Second Thought: Wednesday, May 14, 2008
President Obama

What to do with that bully pulpit.

By Gwynne Dyer

On the assumption that President Barack Obama survives for a full four-year term — for it is generally assumed that, as the first African-American president, he will face a higher than average risk of assassination — what changes will he bring to the United States and the world? It is remarkably difficult to say, for no president since Lyndon Johnson has come to office with so few commitments to specific policies. Oh, all right, no one since Gerald Ford — but neither of those men was actually elected to the office.
It is now a near certainty that Obama will be the next U.S. president. After last Tuesday’s North Carolina and Indiana primaries, there is no mathematical chance for Hillary Clinton to win a majority of the delegates to the Democratic convention, and money for her campaign is already drying up. It is unimaginable that the so-called “super-delegates” (senior Democratic party figures who get an automatic vote at the convention) would reject the verdict of the primaries by opting for Clinton, so the case is closed. As independent pollster John Zogby put it, “To all intents and purposes the race for the Democratic nomination is over.”
Having seen off the Hard Man of the Democratic party, Obama must now defeat the Hard Man of the Republican party in November. (Clinton promised to “obliterate” Iran if it attacks Israel; U.S. Sen. John McCain has proposed threatening North Korea with “extinction.”) But it will be hard for Obama to lose while the United States is plunging into a deep recession and the Republican candidate is still shackled to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.
About the only thing that would give McCain a chance of winning is a big terrorist attack on the United States. Al-Qaeda would be happy to oblige, for the presence of American troops in Iraq is its best recruiting tool. But al-Qaeda in its current state probably lacks the resources for such an ambitious project.
So Obama gets the presidency — and then what? A longish honeymoon, in all probability, while Americans congratulate themselves on having transcended the racist legacy of their past, which means that Obama will have a better chance than most new presidents to change the way things work. Moreover, he will probably be able to depend on Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
On the other hand, he will inherit a ravaged economy and a mangled war, so he has little room for expensive domestic reforms or dramatic initiatives abroad. Getting American troops out of Iraq will take several years and use up a lot of his political credit at home, even if it does wonders for America’s reputation in the rest of the world. And he will not be able to cut bloated U.S. military spending at the same time, so there is no early “peace bonus” for him on the fiscal front.
Indeed, there is little that any American president can do about a recession in the short run. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama will ultimately have the job of repairing the huge budget deficit bequeathed to him by his Republican predecessor, but the only step he can take in the short run is to roll back the plush Bush tax cuts for the rich.
So what can the Democrats do in the meantime that doesn’t cost too much? Reversing the Bush administration’s assault on the constitutional rights of American citizens and the human rights of non-Americans — closing Guantanamo, ending official support for torture, and restoring the civil liberties destroyed by bills like the Patriot Act — are high-priority tasks and practically cost-free. And creating a genuine national healthcare program would not cost that much in the early years, provided that he breaks the stranglehold of the insurance companies at the same time.
Obama has said very little about healthcare during his campaign (and Clinton, haunted by her failed healthcare reforms in her husband’s first term as president, has said even less). But the fact that about one-sixth of Americans have no access to high-quality medical care is an astonishing failure in a rich democracy, and Obama has traveled enough to see it for the scandal that it is.
He may be unconvincing as a gun-loving, truck-driving son of toil, but he is the candidate of the American poor even if many of the white poor don’t recognize him as such. No single reform would do so much to improve the lives of poor Americans as a comprehensive healthcare system that is free at the point of delivery. My money says that that will be his first priority in domestic affairs. He might even succeed.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist whose work appears in 45 countries.

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