terrible version of the Cold War is commencing -- doubtless the worst decision of eight years of bad judgments under George W. Bush. Dare I observe that those who have no recollection of the October 1962 missile crisis can have no idea what it's like when the leaders of Russia and America are nose to nose with itchy fingers on nuclear triggers?

One of the very first people Obama called on his victory night was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has already announced Russian plans to upgrade their nuclear arsenal. One tends to forget that Russia or former satellites border on all the hot spots in Asia and there's no reason not to secure their friendship, not in some sentimental way, but as a practical way of dealing with a half a dozen or more potential horror stories. Obama's move is promising and one can only hope and pray that it's not too late.

Catching the financial thieves

On the home front -- unhappily it's ours, too -- God only knows what to do about saving a smashed economy. It's been said of FDR, like Voltaire's physician, that he merely kept the patient amused while nature ran its course.

There is one thing the new president must do. Never again can unrestrained capitalism be permitted to hold the country, indeed the world, ransom to the ability of thieves in three-piece suits to plunder without consequences. After the 1929 crash, FDR faced the same situation. The capitalist establishment pleaded with him that they could police themselves. Roosevelt knew better and put one of the bandits, Joseph Kennedy (father of) in charge of the new Securities Exchange Commission, saying he was "setting a thief to catch a thief."

Surely now that we've seen the Savings & Loan scandals, the Enron scam, the collapse of banks one thought of as impregnable, and the stock market crash, we're ready for some real rules in the investment world, with the government an active policemen, and laws, which if broken, result not in bonuses but time behind bars.

No man has come to the White House with the array of problems domestic and foreign as has Barack Obama. We know he can speak and inspire people. Obviously he knows how to command loyalty.

Let's hope and pray he can also fix economies and, indeed, the world.

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