December 11, 2008

What We Can Expect

After the American Century

We have all now heard about the Governor of Illinois trying to sell Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. Such an event is the perfect deflation device, bringing us back down to earth. The economy may be in meltdown mode and the world in peril from global warming, but politicians do not therefore become virtuous. No one thinks Obama has anything directly to do with this sorry mess, and indeed the FBI tapes reveal the Governor complaining that he could not get anything from the president-elect.

Nevertheless, as the United States confronts a major economic crisis, it would be nice if one sensed a corresponding urgent desire to do the right thing in the political class. But recall the venality of Congress just a few months back, when it attached billions of dollars of pork to the financial bailout package - and this was just before an election when the country was paying attention.

Obama has been around Chicago politics and Washington politics long enough to know that getting real change will not come easy. The vested interests will try to oppose reform of the medical system, pollution restrictions, and higher energy standards to make houses and cars more efficient. Obama has moved rapidly to name his Cabinet and make other key appointments, and they appear almost uniformly to be both bright and experienced. Even the don of the Republican insiders, Henry Kissinger, has praised the steam that is being assembled.

This team is more centrist than many of Obama's supporters might have liked, but politics is the art of the possible. In this crisis, one senses that more may be possible than normally would be the case. Much depends on how skillfully the Obama presidency sequences its legislative proposals. Ideally they will begin with the ideas that are hardest to oppose and build momentum. Ideally, they will not try to overwhelm the Republicans, but make a show of working with them, cajoling support from moderates on the other side of the aisle. If they get some major legislation through quickly with bipartisan support, then it might turn into a new version of Roosevelt's famous 100 days in the first months of his first administration. Press reports about Obama's history reading suggests that this is his scenario. Yet however beautiful the plan and however fine the team to carry it out, venal politicians like the Governor of Illinois can obstruct and unexpected events such as a foreign policy crisis can derail the Obama Express.

I temper my hopes with these realizations, but remain confidant that at the least we will have a president who is intelligent and knows the Constitution. We can with confidence expect that the Guantanamo prison will close, that the government will not systematically lie to the public about foreign policy, that vast troves of government documents in the form of White House emails will not again be lost, that the White House will not engage in political vendettas, that Civil Rights laws will be enforced, that Supreme Court nominees will be competent, and that pollution will be reduced. For the last eight years we could expect none of these things.