Pragmatic Obama

As he promised a definitive departure from the many controversial domestic and foreign policies of the unpopular Bush Administration...

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:January 22, 2009 10:55 pm

As he promised a definitive departure from the many controversial domestic and foreign policies of the unpopular Bush Administration,President Barack Hussein Obama made it quite clear in his inaugural speech that he is not about to embrace liberal orthodoxy. Throughout the period of transition between the election in the first week of November and his swearing in this week,Obama had put out unmistakable signals that he will rule from the centre rather than the left that many of his early and vocal liberal supporters had hoped for. His cabinet appointments,including those of his rival for Democratic Presidential nomination Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State,and his retention of President George W. Bush’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates indicated that Obama will not replace the right wing ideological excess during the Bush era with a liberal one in the next four years.

Obama’s decision to choose the controversial pastor Rick Warren,who has been a known opponent of gay rights,for delivering the invocation at the inaugural ceremony had angered the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So did Obama’s picks for navigating the massive economic crisis confronting the United States. In his first address to the nation as President on Tuesday,Obama went a step further to underline his determination to transcend the many ideological divides that have driven American politics for decades.

The role of government has been one of the perennial contentions within the United States for decades. Obama insists that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long,no longer apply”. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small,but whether it works,whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage,care they can afford,a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes,we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no,programs will end.”

Given the massive challenges on the economic front,Obama was ready to discard ‘market worship’ that had dominated American thinking since the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched”,Obama said. “This crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye,the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous”,Obama added.

As he returns to the forgotten ‘rich versus poor’ theme in U.S. politics,Obama’s solutions are likely to be unorthodox,as in his embrace of tax cuts for the middle classes that has been a taboo for liberal Democrats.

Civil Liberties

On the tension between the notions of security and liberty that have confronted the United States since 9/11,Obama declared he will not be forced to choose between the two. “As for our common defense,we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”,Obama declared in an unambiguous repudiation of Bush’s attempt to constrain American freedoms at home in the name of fighting terrorism.

“Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine,drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man,a charter expanded by the blood of generations.” Obama insisted that “those ideals still light the world,and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake”. Obama’s logic is likely to be extended to America’s conduct of the war on terror abroad. Obama is expected to make an early decision on the closing down of the much reviled Guantanamo prison camp.

War President

Although he launched his presidential campaign in early 2007 by campaigning against the unpopular Iraq war,Obama has no desire to present himself a liberal peacenik on issues of defence and security. Obama is aware that he is indeed a war president who must bring the nation’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a successful conclusion. He has chosen a former marine general,Jim Jones,as his national security adviser.

Obama has made it clear that his decisions on war and peace will be fully informed by the professional judgments of the US military and not be motivated by the ideological fancies of the civilian elite that led to the costly debacle in Iraq.

This Column comes to a close

The writer is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore

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