The Right Leader at the Right Time

Barack Obama

Will Barack Obama be a great president, or even a good one? This is very difficult to predict, and depends largely on the people with whom he surrounds himself, his political acumen, and his ability to balance principle and pragmatism. He is certainly very smart, making him a welcome change from the current leadership. But then, Jimmy Carter was a brilliant man and a horrible president. Ronald Reagan was an intellectual lightweight, but had a hugely successful (if also hugely repugnant) presidency.

Still, I have no hesitation in saying that Mr. Obama is exactly the right person to lead this country at this time.

No matter how successful or troubled an Obama presidency might turn out, Mr. Obama has two things going for him that are invaluable and not remotely plausible for John McCain. The first of these is his internationalism and understanding of the roles that diplomacy and multilateralism play in world politics.

In the present climate, in which the unreality of the Bush regime turned most of America either stupid or stultified, it is sometimes easy to forget that diplomacy has always been an indispensable tool of foreign policy and that multilateralism is a way of consolidating strength and not a sign of weakness. But more important than the strategic effect of conducting intelligent foreign policy, for a change, is that fact that Mr. Obama’s administration is likely to be given a fresh look and a second chance by an international community long-since sick of America’s high-handed crap. Like the handsome but overbearing boyfriend that women-who-ought-to-know-better always seem to take back for another round of abuse and disappointment, the world seems to love to give American and endless run of second-chances. After the astonishing goodwill the Bush administration squandered after September 11, and the thoroughness with which this international affection was abused, it is not difficult to imagine a world that finally came to grips with its enabling co-dependency, said enough-is-enough, and sought the diplomatic equivalent of a restraining order. More than one scholar of International affairs has declared that we are already living in a post-American world.

If so, America finds itself in an extremely vulnerable position. It will have lost the ability to dictate terms at a time when the country is deeply in debt, ceding economic advantage to developing economic powers as well as established industrial economies, suffering an education deficit that will systematically reduce the productivity of the economy for decades to come, is built on a rapidly crumbling infrastructure, and has fundamentally crippled its ability to change economic course by habitually capitulating to corporate interests at the expense of broader social interests. Americans are looking at the very-near-term possibility of paying terror-sponsoring dictators for the oil to which we are irrationally addicted in euros, because OPEC is fed-up with the dollar incessantly losing value, even if Americans seem to tolerate it. The American military is stretched to the breaking point and not even able, at this point, to adequately protect or assert American interests abroad, much less to lead the international community in protecting basic humans rights in crisis situations.

If ever there was a time when America needed the world to cut it some slack so it could get its shit together, now’s the time.

If there is anyone the world may just trust with a second chance, it is Mr. Obama. His multi-ethnic, multi-cultural background, and seeming resistance to the delusional, outdated notion of American exceptionalism ought to earn him, at the very least, a grace period of wait-and-see. His election will be a strong message to the world that America has changed course, and is ready to earn back the respect and authority it squandered over the last eight years. The opportunity for a last-ditch, power-preserving reconciliation with its allies and a belated, equilibrium-maintaining détente with its foes is a distinct advantage to an Obama presidency that America will foregoe at its great peril.

Mr. Obama’s second indispensable quality is his potential for real leadership. This part will not be easy. Americans have become addicted to the decades of dope peddled by politicians who govern only by what the polls suggest. New York and Washington are attacked by airplane-flying terrorists? Go shopping! Engaged in a trillion dollar war in the Middle East? Give tax cuts to the wealthy! Voters still don’t understand that the American economy is ultimately undermined by gasoline that is still artificially cheap and over-consumed at $4.00 per gallon? Suggest a government subsidy for the summer driving season! The American electorate no longer shows signs of self-respect or comprehension of its own long-term self-interest. America wants instant, venal gratification. Pandering by politicians is not longer considered unseemly or dishonest; it is accepted as standard operating procedure.

Mr. Obama has, in the course of his primary campaign, show signs of the courage it would take for a politician to actually lead – to shape public opinion in support of the morally correct or realistically exigent, rather than to bend policy to the short-term interests of the powerful few or the misguided whims of populism. (He has, at times, also displayed a disappointing facility with the baser political instincts of his adversaries; but, in fairness, his willingness to get ahead of, and endeavor to shape public opinion is noteworthy, refreshing, and important.) This approach comes at great political risk. The failure to capture the popular imagination when advocating policies that will entail a degree of hardship or sacrifice will spell a one-term presidency. And the probability of success has been significantly lessened by the current political habits in the Land of the Lotus Eaters. But real leadership also promises vast rewards for the security and prosperity of the nation. And, realistically, it’s now-or-never. Many of the major issues confronting America have been neglected for so long, the time to solve them many soon be past. How much longer can the country defer the renewal of infrastructure, rebuilding of the military, true educational reform, paying down the national debt, safeguarding social security and medicare, reversing environmental degradation, and restructuring society and the economy in a way that makes a sustainable energy policy feasible? And without strong leadership, how will America ever be able to tackle chronic structural problems like ensuring health care for all citizens and ridding our economy of the most grotesque forms of cost externalization? And how can America reclaim the glory of its constitutional tradition without a leader who can change the terms of debate away from fear-mongering and back toward the principles of justice and liberty on which the nation was founded?

