Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

Momentous victory cannot obviate serious tasks that the new administration will face

Congress will provide freedom in foreign policy

Economic issues will be the overriding concern

The United States President-elect Barack Obama, a highly intelligent man who has grown unrecognisably as a politician during what his own strength and composure have largely prevented from becoming the most vicious and destructive campaign ever for the United States presidency, will harbour no illusions about what he and his administration will face when they take office on January 20, 2009.

In keeping with contemporary American campaign practice, Mr. Obama’s general reticence about his intentions has given few policy hostages to fortune so far. That is understandable, given that electorates often want only to be promised paradise, and given the scale of the economic crisis facing the U.S. and the rest of the world.

But the work starts there. Mr. Obama, like most U.S. Presidents, will probably be given considerable latitude by the Congress in foreign policy. The 111th Congress, despite losing many moderate Republicans in the election, will want clear leadership over Mr. Obama’s stated plan to withdraw from Iraq, though removing 150,000 troops and corresponding amounts of matériel will take at least 16 months; the nastier political issues have to do with what kind of involvement, if any, the U.S. is to have in Iraq thereafter, and with the Congress and the American public’s likely reaction to any strong multilateralism, such as working through the U.N.

Another, equally nasty, issue is that of Afghanistan, a war which almost nobody in the world thinks can be won, and one where what might even count as victory cannot be intelligibly stated. A third issue, one which is not solely a U.S. domestic matter, is that of the detention and torture centre at Guantánamo Bay on the island of Cuba. Mr. Obama, a capable lawyer, will already know that Guantánamo and the invasion of Iraq are of highly dubious legality and have ruined his country’s reputation. Related and significant issues are also raised by the existence of the Homeland Security and Patriot Acts, both of which probably violate the U.S. Constitution.

Domestically, the new administration will have to start with the economy. The Bush administration’s $700-billion bailout of financial corporates has been highly unpopular among ordinary Americans, some 4.5 million of whom have lost their homes in the financial crash and for whom little has yet been done. Although the bailout has partly rescued the financial sector, it is showing no signs of helping the real economy. There will be enormous pressure on Mr. Obama to move fast on economic policy, and the newly-elected Congress — which holds the decisive power under the U.S. Constitution — will be under pressure from constituents, but may well be politically hamstrung over any increase in taxation to pay for Keynesian demand-injection. The Bush administration now has a budget deficit of several hundred billion dollars, and Mr. Obama has promised money for the 45 million Americans now without any health insurance, as well as for public-sector teachers — but he has also promised a tax cut for 95 per cent of taxpayers.

Two major appointments therefore will be, respectively, those of the Treasury Secretary in Mr. Obama’s Cabinet and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, a branch of the Executive Office of the President which drafts the federal budget. As both are executive appointments, it is not inconceivable that the Nobel-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are under consideration for these or other posts in the administration.

Relations with Congress

Good relations between the President and Congress will also be essential for a successful Obama administration. Congress can and does initiate legislation, and can — as the War Powers Act 1973 shows — put tight controls on the President. Mr. Obama can expect considerable goodwill from the Democratic Senators, who expect to hold a decisive 57 seats in the 100-member Senate but the party is short of the 60 seats they would need in order to reject Republican filibusters. Secondly, even the size of the current majority could lead to rebellions by Democrats like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and the experience and ability of the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be central to the successful navigation of legislation through Congress. Senator Reid will be further tested by the fact that as moderate Republicans have been defeated in the Congressional elections, those left will probably be extreme and partisan and could well make the work of the all-important Congressional committees, which draft, amend, and scrutinise legislation minutely, very difficult. Here, Mr. Obama will need the advice of his Vice-President, Joe Biden, who is vastly experienced in Congressional work and procedures.

There is, however, no doubt that the United States electorate wants change, or that Mr. Obama’s victory is being celebrated all round the world. There will indeed be serious problems along the way. But for the whole world, and for the majority of Americans, Barack Obama has one overwhelming advantage.

He is not George W. Bush.

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