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November 05, 2008


Eric Chen

My understanding of Carter's downfall is that, when he was a Democrat president with a Democrat-controlled Congress, he was austere and strict on fiscal discipline. Many members of his own party wanted expensive social programs as part of the Democrat victory package, but Carter said 'No', which lost him his base.

The deficit ballooned under George W Bush in large part because he's a 'compassionate' conservative, which means he signed off on social programs and federal spending like a liberal, but without a liberal's corresponding raise in taxes.

So, how is Obama going to account for the programming he and, ostensibly, his fellow travellers in Congress support? Will he recoil like President Carter at the budget deficit, be fiscally conservative, and say 'No' to his base? Will he ignore the deficit like President Bush Jr? Will he pay for increased fed spending by raising taxes? Or will he shift money from different accounts, rob Peter to pay Paul, eg, will the Commander in Chief agree to cut defense spending like Clinton as a (war-time) 'peace dividend' to pay for domestic programs?

During the campaign, Obama was a great man of words, notwithstanding his stumbling response to several controversies that arose during the campaign, but remains a politician with a limited track record. What will happen when he's called to action and inevitably forced to make hard choices that will disappoint and anger many, including those who supported his presidency? What happens when the media eventually seeks to debase the man they have elevated? Many expectations of Obama are as unrealistic as many of the criticisms that were leveled against the current president.


Dmitri--I could not agree more, not one man and not a whole government can bring about the changes needed--but it has been done in the several times during American history. It will take something like a movement of change.
Eric, I am glad you are back with your always challenging comments. For now just this: Jimmy Carter's biggest mistake was that he brought all new people into high White House offices--very smart people who had been instrumental in his successful campaign. But they did not know how Washington works. So, yes, you need people with experience in the workings of Washington.
From the new president I expect that he takes charge, sets the tone, works to make good on his promises and relies on smart people with a wide range of opinion. I heard just before that former New Jersey governor Kean, a Republican, is considered as new Secretary of Homeland Security. I hope is gets and takes the job--he is imminently qualified.

Eric Chen

^ ... I forgot to add that, with the delegation habit, another George Bush weakness was a reliance on convention - variations of conventional thinking, bureaucracy in place - to respond to unconventional challenges. A prime example is the Dept of Homeland Security, which is a supercharged aggregate of existing departments. A sign of his youth and inexperience entering the presidency in 2000? Only in the last few years of his presidency has Bush shown an activist capacity to be in front of unconventional challenges.

Obama is even more inexperienced than Bush was entering office. I wonder how innovative Barack Obama will be given that many of his early choices for his administration are, like Bush's choices as a new president, establishment people. The hope is Obama will use establishment people to effectively implement innovations in government and not limit him to establishment thinking.

Eric Chen

President-elect Obama has impressive personal qualities, and now we'll now get to find out what kind of president he'll be. We had a better idea of what President McCain would be like. Is Obama the impressive, ambitious, pragmatic liberal young president who will defy some expectations and rise to the job? (< My expectation) Or, as some Republicans fear, will Obama be no better than the idealogically leftist 'Manchurian candidate' indicated by his background and radical associations?

My guess: domestic policies will differ, but in terms of the real-world global (security and economic) dilemmas confronted by his predecessor, Obama's decisions eventually will track close to Bush's decisions.

For a socially conservative Republican, President Bush after 9/11 proved to be very liberal in his foreign policy and the government role. He's a decent man who did a better job with extraordinary challenges than he's given credit for. It's disappointing how otherwise intelligent people blamed Bush for things that aren't his fault.

Even the Iraq dilemma, which Bush is excoriated for, was inherited from Clinton, who inherited it from Bush Sr (who inherited it from Reagan, who inherited it from Carter). Iraq "liberation", of course, was Clinton's policy and Clinton supported OIF until after the invasion. The failed post-war military strategy - impressively rectified by Bush with the appointment of Petraeus and greenlighting the 'surge' and counterinsurgency - was caused by strong convictions within the military based upon the wrong lessons from the Vietnam War.

Bush does deserve part of the blame because his leadership style tended too much toward tolerant delegation. Bush's weakness, which could be construed as a strength under different circumstances, was to put people he trusted or were recommended in position, which seemed to veer at times into cronyism, and then get out of their way. That's fine when the men in position are Robert Gates and David Petraeus, but too often, the men in position were lesser-qualifed partisan appointments. Bush moved to solve problems, most famously with the 'surge' in Iraq, but later than he would have had he been an activist President.

Right now, Obama seems like all things to all people, a fantasy. He won't be able to solve real-world problems anymore than Bush could. Let's see how well he does in navigating the nation through the same extraordinary challenges.


While Obama's victory is undoubtedly a major change in and of itself, speaking of the larger transformation, neither him nor all the U.S. government working in unison will be able to bring that change on their own, from top down. It will require strong will and push for change to come from the depth of society - from the middle strata and from the disadvantaged groups, from NGOs, communities and the corporate world - as it happened under FDR and in the 1960s. And even help from outside friends - other Western nations and pro-Western, democratic forces in developing societies that want to see the best, most noble and universalist impulses of America to prevail over their opposite numbers, for the country's own sake and for the rest of the world.

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