Mr. Obama has the ability, and the fearlessness, to ask Americans to rise above themselves – to be something better than they are. This entreaty has the potential to stick in the throat of Americans, who are used to being told that they are the greatest, that everything is fine, and that they can have whatever their hearts desire. But true leadership, by its very nature, is also inspirational and invigorating. It has the ability to make us feel part of an adventure larger than perhaps we dared to dream on our own.

If Mr. Obama can succeed in this, his greatness will be established and death knell for the close of the American Age may yet have been premature. If he fails, he will be a one-term president. Still, the Obama experiment will be essentially without cost; because, four more years of international isolation and playing economic ostrich – which a McCain presidency certainly promises – will serve only to ensure that America’s best days will be irremediably behind it anyway.

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7 Responses to “The Right Leader at the Right Time”


  1. 1 smita 4 June 2008 at 7:03 am

    Mark:

    Nice piece. You summed up our woes and hopes so neatly!

    But my great fear is that no matter how well Mr. Obama leads, the hardships the country seems set to go through in the next few years will cause his presidency to be labeled a failure, especially by the talking heads who were so happy to lower the bar for Mr. Bush to nearly subterranean levels but will raise that same bar to the stratosphere for Mr. Obama.

    If the Obama presidency is a “failure,” in that the U.S. encounters rough economic terrain over the next four years, will it be used to “prove” an African American cannot govern the country? And will America go running back into the arms of a tough-talking, intellectually incurious lightweight who will whisper sweet nothings in our ear while the world crumbles around us?

    I want Mr. Obama to start with the hand Mr. Bush was dealt when he first walked into the White House….

  2. 2 mbjesq 4 June 2008 at 9:36 am

    Smita:

    Eight years of unimaginable negative progress and way-of-life-threatening problems will have raised the bar for the next president, no matter who they happen to be. Nothing focuses the mind like a desperate situation — once it is belatedly recognized as desperate.

    Still, your point is perversely accurate. The press sets high standards for the smart and gives a pass to the stupid. And the public soaks up the spin differential as though it were somehow right and appropriate.

    One of the things I admire about Obama is his seeming acceptance of the higher standard to which he will almost certainly be held. When his pastor is criticized, he gives a challenging speech on race relations, rather than go after McCain’s pastor problems. While the Clinton camp incessantly smeared him, damaged him for the general election, and played the “race-card” at every turn, he fired Samantha Power simply for calling Ms. Clinton “a monster,” a pretty mild and fitting, albeit metaphorically colorful, description of Ms. Clinton’s behavior at the time. He is the first to remind people that he’s an “imperfect”, if eager, agent of change.

    None of this will make Mr. Obama’s work any easier; but maybe — just maybe — it will inspire the American public to become more actively engaged in the process of being governed and to demand better from our institutions of journalism. In other words, Maybe it will help restore a bit of democracy to the democracy. These are challenging times ahead; but sometimes challenge brings out the best in people.

    Cheers,

    MBJ

  3. 3 viral 4 June 2008 at 1:30 pm

    thanks for a great reflection on this topic — it’s been long-awaited! :-)

  4. 4 Zen 5 June 2008 at 12:02 am

    Hi Mark,
    Great post.
    May I add your blog to my blogroll ?
    Regards,
    Zen.

  5. 5 mbjesq 5 June 2008 at 7:13 am

    Zen:

    Kind of you to offer. Please do.

    MBJ

  6. 6 zigzag 5 June 2008 at 8:55 am

    MBJ, are you rationalizing just like in your opinion how some spiritual seekers speak after having drunk the Kool-aid? ;) :)
    How about some tough questions for Obama:
    – campaign finance reform and public financing of elections
    – reforming the sham that are the presidential debates to include third-party candidates
    – his troubling stance on nuclear power
    – GLBT rights
    – unhealthy corporate influence on regulatory agencies

    Seems to me that the Democrats also set a low bar for their candidate when it comes to progressive issues, and indulge in a game of bad cop-good cop (“Anybody but Bush” in 2004 is the perfect example). How’s that much different from the media setting a low bar for stupid politicians? Basically, everyone is rallying behind their candidate but fluffing it up with fancy shmancy words. :)
    As Kirkland said, “Winning is everything.”

  7. 7 mbjesq 5 June 2008 at 6:01 pm

    This Washington Post story offers some evidence in support of my “second-chance” thesis.


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