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Expectations are unrealistically high, and the style of American political leadership will change more than the substance – yet the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s first black president is hugely significant, and the very problems he is inheriting could enhance his chances for success, and perhaps even for greatness.
By Dr Robert McGeehan, Associate Fellow, United States Programme, Institute for the Study of the Americas, School of Advanced Study, University of London
The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States marks an enormously significant moment, the swearing-in of the first African-American chief executive in the country’s history. It symbolically suggests the possibility of the realisation of the hopes of millions of Americans previously marginalised or excluded, and draws a line at last under the shame of slavery and the tragedy of the Civil War. The expectations generated by the Obama electoral victory are so high that it has become commonplace to note that they cannot be achieved. One of the reasons for this involves the US governmental structure.
The American system of separation of powers and checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government was intentionally made the basis of US Constitutional arrangements. This is best summarised in the slogan: 'the President proposes and the Congress disposes’. This, in its crudest but not inaccurate sense, means that the executive cannot, without great difficulty, be compelled by the Congress to initiate or enforce legislation and policies of which it disapproves, and that, with few exceptions, the president can only put into operation programmes which the Congress is willing to fund. The executive and legislative branches are co-equal.
The practical result of this for the administration’s prospects is that even with approval ratings in the high seventies, and polls showing the American people willing to give him plenty of time, the president will still face the realities of US politics, foremost among which are the limitations imposed upon the person (incorrectly) termed ‘the most powerful man in the world’. Whether in domestic or in foreign matters, a president needs some Congressional cooperation to undertake and implement any meaningful policy, and unless the legislative branch agrees, his plans can be blocked even by a presumably ‘friendly’ legislature controlled by his own political party.
So far, the new president has taken great care to consult Congress about his economic stimulus package, and has eschewed the rather confrontational approach of his predecessor. Yet there is no assurance his collaborative inclination will last, or that parochial concerns of the legislators will not transcend their political receptiveness. With such caveats in mind, will Barack Obama nevertheless deliver even a substantial part of what many hope for?
The economic sector poses the toughest challenge since the 1930s. Experts recite that few appreciate how serious the problems are or how to resolve them, and criticisms on both sides of the debate range from charges that too little is being envisaged, to fears that the stimulus package will bring big spending and big government without big improvements. The new president’s approval ratings – like those of almost all new presidents – are currently as high as they are likely to be for some time, and Barack Obama can look forward to benefiting from the dire nature of the mess he is inheriting.
The huge recovery plan, presently edging towards $825 billion, contains many provisions echoing his campaign promises and closely resembles an Obama checklist. By contrast, when Bill Clinton took office in 1993, a deficit-conscious Congress controlled by his own party refused his request for a $16 billion stimulus. In brief, there are good reasons to expect that economic recovery, albeit slow, will be attained.
The challenges of American foreign policy, on the contrary, will remain as difficult as ever. The goals of foreign policy could become even more elusive under the guidance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an intelligent but inexperienced official whose diplomatic expertise remains to be honed. Unsurprisingly, the dangerous and unstable situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq remain top priorities, followed by the struggle against terrorists, the ever-simmering pot of hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and the curious arrogance of a resurgent Russia (whose ‘in-your-face’ foreign policy provocations are not matched by its power position). In fairness to George W. Bush, his successes in dealings with China, India and Africa are noteworthy.
The new president will place primary emphasis on Afghanistan, and call for the NATO allies to make a greater contribution on the ground than they have previously been willing to do. Germany in particular, but others as well, will be hesitant to furnish the combat forces which would be necessary for genuine success on the Afghan battlefield. In such developments, the first trans-Atlantic disillusionments are likely to be manifested. The allies will find Obama much tougher and more demanding than they would like, and he will find them less receptive than they were during his 2008 visit to Old Europe.
Apart from its relative uselessness as a military partner, the European Union will, at last, be seen for what it is – a geographical trading area but not a coherent political entity with the military capacity to defend itself. European security is of course vital to US national interests, and Washington will continue to be willing to protect its allies, even as the irritation of doing so is exacerbated by what Americans, in times of economic hardship, will perceive as selfishness. Robert Kagan’s brilliant 2002 analysis piece ‘Power and Weakness’, which dissected the contrasts between the United States and its European allies, remains solidly on target.
The Obama Administration’s plans for changes in foreign policy are likely to be more stylistic than substantive. However, there will be an authentic commitment to the rapid re-assertion of American leadership and the restoration of America’s reputation as the world’s leading democracy, whose principles of decency and integrity are unquestioned. These changes will be wholly compatible with the idealistic ambitions of this new president whose promises of hope and change had seemingly little content – but huge appeal – on the campaign trail.
These ambitions may now, with the political power of the first black American president, inspire more than the usual amount of commitment inside the Beltway to build a better international environment founded on realism rather than neo-Wilsonian ignorance. The very magnitude of the problems facing Barack Obama may provide an opportunity for greatness which can only come with severe adversity. Such magnitude, it should go without saying, is also accompanied by the chance for ignominious failure.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.