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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008

Obama and the limits of power


My favorite rumor about U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet is that he will create the post of Secretary of the Environment and offer it to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, it's unlikely that Schwarzenegger would take the offer, because being governor of California is a much more satisfying job, but Obama will need a couple of Republicans in his Cabinet and Arnie is serious about the environment. Stranger things have happened.

With both presidential candidates essentially running against George W. Bush, the one who wasn't a Republican started with a huge built-in advantage, and then the financial crisis and the recession sealed John McCain's fate. So now it's time to consider what Obama will do with his power — and even how much power he will really have, given that his spending options will be severely constrained by that same recession.

It helps that the Democrats will have firm control of both houses of Congress, of course, but Obama will benefit even more from the fact that he is probably going to enjoy one of the longest honeymoons in presidential history. Americans, including most of those who didn't vote for him, are going to be immensely pleased with themselves for having elected an African-American as president.

It won't transform race relations at every level and it certainly won't lift all African-Americans into the middle class, but it will be seen as erasing the deepest stain on American history, the legacy of slavery. Most Americans have been uncomfortable about that for a long time, and they will make Obama a symbol of that cleansing even though he never set himself up as such. This will serve him well when he has to do politically unpopular things.

Obama is extraordinarily fortunate that the huge financial bubble that built up on Bush's watch collapsed while the man responsible was still in office, so people will remember for some time that the recession that dominates the first years of his term is not actually his fault. That memory will eventually erode, of course, but if it is an ordinary two-year recession it will be coming to an end by the time the public starts to blame him for it, and the economy could be booming again by the time he runs for re-election.

But that is getting well ahead of ourselves. What big thing is he actually going to do early in his term to make his mark? It needs to be something that doesn't cost too much, at least in the early stages, so the answer is almost certainly health-care reform.

The long-term cost of giving basic medical cover to the sixth of the American population that currently has no coverage whatever will not be small, but Obama is unlikely to go for a comprehensive national system of the kind that exists in almost all other developed countries. The power of the insurance companies is too great for that. So it will be some insurance-based system supported by federal subsidies, and by the time the system is up and running, federal revenues should be recovering from the recession.

Obama can also expect a honeymoon internationally, but it could be shorter. Opinion polls consistently showed that 80 to 85 percent of people in other developed countries would back Obama if they had votes in the American election, and his support in developing countries is even higher. The standing of the United States in the eyes of foreigners, so badly battered by eight years of George W. Bush, will soar as soon as Obama takes office — but there is reason to doubt that American foreign policy will actually change all that much.

Obama will pull American troops out of Iraq by 2010 as promised, but he is promising to reinforce the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan, the allegedly "winnable" war, and he is also on the record as supporting American attacks on Pakistani territory without Islamabad's permission. His forte has never been foreign policy, and there are disturbing signs that he has bought into the whole "war on terror" narrative that has dominated the American domestic debate since the shock of 9/11.

If that is the case, then Obama's present popularity in other countries will decline quite rapidly, but that is of limited interest to most Americans. They want healing at home more than anything else, and Obama can deliver that.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist.


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