November 08, 2008

Obama Prepares

After the American Century

The world continues to marvel that Obama is indeed president, as do I. But at the same time the candidate is rapidly metamorphosing into the leader of the US, as he chooses a staff and decides whom to entrust with cabinet positions. These appointments are not easy to make, not just because each position has its own special requirements, but because the whole pattern of appointments needs to include women, minorities, experienced people, exciting newcomers, major supporters, and even some Republicans. Filling each post without looking at the larger pattern can easily result in too few women, for example, or no Republicans.

Juggling all the names and positions and having them fall into a coherent pattern takes time, in contrast to the European system, where a shadow government is ready to step in and rule on a few days notice. The more than two month transition period has the advantage that Obama can think carefully about what he wants to accomplish, but the disadvantage that a lame Duck George Bush remains in charge as the economy crumbles.

The worst of the bad news is that General Motors, long the world's largest auto maker, is in danger of collapse, while Ford and Chrysler are not doing much better. But there is plenty of other bad news, ranging from the highest unemployment rates in 16 years to announcements at most colleges and universities that faculty hiring will cease and that student aid will diminish. This is because universities live in part off their endowments, invested largely in the stock market. So, as the car industry goes bankrupt, universities fall on hard times.

The auto and oil industries are old industry, while the newer high-tech companies are doing somewhat better. The task Obama faces is to haul these older companies into the new millennium, building new kinds of energy-efficient automobiles, and giving workers health insurance, which the corporations can no longer afford to provide. In other words, as Obama knows himself, the proposals he has made on renewable energy, health care, and stimuli for the economy are all interconnected. Something like a European medical system is necessary for corporate recovery. A new energy program is necessary to make the nation more efficient, less polluting, and more competitive.

Therefore, the first hundred days of the new administration are crucial. Will he be able to coordinate and implement the fine ideas he developed in his campaign? Can the Democrats remain together and vote in their program? Or will Congress, as usual, bury the new programs in a myriad special provisions and pork-barrel items for their constituencies? There are many ways to derail or fatally delay or prevent implementation of the Obama program, which is why it is so important that he selects the right team for the job.

Every new president has a "honeymoon" period at the start of his administration, a time when it is easier to get new bills passed. Bill Clinton frittered his "honeymoon" away, and had little to show for his first six months in office. We will know by June whether Obama will do better.