America, after eight years under the weight of a horribly inept and corrupt Bush presidency, celebrated for three days in a flood of optimism and hope. It is as if the nation is undergoing a rebirth, believing the American Dream of the Founding Fathers, ignored by the Bush-Cheney administration, is once again reality.
“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals ... Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.”
~President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address
Whatever President Obama achieves or does not achieve in the next four years, he has already changed the tone in America. People of all races are smiling more toward each other, are being more pleasant toward one another. There is joyfulness floating through the air, not just in this country, but all over the world.
America, and the world, living without an imaginative political leadership for too long, desperately wants Obama to succeed. We want him to lead the world out of the worst financial crisis and recession since the 1930s, to bring the troops home from Iraq, and to commit more troops to Afghanistan in order to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency. Above all, we want President Obama to restore the United States in the eyes of the world as a beacon of democracy and liberty and justice for all.
So, I will say what many of you may be thinking: I wouldn’t want his job – couldn’t walk in his shoes – and I am fervently praying for God to guide him in his endeavor to make a world turned upside down and inside out, upright again. I pray for his success.
Here are the enormous problems he is facing:
The Bush administration finally admitted in December that the U.S. recession began a year earlier (in December 2007) and will probably extend well beyond 2009. Obama takes over a country in the midst of an ever deepening recession, with the Treasury Department and Fed still trying to repair an historic financial meltdown. For some people, 2008 was a year of financial ruin due to banks that failed, stock markets that crashed worldwide, property prices that fell, and jobs that disappeared with the resulting increase of the uninsured.
These economic woes have forced consumers to cut back. Consumers aren't spending, banks aren't lending, and factories are closing. The huge job losses are sure to continue. Many forecasters expect unemployment to hit 8.5% by midyear and over 10% by the end of the year. These numbers do not include the unemployed who once they no longer receive unemployment compensation are purged from the rolls. They also do not include the millions of underemployed workers. Long after the recession and credit crunch fade, consumers may remain more conservative in saving more and spending less – which will actually make it harder for the government to get the economy out of the hole since our economy is driven by consumerism.
The recession is too deep and has run too long for there to be a quick fix. The Obama team is planning sweeping steps to curb foreclosures and save the financial sector. If carried out quickly, such moves could give the economy a boost by late 2009. Then again, it might not, due to banks and investment firms being in much worse shape than originally stated. The recession is feeding on itself, spiraling downward, possibly too entrenched now for anyone to stop it. And this stimulus package of up to $850 billion will cause the 2009 budget deficit to balloon to $1.2 trillion. So, once the economy is stabilized, we will all have to tighten our belts and be willing to pay higher taxes to pay off the deficit now instead of passing it on to our children and grandchildren.
In 2007, 45.7 million people in the U.S. (15.3% of the population) were without health insurance for at least part of the year. In 2000, our health care system was ranked by the World Health Organization as the first in responsiveness, but highest in cost, 37th in overall performance, and 72nd by overall level of health of its citizens among 191 nations. The U.S. is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not have universal health care for all citizens. Seniors must spend a much higher percentage of their income for healthcare than in any other industrialized nation.
President Obama believes that people have a fundamental right to have health care. Hopefully he can get the insurance companies and the Republicans onboard and put together a national healthcare plan that will satisfy the majority while covering everyone and bring cost down – a tall order indeed.
Terrorists: Obama becomes commander in chief of U.S. forces as America wages war in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues its pursuit of Al-Quaida and other terror groups, and tries to convince Iran to end its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils 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. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
~President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address
Russia: Under Vladimir Putin, Russia remains eager to use its energy supplies as a weapon — as its New Year's Eve natural gas cutoff to Ukraine shows. Putin has also talked of creating an OPEC-like natural gas cartel. Meanwhile, he's using Russia's energy wealth to sharply boost defense spending, including building 70 new-generation nuclear missiles. Putin's attempt to restore Russia as a major player in world affairs will test Obama's skills.
China: Not only will Obama have to deal with a China that holds title to some $1.6 trillion in U.S. bonds, but a China that is set on becoming a great global power. As China builds a navy that someday may challenge U.S. supremacy on the high seas, Obama might find his diplomatic talents sorely tried.
Losing demand for its products as the global growth engine sputters, China’s industrial production has dropped, with thousands of toy factories shut down last year. Officially, China expects 8% GDP growth in 2009, but some economists say China may only grow 5% this year, with rising unemployment that could lead to social unrest.
China is now the largest holder of U.S. Treasuries, helping to finance America's soaring federal deficit. If China cut its Treasury holdings to pay for its own domestic programs, U.S. borrowing rates could surge and the dollar could tumble, sending the global financial system spiraling downward once again.
Other parts of the world: We also have had recent reminders that the world has many long-term festering problems that desperately need visionary changes to American foreign policy. The new administration will have to juggle its ties to two nuclear-armed rivals — Pakistan and India — and seek to end the ongoing genocide in the horn of Africa and Zimbabwe. The centuries old Israeli-Palestinian conflict can explode at any time, as recent events have shown, exacerbating tensions throughout the Middle East. The rogue nation of Iran is building up its nuclear capabilities – endangering the entire world.
“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger, and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you... To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the west – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
~President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address
President Obama has pledged to develop alternative energy and fuel-efficient vehicles, creating millions of "green jobs." He also favors a cap-and-trade policy for greenhouse gases, which could have a major impact on industrial activity. Oil and natural gas production are falling and, by all accounts, will fall more sharply in the coming year. With energy futures well off their highs, and the economy in a deep recession, Obama’s plans may not be possible, at least for the near future.
During the Democratic primary, Obama promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Even if he doesn't actively push for trade barriers, many in Congress will. There has been strong support for tariffs on Chinese goods because of the undervalued yuan.
Even if Congress largely refrains from protectionist moves, the same may not be true of other nations. Already, Russia is hiking tariffs on imported cars and poultry. Argentina and Brazil are pushing to raise tariffs on textiles, wine and leather goods, while Indonesia is increasing import restrictions on over 500 products. The global downturn will likely cause other governments to adopt similar measures which will actually slow economies even more.
A patient public
According to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, though, Americans are confident he can turn the economy around but are prepared to give him years to deal with the aggregation of problems he faces. While hopes for the new president are extraordinarily high, the poll found expectations for what Obama will actually be able to accomplish have been tempered by the enormity of the nation’s problems. Even though the campaign generated wonderful enthusiasm and high hopes for change, most Americans now say they expect progress to be slow in improving the economy, reforming the health care system, and ending the war in Iraq. Most citizens realize that it will take years to undo the mess that the previous administration created.
President Obama is facing an extraordinarily difficult four years. Although his stature with the American public appears to be high, this optimism brings great expectations. The danger is that the burden of great expectations could be the very undoing of the Obama presidency. The public has placed him on a very high pedestal from which he could take a nasty tumble.
I would not want to, could not ever, walk in his shoes.